Toronto Star column – published December 6, 2014
In Favour of Real
“Never worry about the size of your Christmas tree. In the eyes of children, they are all 30 feet tall.” ~Larry Wilde, The Merry Book of Christmas
I was basking in the heat of Cairns, Australia, way up where the Great Barrier Reef meets the tropical rainforest when the email came in: “Would you participate in a debate over the use of real trees vs. artificial for Christmas during an upcoming Canada AM segment?” As I wrenched my brain from the mental space I was in, I imagined an opportunity to finally set the record straight on a red hot issue (in my books) on the other side of the world.
You bet I was in! Real Christmas trees are the winner, hands down. The reality is that the sale of real, fresh cut Christmas trees has been on a slow, gradual decline for a few years now. According to my sources in the Christmas tree industry there are a lot of reasons for this, but today I am going to set the record straight and if just one reader changes their mind on the subject in favour of ‘real’, I have accomplished something.
First, some tree facts (I love trees):
– Both frankincense and myrrh come from trees. Boswellia sacra (frankincense) and Commiphora myrrha (myrrh) are native to the Arabian Peninsula (providing a hint of the direction the Wise Men came from).
– Mistletoe is a native parasitic plant of northern Europe that favours growing in the branches of oaks (though, not exclusively). The native mistletoe of New Zealand is a protected species as invading possums have all but wiped them out. The reason that we use mistletoe at Christmas is an adult story for another time. Seriously.
– Estimates range from 10,000 to 100,000 tree species worldwide. Canadians favour 4 of them as Christmas trees (more on that later).
– Evergreens (conifers) produce oxygen almost all year long (the ground must be thawed and sap flowing); deciduous trees for about 6 months of the year.
– The Norway spruce Christmas tree, erected in Trafalgar Square since 1947 is an annual gift from the people of Oslo, Norway, to show gratitude for British support during the Second World War.
– In one year, one acre of trees (.4 hectares) absorbs the same amount of carbon dioxide as that produced by 42,000 km of car driving.
The first Christmas tree in Canada was set up in Sorel, Quebec, in 1781 by Baron Friederick von Riedesel. The baron, who was born in Germany, selected a handsome balsam fir from the forests that surrounded his home and decorated it with white candles. The next recorded use of a Christmas tree appears in Halifax in 1846, when William Pryor, a local merchant, cut down an evergreen and decorated it with glass ornaments imported from Germany to please his German wife. After that, the custom spread quickly as German and British pioneers settled throughout the growing nation.
Hold that last thought as I explain something about Canadian-grown Christmas trees.
First, the fresh cut Christmas tree that you buy off the lot or from a reliable retailer is plantation grown, not cut from the wild. It is planted, nurtured, and harvested like any agricultural crop. This one, though, takes up to 10 years to produce a marketable specimen (try explaining THAT to your banker when you ask for a business loan to plant up a field of Christmas trees). The tree that is planted in the ground is 3 to 4 years old at the time. Therefore, the tree that you buy may be up to 14 years old from seed germination to the day that you decorate it.
Fresh cut trees are, well, fresh. They are cut in late fall and trucked to retailers across the country in early November. They do not ‘dry out’ while they are outdoors but they can dry out in your home quite quickly, which is why it is important that you use a tree stand with a large water capacity and that you keep it filled with water.
The land on which Christmas trees grow (about 40,000 acres in Canada) is generally ‘marginally’ productive farm land. You would not want to grow a food crop on much of it as it is rocky, acidic and often hard to access (as in, way up north or buried in the bush somewhere). Deer and other wildlife forage through Christmas tree farms. They enjoy the protection that they provide and many song birds use the trees for nesting.
Christmas tree growing is a professional endeavour. If you want proof, go to the Canadian Christmas Tree Growers Association website (http://www.canadianchristmastrees.ca/) for information about how to grow Christmas trees, where to get educated on the subject, and where to locate their several hundred members including the many cut-your-own farms in this province. Christmas trees are a net-export crop in Canada and the industry employs a lot of people.
My favourite cut Christmas tree is the Fraser fir (Abies fraseri). It has a lovely evergreen scent, the needles are soft to the touch, it holds moisture in its needles longer than most species reducing ‘needle drop’ which further prevents a lot of clogged vacuum cleaners around New Years.
My second favourite tree is the Balsam fir (Abies balsamea), for many of the same reasons I love the Fraser, but the needles are shorter and therefore you won’t hang as many ornaments on it.
The Scots pine (not ‘Scotch’) (Pinus sylvestris) is a native of Scotland, with long, stiff needles. The trunk is often not straight, though a good specimen can be. Needle retention is average. A generation ago it was #1 on the market by far but now represents a fraction of it.
White spruce (Picea glauca) is a problem indoors. If you are going to bring one home for Christmas, do yourself a favour and keep it out of doors until a couple of days before Christmas and take it back out a couple of days afterwards. The needles drop like rain when they become dehydrated, which won’t take long.
I spray Wilt-Pruf on my cut Christmas tree before I bring it indoors as this anti-desiccant helps to hold moisture in the needles, reducing needle drop and fire hazard.
A fresh cut Christmas tree can be recycled by just leaving it at the end of your driveway for municipal services to pick it up. You paid for this service when you paid your taxes. Wise people take advantage of it. Much of that mulch is used in public parks in the spring to protect the root zone of permanent trees and shrubs.
So, fresh cut Christmas trees look good, smell nice, are environmentally the right choice, they produce jobs for Canadians and habitat for wildlife while growing. They have a place in our history whereas artificial trees do not.
I rest my case.
To see my segment on Canada AM go to: http://canadaam.ctvnews.ca/video?clipId=498905&playlistId=1.2119886&binId=1.815911&playlistPageNum=1&binPageNum=1