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Selecting Christmas Trees
by Brian Minter
by Brian Minter


Brian is President of Minter Country Garden, an innovative destination garden center and greenhouse growing operation. He is a gardening columnist, radio host, international speaker and author.

His website is located at

December 2, 2007

Do you know how to select a fresh Christmas tree and keep it fresh over the holiday season? Well, after listening to a lecture by Dr. Gary Chastagner, a well known Christmas tree expert from Washington State University, I learned some very interesting facts about the 'keepability' of Christmas trees. His suggestions really do pay off, however, I found a few variables.

According to Dr. Chastagner, the most important consideration in purchasing a cut tree is the moisture content in the tree's needles. After extensive research in controlled indoor environments, a number of very interesting facts were discovered. It seems that the time of cutting has less to do with the keeping quality of trees than the treatment of those trees once they are cut. I think we all know that if we cut a branch from a fir tree and leave it outside in a wet shady spot, it will probably be moist and pliable until spring. The same thing is true for most cut Christmas trees. Stored in cool, damp conditions away from drying winds, cut trees have an amazing ability to hold moisture in their needles. What is even more interesting is the fact that if they are treated in a special way, they can regenerate those moisture levels and, as a result, stay fresh far longer. What Dr. Chastagner was really saying to the Christmas tree industry was that after a good deal of research, proper care of cut trees will definitely give the consumer a fresher, safer and longer lasting tree.

As far as safety was concerned, many fire retardant products were tested in the study with varying degrees of success. None of the products fared well in flame tests once the trees had dried out. The best way to minimize tree flammability is to maintain high moisture levels in the tree by allowing it to drink. I was amazed how much water a fresh tree consumes every day. According to Dr. Chastagner, for every inch of tree diameter at the base, a cut Christmas tree should drink one quart of water per day. That means an average size cultured fir would consume about one gallon per day. If a tree is absorbing water at that rate, its fire retarding ability is high. This fact has convinced both U.S. and Canadian governments to allow cut trees in federal buildings.

As a consumer, there are a few things you should know about a fresh cut tree. Dr. Chastagner suggested a simple test to check for good moisture levels in Christmas trees. Take a needle from the tree and place it between your thumb and index finger. If it snaps clearly, it is fresh and full of moisture. If, on the other hand, it bends over and looks rather sinewy, then you should consider another tree. I have tried this method often and have discovered that many fresh, moisture-laden trees bend without snapping. I found, however, that if you pulled the needles apart, you heard the moist crunch.

If you are going to travel some distance with your tree, don't tie it on top of your vehicle. The wind will severely desiccate its needles. Once home, leave the tree outside in a shady spot that is sheltered from the wind. If you must keep it inside for security, place it in a pail of water in a cool room.

The trees that best hold moisture are pine, Noble fir, and the new Fraser and Nordman firs. Douglas fir and the beautiful, fragrant Grand fir will perform very well, but they must be fresh and well cared for.

Before you set your tree up, cut at least one inch off the bottom of the trunk. Choose a tree stand that holds at least four litres of water and bleach it out thoroughly to kill any bacteria. Never let the stand become dry. If your tree sits out of water for more than a few hours, it will callous over, and its ability to take up water will be severely reduced.

Keep your tree away from all heat sources such as fireplaces, heat vents and radiators, and we all know it is important to discard shaggy looking light sets. Remember: mini-lights give off far less heat. Common sense is the bottom line when it comes to setting up and decorating your tree.

One last note: according to the Southwest B.C. Christmas Tree Association, two trees are planted for each one harvested. That is a plus on the ecology scale, and it is nice to see that trend.

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