Sunday 21 November 2004

The Ghost of Christmas Trees Past

I have a confession to make. I was once a misguided opponent of natural Christmas trees.

I was under the false perception that buying a “real” Christmas tree resulted in the destruction of a living tree to the determent of the environment. For a few years I put up petroleum based plastic tree.

Then one year as a fund raiser while in college, our student forestry group took on a project growing and marketing real Christmas trees. We really inherited some one else’s work because growing trees takes upwards of ten years. We went out in August and picked out our trees, marking them for harvest once the weather was cooler. They had been previously trimmed and shaped to have the perfect Christmas tree form. Once harvested, we carted our festive bounty to the center of town. The stand was set up in the typical fashion, with rows of trees ready for the holidays. The operation was quite a success and is still an ongoing fund raiser for the Paul Bunion Forestry Club. It’s also a lot of hard work and many cold hours of waiting for customers. It made a real tree convert out of me.

The fact is that a real Christmas tree spends 10 years of its life growing on a farm, storing carbon and providing oxygen and wildlife shelter. For every Christmas tree that is harvested 2-3 trees are planted in its place with the hope that they will grow to maturity. Small fast growing trees store carbon at a greater rate than older mature trees. Real trees are grown by real people quite often on marginal land. Tree farming is a source of diversified farm income. In many towns and cites Christmas trees are recycled into mulch and compost to slowly biodegrade and returning to the environment.

Every Christmas I am asked “What is the key to keeping a Christmas tree looking good through the holidays?” In one word “fresh”, buy your tree fresh, keep it fresh and cool until you’re ready to bring it inside. Follow a few rules to keep it fresh. When you bring the tree inside cut the bottom inch or 2 cm off the trunk to expose new wood. Put the base of the tree into water and keep it submerged at all times, if it dries out, cut the bottom again. This is hard to do once the tree is fully decked out, so don’t let it run out of water. Keep the tree away from sources of heat, such as baseboard heaters and registers.

In Manitoba the best source for fresh trees is a reputable local dealer, or Manitoba Christmas Tree Growers Association members, who have u-cut operations across the province. They can be located on line at

You can also phone a real person, Patricia at 204-453-7105 for more information.

A final word of advice from my vacuum cleaner repair man, “Scots pine needles are best swept”.

Happy holidays and enjoy a real Manitoba Christmas tree.

Wednesday 11 February 2004

The perfect tree

While doing tree research a number of years ago, my supervisor made an interesting

comment. He handed me a legal sized page with tiny numbers and correspondingly minute descriptions. The page was called a defect sheet and I was instructed to use it to assign the appropriate number, to the defects I would encounter while looking at trees on the job.

Being a long way into the forest, surrounded by beautiful trees, I made the following comment “What do I do if I find one without a defect?” “Call me on the radio and I’ll come right out”, he continued grinning “I have done this for years and haven’t seen one yet”. “Look harder, you probably missed something,” he cautioned. Days and months passed and sheets and sheets of data were submitted. Predictably there were no empty boxes on the defect sheet. Trees are long lived immobile organisms. They change and adapt to the seasons and surroundings by the growth or death of their parts.

What we view as defects are the results of these adaptations. From a timber harvesting point of view defects are characteristics of an individual tree that reduce its quality and utility. This could include basal rot, sweeping curves in the trunk, broken tops or excessive branching. These conditions reduce the value of a trees being processed into lumber, pulp or any of a multitude of uses.

Trees plantations are an attempt to minimize the number of defects and increase the value of trees for harvest. Plantation systems require more intensive cultural practices than natural forest systems, and may be more prone to insect and disease outbreaks.

In the urban forest we assume a perplexing set of roles can be filled by trees. Trees have grown and evolved in complex forest communities very different from our yards and wood lots.

We expect them to grow quickly and fill there place in the landscape for many years.

Trees are expected to be disease and problem free in this foreign environment.

It becomes clear that these values are often contradictory.

Keep in mind the environment where a tree originated. Was it a fast growing wetland species? Is your front lawn a similar environment? Perhaps a Birch isn’t the best choice for that location.

In many of our dry landscapes Burr Oak is the ideal tree, but they are seldom planted because they grow very slowly. Trees that grow quickly such as poplars and willows don’t last long. Trees that are planted too close to buildings require long term maintenance and lose their visual appeal as they age. Defects that would be tolerated in the forest become increasingly problematic in the backyard. A curved trunk may be indicative of weak rooting and increased potential for wind throw. Trees in the forest may fail without causing damage to people or property. Failure of landscape trees frequently causes substantial damage.

Take the time to look at the trees in your environment, check them for defects.

Foresters and Woodlot Extension personnel are experts that are available to help with managing trees for timber production. They can help you maximize the utility of your woods.

Similarly an ISA Certified Arborist can help you maximize the utility of your landscape.

In both cases the price paid for an assessment will save larger costs later.

I am still looking for that perfect tree; if you find one please call me I’ll come right out.