A Natural Christmas : Decoration: A living tree is not everyone’s cup of tea, but it helps the environment and can become a family tradition.


Feeling guilty about the idea of clogging landfills with yet another cut Christmas tree?

Want to do your bit for the planet this year?

Buy a living tree, and let it live.

With proper care, it could be part of your festivities for years to come.


Charmayne and Martin Bohman of Westminster have had their current living Christmas tree for five years, and before it, they had “Charlie” for 18.

“Our son was 2 when we got it, so for virtually all of his and my daughter’s growing up years we had the same tree,” Charmayne Bohman said. “The kids named it Charlie because it wasn’t that pretty of a tree, so it was the Charlie Brown tree. But to us it was beautiful because it had so much tradition.”

Dr. Michael Klaper, of Earthsave Orange County, says we should “appreciate trees for what fountains of life they are and not waste them during our Christmas celebrations.”

“Every living tree is worth more than money in the bank at this time on Planet Earth,” Klaper says. “Trees should be seen as the symbols of life they are rather than just as household decorations.”


Klaper says the tradition of bringing a cut tree into the home was to celebrate “something green and living in the middle of a cold snowy winter.”

But it’s time for this Christmas ritual to change, says ecologist Bill Roley of Laguna Beach. The idea of “Christmas trees being grown, dumped and wasted” has lost its place in our society because of its ecological wastefulness, he says.

“The tradition we’ve grown up with may not be sustainable within an urban development,” he says. “We need all the trees to be in the ground, purifying the air, not cut down.”

Last year, 70,000 Christmas trees were grown and cut in Orange County, according to California Christmas tree growers. Not included in this figure are the thousands of cut trees shipped in from other areas and sold here.


Bohn Dampier of Capistrano Gardens in San Juan Capistrano acknowledges that living trees in containers cost from 30% to 50% more than cut trees, which keep some people from buying them.

But Roley says if we were to take into account the “water surplus, the environmental degradation caused by chemical fertilizers and the running of trucks from tree farms to city sites,” the true cost for a cut Christmas tree would be $90 to $100. Then, he asks, “how many people would really buy them?”

Instead, he suggests, “buy bioregionally specific trees, put them in your house, decorate them and then plant them outside for the birds and the varieties of animals that would feed off of them.”

Some bioregionally appropriate trees, according to Roley, are pyracantha, Catalina Island cherry, Canary Island pine, Norfolk Island pine, Tecate cypress, Torrey pine, Aptose Blue redwood, Mexican pinon pine, the Aleppo pine, Italian stone pine, Washingtonian robustus and Cedrus deodora.


Tom Larson, president of the Tree Society of Orange County, says the three best trees to use in this area are the Modnell pine, the coastal redwood and the Aleppo pine. He rates Monterey pines as the least likely to succeed because “they don’t do well in the landscape of Southern California.”

Dampier of Capistrano Gardens says that over the years the nursery has sold many different kinds of trees to people seeking alternatives to the cut variety.

“I’ve had people use Norfolk Island pine, which is really not a pine at all. I’ve had people use holly bushes for Christmas trees. Not only do they have the beautiful green foliage but they have the red berries, and then they can be planted in the garden after Christmas,” Dampier says. “I have even known people to decorate their palm trees at Christmas time.”

For people who don’t have garden space or are not interested in caring for a potted tree year round, Roley suggests they “create ecological wealth” around their neighborhoods by planting the trees in public areas.


The Orange County Department of Harbors, Beaches and Parks accepts donated trees.

The Bohmans obtained “Charlie” at a cut-your-own Christmas tree farm.

“My husband said, ‘May I dig it up?’ and the guy said no, and my husband said, ‘What’s your objection?’ and the guy said, ‘I don’t have a shovel!’ ” said Charmayne Bohman. “So my husband said, ‘I’ll go get a shovel.’ ”

Martin Bohman adds: “The entire time I was digging it up, the man kept saying it would never live. But my contention is that if you cut it off with a saw, you know it’s going to die. So you might as well try (putting it in a pot).”


Although it worked for the Bohmans, Rod Whitlow of California Certified Nursery cautions, “When a tree is dug out of the field, most of the root system is left in the ground. The roots that move with the tree are often incapable of nurturing its top growth.”

Whitlow recommends buying a tree that has been growing in its container for at least a year.

The Daybreak Nursery, a farm in Orange that aids handicapped individuals, sells Colorado spruce, Dwarf Alberta spruce, Italian stone pines and Aleppo pines in containers. For the 3,000 Christmas trees that are available to be cut down, director Mary Lou Bayle says customers can dig them up instead. If a cut tree is purchased here, a seedling goes home with it with the instructions to plant it.

If you prefer a cut tree but hate the sight of it stack against the garbage cans before it’s trucked off to take up space in dwindling landfills, there are recycling opportunities. Last year, 10,000 trees were collected from Irvine residents and chipped into mulch.


The Fullerton Arboretum runs a Christmas tree lot that offers recycling to its customers. Director David Walkington says trees must be cleaned of tinsel, flocking, plastic and any other inorganic materials before they can be mulched or composted.

“It becomes very labor intensive to have somebody standing by to make sure the trees are cleaned before they’re shredded,” Walkington says. As much as they want every tree recycled, “this year we’re putting our foot down and saying that unless the tree is clean, we’re just not going to accept it.”

New ways of tree decorating are also emerging, blending attractiveness with environmental desirability.

“We use a lot of products we find locally,” says Sue Kirby, an El Toro organic decorator. “Dried flowers, pepper berries and naturally dried hydrangeas are beautiful and very Victorian. The branches of pepperberry are just stuck in and around the tree branches.”


Dry the flowers and branches by hanging them upside down for three or four days “in the garage or somewhere not sunny, because that can change the color,” Kirby says.

Other organic decorations include honeysuckle vines, dried or fresh eucalyptus, bird nests, little wreaths made of kumquats, dried apple rings, and of course, strings of popcorn and cranberries.

“One thing that seems to be real popular right now is a tree that can be set outside for the birds after the festivities,” she says.

Use sugar and water to apply birdseed to sunflowers or empty paper rolls that have been sliced into rings.


The Bohmans admit there are some trade-offs involved in using a living Christmas tree. “You don’t flock them, and they’re not always perfect trees,” Charmayne Bohman says. “But you have this living thing that goes on year after year, plus you know you’re doing something really important for the environment.”


Buy a bioregionally appropriate tree, and let it grow over the years in its container.

Maintain a live tree during the holidays, then donate it. The Orange County Department of Harbors, Beaches and Parks and some schools accept live trees.


Toss the tinsel and use environmentally desirable decorations, such as dry flowers and branches, bird nests, and strings of popcorn and cranberries.

If you have a cut tree, recycle it into mulch or compost. Most tree farms have mulchers, so ask about returning the tree after the holidays.