A decorated Christmas tree brightens a home during the holidays.
When you think of Christmas, one of the first things you probably think of is a Christmas tree. In fact, the Christmas tree is one of the most recognizable images of the season. Almost everywhere you go, it is the focal point of people's holiday decoration. You pile your gifts under the tree. You gather around your tree to sing Christmas carols and drink eggnog.

The growing and selling of fresh Christmas trees is big business, but what is important to you is how to choose a pretty tree and how to keep it from turning into a fire hazard during the holidays. In this edition of HowStuffWorks , you will find out everything from how and where the trees are grown to how to select and care for your tree through the holiday season.

Growing the Perfect Tree
Most people agree that the Christmas tree is a German tradition, started as early as 700 A.D. In the 1800s, the tradition of a Christmas tree was widespread in Germany; it then spread to England and then to America through German immigrants, who settled primarily in Pennsylvania. Although you might think that all people in the 1800s went out to their back yard or to the closest patch of forest to chop down their holiday tree, Christmas trees have been sold commercially in the United States since the mid 1800s.

Today, about 36 million Christmas trees are produced each year. The majority of these trees, somewhere between 95 and 98 percent, come directly from Christmas tree farms or plantations. According to the University of Illinois Extension, more than 1 million acres of land have been planted with Christmas trees. In North America alone, there are more than 15,000 Christmas tree growers.

Trees grow on a farm in the southeastern United States: These are Fraser firs, a popular variety for decorating.

Although Christmas trees are grown in all 50 states (yes, even Hawaii), the top seven states for Christmas tree production are:

  • California
  • Michigan
  • North Carolina
  • Oregon
  • Pennsylvania
  • Wisconsin
  • Washington
Oregon is the leading producer, with more than 8 million sold in 1998; and Michigan offers the greatest number of varieties grown by any state, boasting 13 different types of Christmas trees.

Usually, about 2,000 trees are planted per acre in the United States, and more in the United Kingdom. On average, American growers plant trees 5 to 6 feet (1.5 to 1.8 meters) apart, while growers in the United Kingdom plant their trees between 3 and 4 feet (0.9 and 1.2 meters) apart. Out of 2,000 trees, anywhere from 750 to 1,500 can be expected to survive, depending on the climate and weather conditions they must endure. It can take from seven to 12 years of field growth for the average 6- or 7-foot tree to be ready to harvest.

During those years in the field, there are several things that must be done to ensure a hearty, attractive tree. Once seedlings are planted, growers have to consider proper fertilization, weed and pest control and a shearing schedule. Of these, the most important, especially to the consumer, is the shearing.

When it comes to Christmas trees, most people have a favorite shape. Some of us like tall, narrow trees. Others have an affinity for something more squat and plump. Both the shape of the tree and density of the needles depend on shearing. To control both the width and height of a tree, growers cut off, or shear, the tip of the leading shoot of the tree. They also cut the ends of the lateral branches, to encourage the conical shape.

Not only does this help achieve the desired taper, but it also eventually increases the number of branches and overall density of the tree's foliage.

Harvest Time
Actual harvest times vary according to species and climate, but most plantations begin cutting trees during the first few weeks of November. Usually, trees that will be shipped outside the originating country are harvested first. Then, those set for domestic sale will be cut from mid-November to mid-December. The harvesting includes several steps:

  • Grading
  • Cutting
  • Hauling
  • Baling

The opening in the baler is tapered to allow the branches of the tree to be trussed with twine.

The tree goes into the baler, which wraps twine around the branches to protect the tree's carefully cultivated shape while it is being shipped.

These bundled trees will soon travel on trucks to Christmas tree lots or other retail outlets.

Some pretty cool equipment is used to do all of this. Several plantations in the Pacific Northwest use helicopters to move bundles of trees from the field to truck beds. Refrigerated trucks are used to transport trees, and balers (like the one pictured above) are used during harvest to bundle the trees for shipping. Sometimes you will see a baler at retail lots, where they use them to rebundle your tree before loading it onto the top of your car.

