Traverse City Record-Eagle

December 1, 2012

Secrets to keep Christmas tree alive

Michigan State University Extension

---- — With seasonal decorating underway, many are thinking about obtaining that American holiday icon, the Christmas tree. If there was concern last year about needles dropping all over the carpet coupled with memories of those prickly branches when you nestled gifts at the base, you may find yourself thinking, "We have this fresh tree — why?"

But few things can dim the excitement of traveling to the neighborhood tree lot or to a local "choose and cut" tree farm. If these warm experiences coupled with the fragrance and look of a fresh tree are what's driving you, you may want to think about a different kind of tree this year.

Prickly personality alternative

My holiday favorite has and always will be the Colorado blue spruce. When cut fresh, this naturally conical beauty will hold its needles for a fair amount of time and is stiff enough to hang even the heaviest family memorabilia. The down side of any spruce is touching the stiff, pointed needles as you decorate — ouch!

A softer and equally beautiful tree choice is the fir. With rounded tips on flat, pliable needles, coupled with the most intoxicating citrus scent, any variety you choose is sure to be a winner. When learning the two species in my college days, I recalled the adage, "If it's a spruce let it loose — the fir is friendly!"

According to the Christmas tree experts at Michigan State University Extension, the iconic Scotch pine that made up between 80 to 90 percent of Michigan's production in the 1980s now only makes up 25 percent.

Enter stage left the beautiful fir. For more than 10 years, more than 30 types of fir have been under evaluation in Michigan at the MSU Kellogg Biological Station to determine which clones of fir are best suited for our climate. This group of beauties can range from the deepest forest green foliage to lightly tinged blues.

Many of the trees being evaluated are also U.S. natives, giving them a leg up on some clones that may not tolerate our dryer growing conditions. One of the best things about growing fir is their naturally "conical" shape and pest resistance, which requires fewer growing inputs, making them a "greener" choice for producers.

Tips for tree toters

Regardless of what species you choose, when selecting your fresh tree, make sure the needles are soft and pliable. When you touch the branches, very few should fall off. (Every tree will shed some of the interior needles.)

The first thing you should do when you arrive home is re-trim the base and place the tree in water. If you aren't going to decorate it right away, a water-filled bucket will do nicely. The tree can be placed in a cool garage until you take it indoors.

Once inside with home temperatures in the high 60s, your tree will begin to transpire a fair amount of moisture out of its needles every day. A fresh-cut tree can use up to a quart of water per inch of trunk diameter, so a tree with a four-inch trunk can use up to a gallon in one day.

Water immediately when you put it into the tree stand and be sure to top off the water each day.