Picking a Christmas Tree—Real vs. Artificial

Noble fir. Photo: Kevin Zobrist/WSU
Noble fir. Photo: Kevin Zobrist/WSU

Some of Washington’s native tree species have a nationwide reputation as quality Christmas trees, particularly Douglas-fir, grand fir, and noble fir. Grand fir and Douglas-fir grow naturally throughout western Washington and in many forested areas of eastern Washington, while the noble fir’s natural range is at high elevation in the Cascades from approximately Snoqualmie Pass southward. Each species has different advantages and, ultimately, selecting one is a matter of personal preferences for how the tree looks and smells.

I have always favored the true firs (as opposed to Douglas-fir) for how they look, their longevity after cutting, and, perhaps most importantly, how they smell. When I teach classes on native trees, I have participants pinch off needles from different samples, break them in half, and smell. When it comes to grand fir, the response is always “it smells like Christmas.” Other true firs smell similar, with a rich balsam scent that many people associate with Christmastime.

Christmas trees: Now and then

I think the best part of getting a fresh-cut Christmas tree, whether U-cut or pre-cut, is the family memories it generates. Christmas tree lots and farms are selling experiences as much as trees. Some of my strongest early memories of Christmas are of getting the tree. I looked forward to that day almost as much as Christmas itself. We would set out on the first or second Saturday of December and head out to a local Christmas tree farm. We usually went to North Bend, with a stop beforehand at Ken’s Truck Stop for an enormous breakfast. Memories of those days bring many things to mind—the crisp air, the smell of fresh-cut trees, hay rides, candy canes, and hot apple cider.

These days we typically get a tree from a lot, since there is one within walking distance of our house. I just carry the tree home instead of worrying about how to transport it in a much-too-small car. Even this has generated fond memories, and we go through the same meticulous process of trying to pick the perfect one. During the big snow and deep freeze of December 2008, all the trees were baled and frozen in big green blocks. I had to just pick one, having no idea what it would look like. When it thawed and the baling was cut, it unfolded into one of the best-looking trees we ever had.

We have most often gotten a grand fir, though in recent years we have “upgraded” to noble fir. Nobles are more expensive and don’t have as strong of a fragrance as grand fir, but they are wonderful in appearance. They have a slight blue tint to them due to the presence of two stripes on each side of the needles (grand fir has them on the bottom only). These stripes are called stomatal bands, and they are where the breathing pores of the tree are. Nobles are a little more open than grand fir, which is nice for displaying ornaments.

Fake vs. ‘real’ Christmas trees

In the past few decades, there has been a big shift toward artificial trees. These do not have the natural look, feel, and fragrance of a real tree. Families can still create memories and traditions around artificial trees—they’re just different than with a real tree. Artificial trees don’t make a mess, need watering, dry out, or require disposal every year, and they offer a good alternative for those with allergies. They also don’t bring in bugs, although I think even this is part of the experience of a real tree. Every year there is always a small spider, usually beautifully colored, that is attracted to the light of the star at the top and builds a small web around it. I have developed a fondness for these “Christmas spiders.”

There are many legitimate reasons for choosing an artificial tree. One reasons that is not valid is the idea that an artificial tree is somehow more environmentally friendly because it doesn’t involve cutting a live tree. This represents a fundamental misunderstanding of how Christmas trees are grown. No forests are leveled to produce Christmas trees. Rather, they are grown on farms and are a relatively environmentally-friendly form of agriculture since they do not require the same sort of annual tillage and soil disturbance as other crops. The number of young, immature trees left to continue growing each year far exceeds the number cut (each of which is replanted), providing a sustainable supply year after year along with continuous vegetative cover that provides wildlife benefits. Forgoing harvest of these row crops does not lead to the development of natural forests, though sometimes landowners can utilize “escaped” Christmas tree plantations for lumber production. Christmas tree farms often occupy land that would otherwise be developed or at least be put into more intensive agricultural use if there is no longer a market for the trees.

Douglas-fir. Photo: Kevin Zobrist/WSU
Douglas-fir. Photo: Kevin Zobrist/WSU

Fresh-cut Christmas trees are a fully renewable, recyclable, and biodegradable product. They sequester carbon as they grow. The carbon is then released slowly during decomposition but recaptured by the next rotation of trees. In contrast, artificial trees are produced from nonrenewable petroleum-based chemicals, generating significant carbon emissions and other pollutants in their manufacture and transport for overseas manufacturers. Finally, an artificial tree doesn’t last forever and is not environmentally friendly to dispose of in landfills.

If you choose a fresh-cut Christmas tree, here are some tips:

  1. The tree always looks much smaller on the lot than in your living room, so be conservative on size.
  2. Make sure the tree is accurately labeled and priced for its species. I often see grand firs labeled as Douglas-firs, noble firs labeled as grand firs, etc., especially on lots. Native Trees of Western Washington (WSU Press) can help you accurately identify the species you want.
  3. Look for a tree with healthy green needles. Shake the tree to make sure it is not dropping an excessive number of needles.
  4. When you get the tree home, put it in water right away. If you are not going to set it up in its tree stand right away, leave it in a bucket of water in an unheated area to avoid excessive drying.
  5. Make a fresh cut on the bottom of the trunk before putting it in the tree stand, as the exposed initial cut will have sealed over, inhibiting water uptake.
  6. Keep the bottom of the trunk in constant contact with water—don’t let the reservoir dry up. For the first few days you may have to add water several times a day, so check it frequently.
  7. Only use plain water—there is no need to add preservatives or other chemicals.
  8. Recycle the tree when you’re finished with it. Look for local non-profit groups like the Boy Scouts who will collect the tree from your curb on a donation basis as a fundraiser. The trees are then chipped and given new life as natural mulches. If you have commercial yard waste pickup, you can cut the tree up and put it in your yard waste bin to become compost. Do NOT discard your tree by dumping it in a greenbelt or natural area.

By Kevin Zobrist, Regional WSU Extension Forestry Specialist, kevin.zobrist@wsu.edu