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 Home>Environment & Natural Resources>Forestry>

Christmas Trees - Different Local Species and their Maintenance

From l. to r.: Leyland cypress, Arizona cypress, Virginia Pine, Easter redcedar
Four most common species found in Louisiana, from left to right: Leyland cypress, Arizona cypress, Virginia pine, and Eastern red cedar (NCTA 2009)

According to the Census of Agriculture (2007), 17,227 Christmas trees were harvested in Louisiana from 67 tree farms covering 590 acres.

Nationwide retail statistics indicate approximately 28.2 million real Christmas trees were sold in 2008, resulting in roughly $1 billion in sales (NCTA, 2009). A little over 11.7 million artificial trees were sold in 2008, generating $709 million in sales. The nearly three-times-greater price of artificial trees, coupled with economic troubles, should result in lower sales of artificial trees in favor of real ones.

Some people buy the artificial trees because of allergies or convenience. Unfortunately, many people believe that Christmas trees are cut down from the forest. In fact, real Christmas trees are grown as crops, just like corn or wheat, and raised on a farm. Once they are harvested, up to three seedlings are typically planted to replace each tree. In other words, more and more trees are grown every year. In 2008, Christmas tree farmers planted 70 million new trees on farms throughout North America (NCTA 2009).

Real Christmas trees are a benefit to the environment

  • While growing, the trees will absorb carbon dioxide and other gases and release clean oxygen.
  • Typically, Christmas trees are grown on soil that will not support other crops.
  • The trees will help prevent soil erosion, protect water supplies and provide refuge for wildlife.
  • The trees provide scenic green landscape.
  • In Louisiana, Christmas trees are recycled to rebuild the Louisiana coastline by creating tree fences that combat erosion (Jefferson Parish).

Aren’t artificial trees better for the environment?

  • Artificial trees are made from non-renewable, non-biodegradable plastic and metal products.
  • Most artificial trees are manufactured in China and contain PVC (polyvinyl chloride). In fact, artificial Christmas trees were recently added to the Center for Health, Environment & Justice's list of household products containing PVC (PVC: The Poison Plastic).
  • According to Healthy Child Healthy Earth, the manufacture of PVC creates and disperses dioxins, which include the most toxic man-made chemical known. Released into air or water, dioxins enter the food chain, where they accumulate in fatty tissues of animals and humans. They create a potential risk for causing cancer, damaging immune functions and impairing children's development.
  • A large number of artificial trees contain lead.
  • The potential for lead poisoning is great enough that artificial trees made in China are required by Prop 65 (California Government) to have a warning label that reads:

      • “WARNING: This product contains chemicals known to the State of California to cause cancer and birth defects or other reproductive harm.”

    From an economic perspective, North American real Christmas trees are grown in all 50 states and Canada. Eighty percent (80%) of artificial trees worldwide are manufactured in China, according to the U.S. International Trade Administration.

    Tree Species Available for use as Christmas Trees in Louisiana (NCTA, 2009)

    As in many parts of the United States, our interstate shipping system has made it possible for a variety of tree species to reach our local markets during the Christmas season. The surest way, however, to obtain the freshest tree possible for use in our homes and businesses is to choose one from our many choose-and-cut Christmas Tree farms throughout the state. The four species that make up the majority of sales on these farms are the Leyland cypress (x Cupressus leylandii), Arizona cypress (Cupressus arizonica Greene), Virginia pine (Pinus virginiana Mill.) and Eastern redcedar (Juniperus virginiana L.).

    Leyland cypress comprises the largest number of trees sold each year on Louisiana choose-and-cut farms. In general, Leyland cypress cultivars have a narrow crown that is fully limbed to the base of the tree. They have medium green or blue-green foliage that forms long, compact branches with shoots that have a dark red or red-brown color. Their limber branches can sometimes make it difficult to hang heavy ornaments, although this problem can be overcome by shearing techniques to leave stouter branches on the tree tips. The most notable favorable characteristic of Leyland cypress is the longevity that the tree possesses after cutting. If properly watered, cut Leylands will last well into the New Year and have been known to be used as late as the Easter season!

    Arizona cypress grows in a distinct pyramid shape and produces extremely dense foliage throughout the tree that is blue-green to gray-green in color. When anywhere in the vicinity of these trees, a distinct citrus odor can be detected. The bark is very delicate with a reddish-brown color and will split into strips along the length of the tree. While not noted for its longevity after harvest in the same manner as Leyland cypress, Arizona cypress when cut in early December will easily last until Christmas when properly watered.

    Although not a native of Louisiana, Virginia pine can be successful grown in our state and, when properly sheared, will produce a beautiful Christmas tree. The needles of Virginia pine occur in pairs and are twisted. They range in length from 1.5 to 3 inches and are relatively short when compared to most of our other southern pines. The branches are very stout, which makes these trees an excellent choice for individuals wishing to use heavy ornaments. An intense demand for trees with enhanced Christmas tree characteristics has led to genetic improvement programs to produce growing stock favorable to our Louisiana growers. Virginia pine has a relatively long shelf life when cut and watered properly.

