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  • Writer's pictureDan Steiger

The Life of a Christmas Tree

Updated: Sep 8, 2022

For most of us, a Christmas trees life begins shortly after Thanksgiving at the very moment we visit a local seller and pick one out. Its not always a simple process. Finding a tree that is healthy, the right size, and ideal shape for your home can take a bit of effort sometimes. We take them home, decorate them in our own personal way, and care for them throughout the holiday season. Once the holidays are over, the trees are taken down, placed by the curb, and taken away by the local waste management company, never to be thought of again. A Christmas tree only spends a few weeks of its life in our homes, but the journey they take to get there lasts much longer.

Seeds of conifers are located inside cones

Christmas trees are a plant belonging to the phylum Coniferophyte, also known as conifers. They are categorized as bearing cones and having leaves shapes like needles or scales. Unlike flowering plants, which produce fruit to protect seeds, the seeds of a conifer grow inside of their cones. Each scale of a cone can produce about two seeds. Under the right conditions, the cones will open, release their seeds, and then the journey of a Christmas Tree can begin. For most trees that are sold, that journey usually begins with a seed supplier. Cones are harvested from the healthiest of trees. Timing is important in order to collect when they are perfectly ripe but before the trees release them and all the squirrels take them. The cones are dried out and seeds removed. Like any crop, the quality of the seeds is dependent on the weather conditions of the growing season. Nurseries looking for the highest quality seed may need to purchase specimens that are several years old.

Christmas tree farm
Christmas trees growing on a farm in Half Moon Bay, California

There are over 35 different species of Christmas trees available for sale in the United States with the most common types being firs, pines, and spruces. Each type requires special conditions in order to grow into an optimal specimen. Ph, soil quality, growing temperature, water and other factors are all taken into consideration. Depending on the species, it can take up to 4 years before the seedlings are large enough to be planted in the ground, at which point, they are sold to farms. These farms will plant the trees with 5-6 feet of space on all sides to give branches enough room to grow outward. Depending on the species, over 2000 trees can be planted per acre. As the tree grows, farmers will shape and control the density of the branches; a process called shearing. One the tree reaches the ideal height, typically 7-8 feet, it is ready to be cut down. The trunk is cut as low to the ground as possible to increase the likelihood that another tree may sprout from the roots. On average, it takes about 7 years until a tree is large enough to be sold but some species can take up to 15 years. Once harvested, excess needles are shaken off and then then wrapped using a baler to protect the

trees during shipment.

Whether it is short, fat, skinny, or full, each person has a different opinion about the perfect tree. While the shape of the tree is important, it’s more important to look for freshness. Ideally, you want to pick one as close to the date is was cut as possible. Depending on where you buy your tree, that information is not always readily available but there are a few things to look for to determine freshness. First, check the needles. If needles are falling off the tree when you grab or shake a branch, that is a sign that the tree may not last much longer. Limbs should be firm and strong enough to hold ornaments. They will also snap sharply when breaking. A freshly cut tree will also have a good fragrance and still have a considerable amount of sap. Once the tree is picked out, its best to cut a few inches off the bottom of the trunk. A fresh cut will help water absorption and increase the longevity of the tree. It is also important to keep your tree from drying out. Make sure the stand is always filled with water and keep it away from heat sources such as radiators, fireplaces, and vents.

Baled Christmas Trees
Christmas trees baled and ready for shipment

A little care goes a long way to extend the life of a Christmas tree, but eventually the time comes when it needs to be disposed of. The disposal process is important because trees are biodegradable and a valuable renewable resource. Specific curbside pickup days after the holiday season or drop off locations are typically made available. In 2019, the NYC Department of Sanitation set up 68 drop off locations throughout the city where it collected over 25,000 trees as part of its Mulch fest. Many vendors also participate in recycling programs to get rid of unsold trees. Many municipalities will use the trees to create mulch for gardens and parks, create compost, or to use on nature trails. State and Federal agencies also use old Christmas trees for conservation efforts as well. The U.S. Forest Service U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, and U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service use Christmas tree to improve fish habitats in select streams and ponds. Many states along the coasts also use old Christmas trees to build sand dunes.

There are approximately 350 million Christmas Trees growing in the United states and about 30 million are sold each year. They can grow in all 50 states, but Oregon, North Carolina, and Michigan are responsible for most of the production accounting for over 70% of the total number of harvested trees. On the surface, it may seem like we are wasting a resource but, most Christmas trees are grown on farms like a crop new seedling always replace the freshly cut trees. Growing them can also have its share of benefits including producing oxygen and removing carbon dioxide from the atmosphere. The next time you pass by a Christmas tree lot, think about the journey those trees took to get to get there, especially when considering the few weeks they spend in homes. If you do decide to take a real tree home, be sure to recycle it properly to ensure that its journey will be complete.

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