It’s no eco crime to buy a Christmas tree

People ask if it’s environmentally correct to buy a real Christmas tree and expert Ricky Bates answers “yes!”

“It’s a silly debate—you can breathe easier knowing Christmas trees are being grown,” says Bates, associate professor of ornamental horticulture at Penn State. “Christmas trees in the United States provide the daily oxygen requirements for millions of people.”

And if better breathing is not enough, people can rest easier knowing that real trees are a renewable resource. “Approximately 34 million trees are sold every year, and more than enough seedlings are planted to replace them,” he says. “A million acres nationally are in Christmas tree production.

christmas tree on top of car
(Credit: Morgan/Flickr)

“In the final analysis, Christmas-tree farms benefit the environment in a number of important and diverse ways. Reducing soil erosion, creating habitat for wildlife, and sequestering carbon are just a few practical benefits realized via tree farming.”

When a Christmas-tree seedling is planted on a farm, it usually is already three or four years old. Depending upon the species, it may take another seven to 10 years to produce a marketable tree.

What about fossil fuels?

Some people contend that producing real trees doesn’t require burning fossil fuels, as do artificial trees, but it is not that simple, according to Bates, whose research deals with problems faced by the nursery and Christmas-tree industries. He conducts research and extension education programs aimed at improving the profitability of these businesses.

“Actually, the environmental impact of producing Christmas trees or any other agricultural commodity is more complicated than it may appear, and the question needs to be considered in the context of overall benefits and costs,” he says.

“For example, fossil fuels are consumed by equipment to produce trees on farms, but these same trees also sequester carbon over their lifespan.”

Finally, buying a real tree every year is good for the economy. Bates estimates that there are more than 15,000 Christmas-tree growers in the United States. The industry employs approximately 100,000 people. The total Christmas-tree crop recently was valued at more than $360 million.

It doesn’t appear that the recent economic downturn has had much of an impact on the tree industry. “People still are buying Christmas trees,” Bates says, “probably because displaying a Christmas tree is an important tradition for many families, and it does not represent a very large expense.”

Christmas trees are really thirsty

Being a Christmas-tree guru, one might expect Bates to offer a secret method to keeping a tree purchased in early December fresh until at least New Year’s Day or even a bit after. “Not really,” he says. “It’s pretty straightforward. Keeping a cut tree fresh during the holidays is largely an issue of water. Anything you can do to keep the tree hydrated will keep it fresh.”

Start by making a fresh, quarter-inch cut around the base of the tree if it has been more than two days since it was harvested, Bates advises. Use a tree stand with a water reservoir of at least 1.5 gallons—a freshly cut, average-size tree can use up to a gallon of water each day.

“Refill the stand with clean water regularly so that the water level does not drop below the base of the tree,” he says. “Keep the tree away from heat—don’t position it near heating vents. Douglas fir and Fraser fir should remain fresh inside a house for four or five weeks.”

After the tree is used, consider alternative disposal methods, he urges. Many communities have recycling programs—some offering curbside pickup—and will convert the tree into mulch.

“Used trees also make great fish habitats when placed in farm ponds or lakes,” Bates says.

Source: Penn State