Have you ever walked through a pine forest, breathing in the fresh, bright smell of the needles and thinking of Christmas? You aren't alone; some 30 million people in this country buy real Christmas trees every year. The association of evergreen scents with the holidays is so deeply ingrained that some people burn pine incense to bring on the holiday spirit.
Consider a Christmas tree like a bouquet of cut flowers, serving to ornament the house and celebrate the season. Like flowers, cut trees need to be cared for to help them stay fresh and lush as those presents pile up. Experts say you can keep a cut tree in tip-top shape in your living room for up to five weeks (well past New Year's!) with proper attention. Here are the hacks to help you achieve that end.
1. Be Choosy
Some say the key to a good marriage is being choosy beforehand, and experts offer the same advice about Christmas trees. You don't have to pick from the handful in front of the grocery store. Christmas trees are a renewable resource grown on 350,000 acres in 15,000 tree farms in this country. Take your time, inspect the trees in your area, and pick one likely to last. Here are some considerations:
- Varieties: Some evergreens stay fresh longer than others. For long-lasting needles, try balsam fir (Abies balsamea), Colorado blue spruce (Picea pungens), Douglas fir (Pseudotsuga menziesii), Scotch pine (Pinus sylvestris), and white fir (Abies concolor). Aromatic Scotch pine is extremely popular and its inch-long, bright green needles hold for weeks even when the trees dry out.
- Condition of specimen: It pays to do a careful inspection of your prospective Christmas tree before you buy. Yellow or brown needles are bad signs. Any pests or visible pest damage should also cause you to look elsewhere.
- Freshness: If you cut your own Christmas tree from a local farm, you'll know exactly how fresh the tree is. However, if you are buying a pre-cut tree, you'll need to ask where and when they were harvested. If they were cut weeks ago or come from out of state, keep looking. Inspect for freshness yourself by confirming that the needles are flexible, not brittle. Another test: Lift the standing tree up 6 inches, then let the trunk bottom drop to the ground. If lots of green needles fall off, the tree is not fresh.
2. Recut the Tree Trunk
Just like cut flowers, cut Christmas trees need water to keep hydrated and fresh. Once the trunks are cut, they "harden off" with sap within three hours, sealing the transport cells that provide moisture to the foliage. Even plunking the tree into a container of water won't help after that since the tree cannot deliver water to the needles.
You can solve this in several ways:
- Cut your own tree and bring it home quickly.
- Ask the tree dealer to take off another inch of the trunk as you are buying it, then get the tree home rapidly.
- Cut off an additional inch yourself once you get the tree home.
3. Provide Water
As soon as you can, and certainly within three hours of the final cut, get the cut trunk of the tree into a bucket of water. Select a Christmas tree stand that holds quite a bit of water. You want some 3 or 4 inches of the tree trunk under water to prevent it from forming a sap barrier.
From that point on, you need to keep the base of your tree submerged in water. While some argue that cut trees do not need water, this has been disproved by studies. One study by botanists at the University of Wisconsin-Stevens Point found a direct correlation between needle retention and moisture content, establishing that cut trees without water lost significant needle moisture while watered trees maintain needle moisture.
4. Feed the Tree
It may be just American mythology, but lots of people believe that adding sugar or corn syrup to the water you give a tree helps keep it fresh. While no studies have proven this to be true, no studies have found the practice to be harmful either. So go ahead and add something sweet to the mixture.
If nothing else, it may help you to keep that water topped up. A general rule is that a typical tree needs a quart of water a day for each inch of its diameter. This means most Christmas tree stands need to be topped up with water every day.
5. Keep Cool and Moist
Evergreens are not tropical or even subtropical trees. Cut or planted, they prefer mild or cool weather and will drop their needles when the air gets too warm. So don't station the tree near a radiator or even a fireplace. Figure out the coolest area of the room and pick that site for the Christmas tree. Be sure to cut the heat and douse the fire when you leave the room.
Lights on and off the tree are also heat sources and can dry out those green needles. Turn off all electric lights when you leave the room and use LED lights to decorate the tree.
The trees also stay fresh longer if the air is humid. Most of our homes in December aren't particularly humid, so consider helping the tree stay hydrated by running a humidifier during the day.
From Alaska to California, from France's Basque Country to Mexico's Pacific Coast, Teo Spengler has dug the soil, planted seeds and helped trees, flowers and veggies thrive. A professional writer and consummate gardener, Spengler has written about home and garden for Gardening Know How, San Francisco Chronicle, Gardening Guide and Go Banking Rates. She earned a BA from U.C. Santa Cruz, a law degree from U.C. Berkeley's Boalt Hall, and an MA and MFA from San Francisco State. She currently divides her life between San Francisco and southwestern France.