Choosing the Right Tree for You
There are several ways for you to get a fresh Christmas tree:

  • Go to a retail lot in your area and select one that has been cut already.
  • Order a tree online, over the phone or by mail.
  • Go to a cut-your-own farm and select one. There are more than 12,000 cut-your-own farms in the United States. At a cut-your-own farm, you usually will have the option of letting someone who works on the farm do the actual chopping.
  • Go into your own woods (or some place where you have permission) and cut down a tree yourself. Although this does seem like a nice idea, it really isn't a great choice. It isn't good for the environment, and you could be bringing unwanted pests into your home.
Here are some things you might want to consider when you look for a tree:
  • That perfect shape that you have in your head
  • The density of the branches on the trunk
  • The smell of the fresh needles and bark
  • The texture of the branches
  • The durability of the tree, especially if you want to leave it up for a long time
You might ask yourself a couple of questions before you decide on a tree. Do you have lots of heavy ornaments? A fir tree with its sturdy branches will hold up those treasured decorations. Or do you simply string plain white Christmas lights around your tree with bows and popcorn? A pine tree would be a good choice for lighter decorations like these.

Decide where you want to place the tree before you buy it. That way, you'll know how big a tree you can get. It is good to allow about 10 to 12 inches (25 to 30 cm) to remain between your tree and the ceiling. If you forget to take your measuring tape to the farm or tree lot, ask an attendant for help. You don't want to bring home a tree that doesn't fit. If you are placing your tree in a corner or against the wall, keep in mind that the more perfect the tree, the higher the price. So if you can have a bad side, or two, you will have more money left over for the tinsel and lights.

Where you live can dictate, to some extent, what type of tree you will select. For example, if you live in the Pacific Northwest, it's highly likely that you will have a Noble or Douglas fir. If you live in a southeastern state, let's say North Carolina, you will probably choose a Fraser fir, or possibly a white pine. However, with mail-order and online shopping growing in popularity among the Christmas tree industry, you aren't limited to what grows in your area.

Among the best-selling Christmas trees are the Douglas, Fraser, Noble and Balsam firs, and the Scotch, Virginia and white pine trees. You might be among the growing number of people who choose a living tree. One of the most popular trees for this is the Colorado blue spruce.

The following table may help you select which type of tree is best for you. This information was found at the National Christmas Tree Association Web site.

Christmas Trees at a Glance

Colorado Blue Spruce

Used as an ornamental landscape tree, the Colorado Blue Spruce makes an excellent living Christmas tree.

Blue-gray to silvery-gray in color, this tree grows in a natural conical shape.

Although this tree is primarily grown in southeastern Canada and the northeastern United States, you can probably locate one at a local retail lot or nursery.

Arizona Cypress Nice steeple shape. Pale-green to gray-green in color. This is an aromatic tree that can most often be purchased at cut-your-own Christmas tree farms along the east coast and in the south and southwest regions of the United States.
Balsam Fir Pyramid shape. Dark-green in color with long-lasting needles. This fragrant tree is popular in Canada and throughout the northern United States.
Douglas Fir Pyramid shape. Dark-green or blue-green in color. This tree has a subtle sweet fragrance. One of the most popular Christmas trees in the United States. Primarily grown in the Pacific Northwest, these trees are shipped throughout the United States and internationally to some Asian markets.
Fraser Fir

Pyramid shape. The strong, upward-turned branches are densely covered with two-tone needles. The top side of the needle is dark-green to dark blue-green in color and the bottom side has a silvery appearance. Excellent needle retention, a pleasant aroma, and it's color make this one of the most popular Christmas tree species. Heavy ornaments and lights are easily held by this strong tree. The majority of Fraser Firs are produced in North Carolina and are shipped throughout the United States and internationally. The branches are also used to make wreaths, swags and Christmas roping.
Noble Fir Pyramid shape. Blue-green in color with a silvery appearance. The sturdy branches and long-lasting freshness make this a great Christmas tree. Like the Fraser fir, the greenery from this tree can be used to make wreaths, swags and garland.
Eastern Redcedar Natural cone shape. This tree can range in color from shiny dark-green to blue-green, to gray-green and even purple and are most usually available at cut-your-own Christmas tree farms or plantations. This tree can dry out quickly, so be sure to get the stump in water as soon as possible. The wood from this tree has been used in cedar chests and closets.
Leyland Cypress

Impressive cone shape. Color ranges from dark-green to gray. Although you will most often see this as an ornamental landscape plant throughout England and the southeastern United States, it has recently become popular as a Christmas tree in the southeastern United States. This is not a fragrant tree, so for those of you who don't like the "Christmas tree smell" this would be a good choice.
Virginia Pine Nice conical shape. The soft, short needles are supported by stout woody branches, making this a good tree for ornaments. Normally dark-green in color, the needles can turn a yellowish-green in late fall, making it necessary to use a tree colorant or pigment to restore the natural color. Originally, this was the staple of the Christmas tree industry throughout the southeastern United States. This tree is available at retail lots and cut-your-own farms.
Scotch Pine Nice conical shape. Color ranges from bright to dark green and sometimes blue-green. Sturdy branches, excellent needle retention, and lasting freshness make this a great Christmas tree. Don't worry about hanging heavy ornaments and lights on this tree.
Norway Spruce Good conical shape. Dark green in color. This tree is not known for good needle retention, so make sure you get a fresh cut and keep it watered.
Eastern White Pine

