From forests to car roofs

COSTA MESA — There's a good amount of wonder stirred by the fresh pine scent of a well-decorated, brightly lit Christmas tree, and even more so, when you've seen that tree growing out of forest soil six months earlier.

"It leaves you kind of speechless when you see the whole endeavor," said Victor Serrao, partial owner of the family business Victor's Custom Christmas Trees, which supplied the more than 90-foot-tall decorated holiday trees at South Coast Plaza and Fashion Island.

"When you see the crane lifting [the tree] and how many people it takes to get it out there," Serrao continued, "it's pretty awesome."

Victor's Custom Christmas Trees grew out of a tree lot that Serrao's father started in the 1950s. The early lot was the frequent recipient of custom requests, including an order for a Christmas tree in the shape of a poodle — complete with decorative colored flocking.

The trees, which range from 20- to 150-feet tall, are supplied through partnership agreements with Northern California timber companies, he said.

The trees are cut and decorated per each client's requests.

A fully decorated tree can range between $15,000 and $200,000, depending on the specifics of the order, Serrao said.

What many people don't realize is that because the ornamental trees are displayed for so much longer than trees displayed in homes, the trees are first treated with a green-tinted fire retardant to help combat safety hazards and the inevitable brown coloring as the tree dries out, he said.

For the trees in homes, the 7-foot pines and firs can travel from Oregon, Idaho, Washington and Minnesota, depending on where good tree-growing weather — cold and not too wet — occurs, said Rick Webb, lot manager for the Orange County-based Santa's Garden, which has lots in La Habra, Seal Beach, Huntington Harbour and Costa Mesa.

"You should see it, when the trees are unloaded from the trucks we some times even have a snow fight," Webb said of the freshly cut trees, which he has helped deliver up to three times a week for 16 years from Oregon to the Costa Mesa lot on Harbor Boulevard and three other Santa's Garden locations countywide.

The trees, about 8,000 per year each December, which are cut and tightly wrapped before being shipped directly, are about as fresh as they can get — sometimes containing a bit more than packed snow, Webb said.

"I've had the occasional tree frog … and have been surprised by a bird," Webb said with a laugh, "but, never any varmints."

For one month each year, Webb's job requires that he live at one of the Santa's Garden lots, in a comfortable trailer surrounded by the scent of freshly cut pines.

Although the lot is gated and well-lighted, there's been the occasional would-be tree thief, Webb said.

"The trouble is that if you run over here and try to steal a tree, how much do you think you could sell it for?" Webb said. "You've committed a felony for $30."

While Webb logs 24-hour days at the tree lot, which keeps him from his family on the holiday, the tree trade is not without its rewards.

"The thing I can imagine is people stopping by, looking at their tree and just smiling," Webb said. "It makes it all worthwhile."

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