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Choose, Maintain a Healthy Christmas Tree for Happy Holiday

Armen Hareyan's picture

Healthy Christmas Tree

Finding the perfect Christmas tree can bring joy to one's world, but experts in Penn State's College of Agricultural Sciences recommend checking the tree thoroughly before buying and taking special care of it after it goes home.

"Most people have personal preferences for certain tree species," said Bob Hansen, forest resources extension educator in Bradford County. "But even a sentimental choice can be a bad one if the tree isn't fresh or has other problems."

"The most popular species on the market today are Fraser fir and Douglas fir," said Larry Kuhns, professor of ornamental horticulture. "They have a soft, short needle, good fragrance and excellent keepability."

Hansen said buyers who purchase live trees or trees from "cut-your-own" farms know their tree is fresh. For Christmas shoppers who prefer cut trees, Hansen offered three simple freshness tests.

The Needle. Bend several needles on the tree to see if they spring back. "If the needle breaks or doesn't spring back into place, the tree is not fresh," Hansen said.

The Bump. Lift the tree and bump the bottom of the trunk onto the ground several times. If lots of green needles fall out, the tree is deteriorating. "Shaking may dislodge old needles that fell off naturally and were caught in the foliage," Hansen explained. "Buyers shouldn't rely on this test alone."

Sappy Stem. Hansen advised buyers to inspect the sawn stem of the tree. If the stem appears moist and full of sap, the tree is fresh. "If the stem is dry, it also may have been bumped on the ground numerous times," he added.

Hansen said some tree species are shipped from other areas, and may be less likely to retain freshness. Tress shipped from Canada and North Carolina, for example, may have been cut many weeks ago.

Once a tree is purchased, the challenge is maintaining its level of freshness. Hansen suggested these home tips:

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Keep it sheltered. If a tree must be stored before putting it up, the best way is to place it in a bucket of water outdoors or in a cool place indoors. "If the tree is stored outside, keep it out of cold, drying winds and the sun," Hansen said. "Snow or rain won't harm the tree, but heat and sun can dry out needles quickly."

Slice for life. When the tree is brought in for decoration, make a fresh cut across the stem butt at least a half inch above the existing cut. "The cut should be smooth and clean for maximum water absorption," Hansen said.

Keep checking water. The reservoir of the tree stand should be filled above the base of the stem. "Trees use a tremendous amount of water, sometimes two quarts per day," Hansen said. "If the reservoir goes dry, it will inhibit the tree's ability to absorb more water, even if the stand is refilled."

"The water bowl really has to be filled twice a day," agreed Kuhns, "because if the tree dries out, the water-conducting pores can clog up and prevent the tree from absorbing water."

Don't rely on any of those old-fashioned additives to your tree water. Kuhns points out that adding aspirin, chlorine bleach or sugar doesn't work and sugar can promote bacterial growth. However, he said the commercial tree-preserving products may be useful with trees that will be kept up a long time or with trees that have limited needle retention.

"Fresh-cut Fraser fir or Douglas fir trees won't need preservatives if they are kept in water," said Kuhns. "But spruce trees, which typically dry out faster and lose their needles, may benefit from commercial preservatives."

Hansen also suggested ways to keep the home clean and safe during holidays.

Keep trees away from heat sources such as fireplaces, radiators, heater vents or television sets. Use fireproof decorations and light reflectors. Replace lights with brittle or cracked insulation.

Before using them on the tree, plug in all light sets to detect burned-out bulbs or short circuits.

Don't overload electrical circuits. A typical tree strand with 36 bulbs adds 250 watts to the circuit. A 15 amp fuse can handle 1,500 watts. If a fuse blows, it means the line is overloaded or attached to defective equipment.

Never leave home without turning the tree lights off.