    Eastern redcedar is most widely noted as a species that many southern families used for Christmas trees prior to the advent of Christmas tree farms. A wild, open-grown cedar tree was often chosen from a woodlot and served as the mainstay of the Christmas tradition. When properly planted and maintained, Eastern redcedar can be formed into a beautiful tree with a much straighter trunk and denser body than their wild counterparts. Their branches are compact and form a pyramidal crown on younger trees. As trees mature the tops tend to widen out unless properly sheared. The foliage is a dark, shiny green while the bark is a distinct reddish-brown.

    To locate a choose-and-cut farm in your area that can provide you with a fresh Christmas tree for the holiday season, log on to the Web site of the Southern Christmas Tree Association at www.southernchristmastrees.org.

    Selecting and Maintaining a Healthy Christmas Tree

    When selecting a natural Christmas tree, we all want the same thing -- a  beautiful and healthy tree that will support every ornament and light our children find in the box labeled "Christmas Decorations." There are several items to consider in choosing the tree that is right for you and won’t fall over from too many decorations hanging on one side.

    First is needle-holding capacity. While we will not be hanging eight-pound bowling balls, some of the ornaments (that the kids probably made at school) are pushing a pound or two. The limbs and needles on the tree need to be strong enough to support these treasures, as well as several strings of lights. You also want to look at needle freshness. Fresh needles are healthy and green and will exude an aromatic odor if broken or squeezed. A simple test to check tree freshness is to bounce the butt of the tree up and down on the ground. Few, if any, needles will drop from a fresh tree.

    Now that you have some idea of how to pick a structurally sound tree, you may want to consider aesthetics. After all, you do want a nice-looking tree hiding under all of those ornaments. Color, shape and freshness are all important. Contrary to popular belief, most evergreens don’t grow into perfect conical Christmas trees. Growers shear the trees each year to maintain a nice shape and to encourage the branches to fill out. Tip: Short, stout branches hold heavier ornaments! A healthy green color with a nice cone shape is a good indicator of a fresh tree. Another indicator of a fresh tree is a sticky butt. If fresh, sticky sap is leaking from the bottom of the cut tree, then the tree is most likely fresh. Hard, dried sap is an indicator that the tree has been cut for some time.

    After looking at least a hundred trees, you finally convinced your youngest child that the 12-footer will not fit in your living room with an 8-foot ceiling. And after having a family discussion it is decided to pick the very first tree you looked at. When a Christmas tree is cut, over half of its weight is water; therefore, the first defense in keeping a tree healthy indoors is keeping it watered.

    Before setting the tree in the stand, make a fresh cut to remove about a ½-inch-thick disk from the base of the stem. This opens up the pores in the stem, allowing it to consume water more readily. Tapering the base or cutting at an angle is not necessary because the most efficient water transporting cells are just below the bark. The exposed area does not improve drinking surface much and makes the tree more difficult to hold upright.

    An average Christmas tree will consume up to a gallon of water a day! Check the water level daily and never let the tree stand run completely out of water. As for adding bleach, aspirin, fertilizer or other things to the water to make trees last longer, research has shown that plain tap water is by far the best. Some commercial additives and home concoctions can actually be detrimental to a tree's moisture retention and increase needle loss. Water-holding stands that are kept filled with plain water will extend the freshness of trees for weeks.

    It is also important to display your tree away from all sources of heat (fireplaces, heaters, air vents, direct sunlight). Any type of heat directly on the tree will result in needle drying; therefore, reducing the freshness and beauty of the tree.

    As always, common sense and care should be taken during the Christmas holidays, and this is especially important when using real Christmas trees indoors. Christmas trees account for 200 fires annually, and although it is considered rare, they can be deadly. Use lights that produce low heat and always inspect lights prior to placing them on the tree, do not overload circuits, and always turn off the tree lights when leaving the house or when going to bed.

    References

    USDA. 2007. The Census of Agriculture. URL: http://www.agcensus.usda.gov/. Accessed January 14, 2010

    NCTA (National Christmas Tree Association). URL: www.christmastree.org. Accessed January 14, 2010Jefferson Parish. 1991. Jefferson Parish Christmas Tree Marsh Restoration Project.  Jefferson Parish Department of Environmental Affairs, 4901 Jefferson Hwy., Suite E. Jefferson, LA 70121. Tel. (504) 731-4612. URL: www.jeffparish.net. Accessed January 14, 2010

    Center for Health, Environment and Justice. 9 Murray Street, Floor 3 New York, NY 10007-2223. Tel. 212-964-3680. URL: www.besafenet.com/pvc/pvcproducts.htm. Accessed January 14, 2010

    Healthy Child Healthy World. When is Vinyl not PVC. 2009. URL: Healthy Child Healthy World. Accessed January 14, 2010

    California Government. 1986. Proposition 65. URL: www.oehha.org/prop65.html. Accessed January 14, 2010

    U.S. Department of Commerce. International Trade Administration. URL: ia.ita.doc.gov/trcs/monitoring. Accessed December 14, 2008

    Southern Christmas Tree Association. 2009. Find a Farm.  URL: www.southernchristmastrees.org. Accessed January 14, 2010
    Last Updated: 1/12/2012 2:15:12 PM
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