Selecting the right Christmas tree

Brookings, S.D. - About 36 million Christmas trees are sold between Thanksgiving and Christmas. While artificial trees enjoyed increased sales for the past decade, those sales have stagnated and now there is a return to having the traditional tree, says John Ball, SDSU Extension Forestry Specialist.

“A traditional Christmas tree is also the environmentally friendly way to celebrate the holidays. The average artificial Christmas tree has a life span of six years before it ends up in a landfill. The traditional Christmas tree, while used only one season, can become valuable mulch, a winter bird feeder or even used as a fish habitat after the holidays,” Ball said.

Here are some tips on picking out the perfect tree.

The way to obtain the freshest tree is to harvest it yourself at a choose-and-cut Christmas tree farm, Ball says.

“This way you are guaranteed a “fresh” tree rather than one that may have been harvested several weeks earlier,” he said.

If cutting your own tree is not possible, Ball says to use these tips to check for freshness at a Christmas tree sales lot.

First, give the tree a light but vigorous shake. Only a few interior needles should fall out of the tree if it is fresh. If a pile of brown needles appears on the ground below the tree, particularly from the branch tips, it is not a fresh tree.

Next, reach into a branch and pull the needles gently through your hand as you move out towards the tip. The needles should bend, not break, as your fingers run across them and the branch should only slightly bend.

Regardless of whether you buy a tree from a lot or cut it yourself, once you get the tree home, leave it outside while you set the stand up.

Ball says the choice of a stand is probably the most critical factor in maintaining the freshness of the tree once in the home.

“The stand should be able to hold one-half to one-gallon of water as the new Christmas tree may absorb up to this amount in the first day,” Ball said.

A good rule-of-thumb he shares is a tree will use 1 quart of water per day for every inch trunk diameter at the base. If you have a tree with a 3-inch base, it may use 3 quarts of water per day.

Just before you bring the tree in the house cut the base about one-inch from the bottom. Ball says this will open the sap-filled tracheids - the pores responsible for transporting water - and allows water to be absorbed into the tree. The base cut does not have to be slanted; the angle makes little difference in the amount of water absorbed.

Once the tree is in the stand add water and then, Ball says to neverlet the stand become empty.

“If the stand becomes empty for more than six hours, the tree’s pores plug up. Water uptake will then be significantly reduced, the tree will dry out and the needles will soon begin to fall,” he said. “If the tree stand does dry up for half a day or more there is nothing that can be done other than pull the tree out of the stand and recut the base - not a pleasant task once the lights and ornaments are already up.”

Ball also says that nothing needs to be added to the water in the stand to improve needle retention.

“The commercial “tree fresher” products do not significantly increase the life of the tree and the home remedies such as aspirin, sugar, soft drinks and vodka do not work and may be harmful to pets that may drink from the stand,” he said.

Place the stand in a spot that receives only indirect light from the windows and not near any heat duct. Ball says this will reduce water loss from the tree and prolong its freshness.

“Another tip to prolonging freshness is to start out with a clean stand. Before setting up the tree wash the stand out with a solution of about a capful of bleach to a cup of water, to reduce the growth of microorganisms that may also plug up the tree’s pores,”

Which is the best tree?

Ball says each species has its good points, but the Fraser fir is probably one of the favorites.

“The tree is very fragrant, has excellent needle retention and the branches are stiff enough to hold ornaments. Balsam fir is another good choice though the needles do not last as long and the branches are not quite as stiff. Canaan fir, another popular fir appears to have qualities similar to Frasier fir and is also becoming a popular Christmas tree,” he said.

Pines are very popular with Scotch pine probably the most popular tree in the country. It also is very fragrant, has excellent needle retention and the branches are stiff.

“White pine is another pine commonly sold at Christmas tree stands and has a fair fragrance, but the needle retention is not quite as good as Scotch pine and the branches are very flexible meaning heavy ornaments may fall off,” he said. “White pines do have very soft needles and if you are going to run into the tree in the middle of the night this is the one.”

Spruces are not as popular of Christmas trees, says Ball, primarily due to their poor needle retention.

“If you want to have a blue spruce as your Christmas tree, you probably should wait until a couple of weeks before Christmas as the needles may only last that long. Once the needles begin to fall, blue spruce are about the worst tree to have as the fallen needles are sharp and seem to find their way into socks and slippers,” he said.

Blue spruce has the best needle retention of the spruces, but does not have much of a fragrance. The branches are very stiff, however, and can support the heaviest ornaments. White spruce, or Black Hills spruce is not commonly available though is used in the Black Hills.

“It does make a nice tree, particularly when cut fresh but it does not have much of a fragrance and occasionally Black Hills spruce trees can have a slight musky odor,” he said.

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