I was going to title this week’s column “Christmas trees” but you don’t have to celebrate Christmas to enjoy the custom of decorating an evergreen tree indoors. The practice is, in fact, decidedly anti-Christian, possibly dating back to the Druids, a pagan cult that long predated Christianity. Christian missionaries around the world have often incorporated local customs into their attempts to gain acceptance for their new religion. Yule logs, Santa Claus, flying reindeer, and the shopping orgy that goes with it all are often frowned upon by people looking for a more spiritual approach, but everyone seems to love decorating trees!
Apparently the Druids worshiped nature and in that regard I guess I can relate to this aspect of their religion. There is something very pleasant and uplifting about having a real tree in your house for a week or two in the dead of winter. Most people find the smell emitted by most conifers to be very pleasant. I love to walk by the evergreen trees that are sold at my local Walmart here in Florida. It reminds me of my youth when the world was seemingly a much simpler, safer, and friendlier place.
Sure, millions of people have artificial holiday trees, which are beautiful decorations, but not the same as a fragrant, once-alive tree or shrub. It may seem more environmentally responsible to buy and then reuse a plastic, artificial tree. In fact, the opposite is true. Plastic is made from fossil fuels which are not renewable, unlike evergreen trees. Plastic trees have only one purpose, while real trees can be recycled to provide several benefits. Evergreen branches (branches) can be used to provide protective mulch on perennial beds, and entire trees can serve as feeders for winter birds. Trees can be shredded, and the resulting chips are also valuable organic mulch. Mulches that are applied to perennial beds after the soil freezes will also help prevent “hanging” plants. A recycled Christmas tree, placed near a bird feeder, provides shelter for songbirds, which are often preyed upon by hawks or other predators.
Some people don’t like the fact that millions of trees are cut down just to serve as a holiday focal point, but these trees are grown for this specific purpose, just like the turnips or potatoes you eat are grown as agricultural culture. About 30 million conifers are harvested each year for our Winter Holiday celebration. It may sound alarming, but the flip side is that perhaps double that number is being planted each year to replace them. Most true holiday trees are grown for 10 to 15 years before harvest, and over the course of their lifetimes they provide many benefits, from generating oxygen to providing food and shelter for wildlife. If you’re wondering where all those unharvested trees are going, drive around the area and notice all the uniform stands of Scots pine, spruce or fir the same age that have grown to 20-40 feet tall!
New York State has at least 1,000 Christmas tree growers and there are quite a few in our area. Most Cornell Cooperative Extension offices can provide you with a list of local growers to patronize. A family excursion to get out, select and fell your tree can be a wonderful and memorable experience. Even buying your tree from a roadside stand with scouts or 4H kids can be fun, especially if you are a savvy shopper.
Most of the holiday trees sold or grown locally are pines, spruces or firs. Pines are easily identified by the fact that their needles are grouped in two or five groups that are joined at their base while spruce and fir needles are single. Pines have the most durable needles of any species, while spruce’s short, pointed needles are the first to drop once the tree dries up. Fir trees are intermediate, it is their needle retention between pine and spruce, but most people agree that fir trees are the most fragrant.
All evergreen trees will remain fragrant if properly handled after purchase. As soon as the tree is brought home, a new cut should be made at the base of the tree, about 2 inches above the bottom. Put the tree in a bucket of water and make sure the base is still in the water inside. A freshly cut tree can “drink” more than a liter of water per day. If you buy a “live” tree that is to be replanted outdoors, it should not be kept indoors for more than a week, otherwise it will begin to break out of its dormancy. Ideally, the hole for the living tree should have been dug a month ago and the tree can be placed there, right after Christmas.