Despite the convenience of using an artificial Christmas tree, Americans still have a fondness for the real thing.
During 2010, U.S. consumers purchased 27 million farm-grown Christmas trees, a slight increase from the previous year, according to a press release by the National Christmas Tree Growers Association.
Those farms also planted 40 million new tree seedlings in 2010 to replace harvested crops and to meet future demand.
Before you say faux Christmas trees save forests, think about the impact of artificial trees which are petroleum-based products, usually manufactured in primarily foreign factories, especially China, according to the growers association.
In addition, Christmas tree farms provide refuge for wildlife, stabilize soil, protect water supplies and offer scenic landscapes. Often, Christmas trees are grown on soil that doesn't support other crops, and they provide jobs and revenue for an American industry, whether it's in the field or on the tree lot near you.
At Smithfield Gardens on Route 17 in Suffolk, Christmas trees like the popular Fraser fir are the garden center's specialty during December.
"Every year, we get our shipment from a family-owned company in the Blue Ridge Mountains of North Carolina," says general manger Les Parks.
"We sell only Fraser firs because we feel they are the best cut Christmas tree."
The Fraser fir is the sought-after tree because its short needles make it easy to hang ornaments, and needle retention scores high in testing, without or with water. It's also soft to the touch and somewhat fragrant. Other popular species for Christmas trees include Virginia and white pine, Norway and Colorado blue spruce and native eastern red cedar.
But, Fraser fir is what you find most often. Its native range is the southeastern Appalachian highlands at elevations more than 5,000 feet where the air is misty and rain plentiful, according to Parks. They grow natively in just a few places, including Mt. Rogers in Virginia, Mt. Mitchell in North Carolina and Clingman's Dome in Tennessee. The first person to identify the fir, Abies fraseri, as a distinct species was a Scotch botanist named John Fraser in the 1780s.
In the early 1950s, the U.S. Forest Service and North Carolina extension agents produced Fraser fir seedlings, and discovered the tree would grow well at lower elevations, often where nothing else would thrive. That led to Christmas tree crops in the mountains of Virginia and North Carolina.
In the late 1950s, the imported balsam wooly adelgid killed Fraser firs and several other trees, so most of the native ranges have been decimated or weakened. Commercial growers protect their crops, according to Parks, and controls are being researched for wild stands.
"Hopefully, a solution can be found so this wonderful tree will again grow as easily in its native habitat, as it does at the tree farm where it waits to brighten someone's home for the holidays," says Parks.
Christmas tree tips
•Know what tree size (height and width) you need before heading to buy or cut one — trees always look smaller outdoors and bigger indoors.
•Run a branch through your enclosed hand; needles should not come off easily. Many garden centers display their trees in stands of water to protect their freshness.
•Bend the outer branches — they should be pliable. If they are brittle and snap easily, the tree is too dry.
•At home, a tree can be temporarily stored for several days in a cool location. Place the freshly cut trunk in a bucket that is kept full of water.
•Make a fresh cut to remove about a 1/2-inch thick disk of wood from the base of the trunk before putting the tree in the stand. Make the cut perpendicular to the stem axis. Don't cut the trunk at an angle, or into a v-shape, which makes it far more difficult to hold the tree in the stand and also reduces the amount of water available to the tree.
•In general, a good tree stand should provide 1 quart of water per inch of stem diameter. Devices are available that help maintain a constant water level in the stand.
•Use a stand that fits your tree. Avoid whittling the sides of the trunk down to fit a stand. The outer layers of wood are the most efficient in taking up water and should not be removed.
•Keep decorated trees away from sources of heat (fireplaces, heaters, heat vents, direct sunlight). Lowering the room temperature will slow the drying process, resulting in less water consumption each day.
•The temperature of the water used to fill the stand is not important and does not affect water uptake.
•Check the stand daily to make sure that the level of water does not go below the base of the tree. With many stands, there can still be water in the stand even though the base of the tree is no longer submerged in water.
•Drilling a hole in the base of the trunk does not improve water uptake.
•Never burn any part of a Christmas tree in a wood stove or fireplace. — National Christmas Tree Association
Local tree farms
Local tree farms
Zuni Tree & Alpaca Farm, 19362 Tomlin Hill Drive, Zuni in Isle of Wight County. 9 a.m.-5 p.m. Saturday-Sunday, noon-5 p.m. Monday-Friday; netting and saws provided. Choose-and-cut white and Virginia pine, Norway spruce and cypress. $30 for up to 6-foot choose-and-cut; $40 for precut Fraser fir. Also, fresh wreaths, tree stands and bows; 757-242-4780.
Millfarm Christmas Trees, 4900 Fenton Mill Road, James City County. 9 a.m.-dark Saturday-Sunday. White pine, red cedar, Leyland cypress, Norway spruce and fir, $5-$7 per foot, depending on tree type. Christmas Shop with locally made tree and home decorations. Leyland cypress and boxwood wreaths, 8-36 inches in diameter and $15-$50 in price, made daily or while you watch. 757-566-2035 or email email@example.com.
Santa's Forest & Nursery, 5151 Carolina Road, Suffolk. 10 a.m.-dark weekends. White pine, Leyland cypress, Colorado blue spruce, Fraser fir, Blue Ice cypress, $35 and up. Also, fresh-cut winterberry and wreaths. 757-751-3726 or email santaforest@gmailcom.
Macey's Christmas Tree Farm, 1750 Twiggs Ferry Road, Hartfield in Middlesex County. 2-5 p.m. Friday, 9 a.m.-5 p.m. Saturday and noon-5 p.m. Sunday. Choose-and-cut white and Scotch pine and Norway spruce; 6- to 7-foot white pine $32, other prices vary; 804-776-6043.
•Find more area farms through the Virginia Christmas Tree Growers Association at www.virginiachristmastrees.org.
Just like firewood transported across county and state lines, Christmas trees and holiday greenery can spread pests and diseases.
"Pests like gypsy moth, pine shoot beetle and sudden oak death (a tree disease) can be transported by many sorts of holiday plant material," says Leigh Greenwood with The Nature Conservancy, which manages the Don't Move Firewood campaign.
"The best advice is to buy as locally as possible, and go with a reputable dealer, farm or business — not a side-of-the road operation that may not be in compliance with the law."
•For federal regulations about Christmas trees and wreaths in quarantined areas, visit www.aphis.usda.gov/HolidayGreeneryPests.
•Virginia-grown Christmas trees at virginiagrown.com