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 un-Christian, perhaps dating back to the Druids, a Pagan cult that preceded Christianity by a long time. Christian missionaries all over the world often incorporated local customs into their attempts to gather acceptance of their new religion. Yule logs, Santa Claus, flying reindeer and the shopping orgy that accompanies all of this are often frowned on by people seeking a more spiritual approach, but everybody seems to love decorating trees!

Apparently the Druids worshipped Nature and in that regard I guess I can identify with that aspect of their religion. There is something very pleasant and uplifting about having a real tree in one’s home for a week or two in the dead of winter. Most people find the scent that is emitted by most evergreens to be very pleasant. I enjoy just walking 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.

Of course millions of people have artificial holiday trees, which are nice decorations, but not the same as a fragrant, formerly living tree or shrub. It may seem more responsible, ecologically, to purchase and then re-use a plastic, artificial, tree. Actually, the opposite is true. Plastic is made from fossil fuels that are not renewable, whereas evergreen trees are. Plastic trees serve one purpose only, whereas real trees can be recycled to provide several benefits. Evergreen boughs (branches) can be used to provide a protective mulch on perennial beds and whole trees can double as winter bird feeders. Trees can be shredded and the resulting chips are also a valuable, organic mulch. Mulches that are applied on top of perennial beds, after the ground freezes, will help to prevent “heaving” of the plants, as well. A recycled Xmas tree, propped up near a bird feeder offers cover for songbirds, which are often preyed on by hawks or other predators.

Some people do not like the fact that millions of trees are cut down solely to serve as our Holiday focal point, but these trees are grown for this specific purpose just as the turnips or potatoes you eat are grown as an agricultural crop. Approximately 30 million evergreens are harvested each year for our winter Holiday celebration. That may sound alarming, but the flip side is that perhaps double that number are planted each year to replace them. Most real Holiday trees are grown for 10 to 15 years before harvest and in their lifetime they provide many benefits from generating oxygen to providing food and shelter to wildlife. If you wonder where all those unharvested trees go, just drive around the region and notice all the uniform stands of same aged Scotch pine, spruce or fir trees that have grown 20 to 40 feet tall!

New York State has at least 1,000 Christmas tree growers and there are quite a few in our region. Most offices of Cornell Cooperative Extension can provide a list of local growers for you to patronize. A family excursion to go out, select and cut down your tree can be a wonderful and memorable experience. Even buying your tree from a roadside stand staffed by boy scouts or 4H kids can be fun, especially if you are a knowledgeable consumer.

Most Holiday trees sold or grown locally are either Pines, Spruces or Fir. Pines are easily identified by the fact that their needles are in bundles of two or five that are joined at their base whereas spruce and fir needles are single. Pines have the longest lasting needles of any species while the short and pointy needles of spruce are the first to drop, once the tree dries out. Firs are intermediate 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 fresh cut should be made on the base of the tree, about 2 inches above the bottom. Put the tree in a pail of water and make sure the base is always in water while indoors. A freshly cut tree may “drink” more than a quart of water a day. If you buy a “living” tree destined for replanting outside, it should not be kept inside for more than a week, or it will start to come out of dormancy. Ideally, the hole for the living tree should have been dug a month ago and the tree can be set in it, right after Christmas.

Reach Bob Beyfuss at rlb14@cornell.edu.

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