Impressive cone shape. The soft needles are blue-green to silvery-green in color. Heavy ornaments do not work well on this tree. Sometimes the needles can turn yellow, so a tree colorant or pigment is used by the growers to restore trees to their natural color. This tree has very little fragrance and is reported to be less of an allergen than some of the more fragrant trees.

Freshness Is Key!
When selecting your tree, there are a few things that you can do to gauge the freshness. First, be aware of your surroundings. If you are on a retail lot, look around you and see what kind of care they are giving to the trees.

  • Are the trees displayed in stands that hold water?
  • Are trees that are still baled being protected from the wind and sun?
  • Do the lot attendants put a fresh cut on the tree?
  • Are they tying the tree down correctly? (If they are tying the tree to the top of your automobile, be sure that the butt of the tree is at the front end of your car.)
Here are some pictures from a well-kept Christmas tree lot:

This lot has a shade cloth that protects the trees in the corral from the wind and the sun.

Bundled trees are standing upright (not lying on their sides).

Trees are displayed upright in buckets of water.

As you walk through the lot, you can stop to gently run your hand down a branch or two. Very few needles should come off the tree if it is fresh. Also, for fir trees, the needles should break crisply when bent. If they are pliable and do not snap with pressure, then the tree might not be taking up water. If you can, ask the lot attendant to shake the tree on its stump. It is normal for brown needles from the interior of the tree to fall. However, if you see an excess of green needles falling, pick another tree.

Taking Care of Your Tree
Once you get your tree home, you will need to do a few things to keep it fresh. With proper care, the average fresh Christmas tree should last at least five to six weeks. In fact, last year, one of the staff here at HowStuffWorks wanted to see just how long she could keep her tree up. She finally had to take it down as a birthday present to her husband -- on February 8! While we don't recommend this, it's neat to know that a tree can last that long.

The main thing your tree needs is water. You've probably heard of several home remedies that suggest you add something to the water, such as aspirin, 7UP or Sprite or even bleach! You don't need to do that. Plain water will do just fine.

Once you bring your tree home, if you are not going to set it up immediately, you should put it in a bucket of water in a well-shaded area out of the wind. Most retail locations will put a fresh cut on the tree -- trimming about one-fourth to one-half of an inch (0.64 to 1.25 cm) from the base. It can take as little as four to six hours for the base of the tree to sap over. When this happens, a seal is formed and the tree will no longer take water. If this does happen, you can make another fresh cut and place it in water immediately.

A Christmas tree stand
You can trim your tree even after you have put it in a stand. You can cut back some of the bark along the base, exposing the pinkish layer underneath, or you can drill a few shallow holes along the base. This works because it is not the center of the trunk, which absorbs the majority of water, but rather the outermost rings just below the bark.

One of the easiest ways to make sure your tree is getting enough water is to select the best tree stand. The average Christmas tree can use as much as 1 gallon (3.79 liters) of water a day, and you should check the water level daily. The general rule of thumb, according to the National Christmas Tree Association, is that one quart (0.95 liters) of water is required for each inch (2.54 cm) of the trunk's diameter. So, if you have a tree that is about 6 feet (1.83 meters) tall with a trunk that measures about 4 inches (10 cm) in diameter, you will need to have a stand that holds at least 1 gallon (3.79 liters) of water.

When shopping for stands, be sure to find out how much water the stand holds when a tree is placed in it. Many simply tell you how much water the stand holds without taking into account the displacement that occurs once the tree is in the stand. The stands shown below are examples of really great stands.

A white pine in a stand

A fraser fir in a stand

In addition to keeping your tree watered, you should not place your tree near anything that could be a possible heat source. Avoid fireplaces, furnaces and air vents.

It's really amazing that something that starts out the height of a quarter turns into a big, beautiful centerpiece for the holiday season. Please remember that when the season is over, you should remove your tree before it dries out. Several communities recycle trees by chipping them -- check with someone in your area about this service.

For more information on Christmas trees and related topics, check out the links on the next page.

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