Thomas R. Marcucci
The fragrant balsam.
O Christmas tree
O Christmas tree
You are so artificial.
Not as appealing as the traditional lyric? According to the National Christmas Tree Association, some 78 million artificial Christmas trees were sold in the U.S. between 2003 and 2009, including 11.7 million last year. That's down from a 2007 surge to 17.4 million, but if every simulated tree represents five or 10 or more harvested trees that might otherwise be purchased over its synthetic lifespan, the numbers reverse in a hurry. Convert those 78 million mock trees to the real thing, add them to the 28.2 million genuine trees sold last year, and you've almost quadrupled annual sales of old-fashioned Christmas trees in this country.
The standoff between partisans on both sides of the fir-versus-faux debate may be intractable. Artificial-tree devotees tout the one-time expense (at prices ranging from the low three to high four figures, depending on dimensions and features), the ease of assembly and maintenance, the absence of allergens and dropped needles, and a growing variety of shapes and sizes from which to choose. There is no need to water and, on pre-lit models, no need to string lights.
But their early status as alternatives to chopping down live trees has fallen several notches in recent years, as people consider the fossil-fuel burdens of their manufacture and shipping (often from China), the use of nonrecyclable polyvinyl chlorides in many models, the artificiality of even the most realistic-looking models, and their persistence in landfills after disposal. There is a growing recognition of real Christmas trees as a sustainable, biodegradable crop that sequesters carbon dioxide and generates oxygen until harvest.
And if you believe the greenest Christmas tree of all may be none: Bah, humbug! An estimated 2 million real Christmas trees are sold statewide each year, ranking Wisconsin sixth in the U.S. and generating more than $50 million for the state's economy. After the holidays, real trees can be left in backyards for sheltering and feeding birds and other fauna, chopped and stored for use as firewood or, in cities like Madison, left on the front terrace for collection and chipping into mulch for gardening, landscaping, trail surfacing and shoreline stabilization.
"Any of the live trees are environmentally friendly," says Greg Hann of Hann's Christmas Tree Farm, 10 miles south of Madison (608-835-5464; hannschristmasfarm.com). Balsam and Fraser firs, Scots and white pines, and Colorado blue spruce are among the choose-and-cut options on Hann's 47 acres, at prices from $32 to $150 depending on size and species. Pre-cut prices start in the same range but climb a bit higher for some species at taller heights.
Some people may consider certain species, including Scots and white pines and Fraser firs, a greener option, Hann notes, because they are native to Wisconsin or more adaptable to its climate, requiring less fertilizer and water to grow. But he contends, "I don't think any species are more environmentally friendly than another."
A more important consideration, Hann observes, is that "the land that we're using to grow Christmas trees could be housing." The incursion of suburban development onto agricultural lands in recent decades bolsters his suggestion that the family-oriented choose-and-cut experience "is a perfect opportunity to get exercise, to come out to a rural setting." Weekend visits with Santa, art displays and demonstrations, wagon rides and a country store add to the appeal.
Hann hesitates to identify the least eco-sensitive Christmas-tree option. "I'm not a basher of the competition," he protests. But given their durability in the waste stream, he adds, "it would have to be the artificial trees."
The trees he grows, in contrast, are like a crop. For every tree harvested, "we truly do plant three-to-one." This is in keeping with many tree farmers, who hedge against hazards ranging from aphid infestations to weather variations that can put their crops at risk.
Hann is among those tree farmers who are turning away from herbicides and pesticides in favor of integrated pest management. "I do not spray," he says, explaining that some weeds attract predators that consume damaging pests. Two native foxes patrol his farm, along with six resident hawks. He estimates his to-market rate in the neighborhood of 70%.
In his own home, Hann prefers a Canaan fir for the holidays. His farm offers them at heights from five to 12 feet, priced from $49 to $150. He likes the Canaan, he says, because "it has the silveriness of a Fraser but the body of a balsam."
The Wisconsin Christmas Tree Producers Association website at christmastrees-wi.org/index.html includes directories of Wisconsin tree farms and sales lots, including a handful in Dane County.
The greenest Christmas tree option, says Madison recycling coordinator George Dreckmann, is the one in your yard. "Just keep decorating it," he advises.
The next-best option, he continues, might involve draping energy-efficient LED lights on a substantial indoor houseplant. But this can take some adjustment for anyone raised on evergreen holidays.
He patronizes the Christmas tree lot at a shopping plaza across from Warner Park, Dreckmann says. The species he brings home "depends on the mood I'm in. I don't like the big long-needled Scots pines. I usually get a balsam." According to UW-Extension, the latter is among the most fragrant and popular Christmas species in Wisconsin.
"The natural tree is more benign on the disposal end," Dreckmann explains, estimating the city chips about 20,000 Christmas trees each year.
A well-maintained artificial tree might last a decade or more, he allows, but once tossed "goes into the landfill and there it sits." The least eco-sensitive Christmas tree, he argues, is "an inexpensive plastic tree with big old-fashioned incandescent bulbs that uses up all kinds of electricity and gets thrown out after a year or two."
Most of the trees displayed during the holidays at Olbrich Botanical Gardens are white pines, according to Olbrich horticulture director Jeff Epping. Adorned with energy-efficient LED lights, their soft, long blue-green needles complement the poinsettias in Olbrich's annual Holiday Express model-railroad display. There are also some Fraser firs, Epping adds, but "we like the white pines because they have a more natural look to them," and they're native to this region
Epping is loath to recommend going without a Christmas tree, "because it's such a longstanding tradition" and "I hate to be the Scrooge." He is less reluctant to note the production of artificial trees involves the emission of volatile organic compounds and other toxins.
He is also skeptical of bringing home live Christmas trees - potted or balled and burlapped - that can be planted on your property after the holidays. "I have a hard time," he explains, "believing it's not a shock to the tree" to make the transition from warm indoor temperatures to winter's deep outdoor freeze.
For holiday decorating at home, Epping savors the tradition of venturing to a mom-and-pop operation and cutting his own tree.