Christmas Trees Are Major Cut Foliage

Few Christmas trees are naturally compact.

Cut foliage is a common ingredient of ready-made mixed bouquets. Bundles and individual stems of cut foliage are available with cut flowers from florists. Cut foliage is the primary component of most wreaths and garlands that are now so popular for Christmas décor. It is another horticultural commodity like cut flowers, bulbs or nursery stock. Cut foliage is like vegetables that no one eats.

Cut Christmas trees are extreme cut foliage. They just happen to be much larger than stems of cut foliage that become wreathes and garlands. They grow on plantations like other crops. Contrary to a rather popular belief, Christmas trees are a renewable resource. Furthermore, cut Christmas tree production is less detrimental to the environment than the production of live Christmas trees.

Time and space are the only advantages of live Christmas tree production. As they grow, they occupy less space for less time. Obviously, cut Christmas trees need more space and time to grow. However, they do not consume proportionate quantities of water and fertilizers. Nor do they necessitate the consumption of the various plastics and synthetic potting media that potted trees need.

Regardless of the best intentions, few live Christmas trees come home for Christmas after their first. They often get too shabby through warm and dry summer weather to bring back in. The small and inexpensive sort with attached decorations rarely survive potted for more than a few months. If live Christmas trees were less perishable, their consumptive production could be more justified.

Whether they retire after a single Christmas or several, live Christmas trees must recover from previous shearing. Only dwarf Alberta spruce are naturally densely conical. Pruning other species to strict conical form is unnatural and disfiguring. As they recover, live Christmas trees need space to grow. Many, such as Italian stone pine and Canary Island pine, get far too big for urban gardens.

Experienced arborists concur that many problematic trees were originally small and seemingly innocent live Christmas trees.

Not So Merry Christmas Trees

Cut Christmas trees are just really big cut foliage, like what comes with cut flowers.

By now most people have already acquired their Christmas trees. Some are live trees in containers. Some are artificial. Most are cut firs, pines, or alternatively, spruces, cedars, cypresses or even junipers. For at least the next two weeks, these trees dutifully maintain their healthy green vigor to brighten our homes with Christmas cheer.

Cut trees should have no problem lasting from the time they were originally cut through Christmas, as long as they get plenty of water. Artificial trees do not have much choice in the matter. Live trees are probably more reliable than cut trees are in regard to freshness, but can be more awkward to accommodate in the home, since they are more likely to leak excess water that can damage floors. If they they get a bit dry, live trees can also be sensitive to relatively dry and warm interior air after spending autumn out in cool and humid garden environments.

The main problem with living Christmas trees though, begins after Christmas. Spruces and other compact evergreens that can work as Christmas trees for several years need to be returned to the garden and maintained until next Christmas. Retired living Christmas trees, including those common, small trees that can be purchased with a few decorations already wired to their stems, eventually need to be planted out into the garden. Circling roots (that grow around the perimeter of a container in search of a way out) need to be severed so that they do not get constricted as they mature.

Unfortunately, with few exceptions, living Christmas trees mature into significant trees when they get the chance to grow. Those common, pre-decorated trees are most commonly juvenile Italian stone pine or Canary Island pine, which become very large trees. Because they seem so innocent as small potted trees, they often get planted in very awkward situations where they do not have enough space to grow without damaging nearby features.

Planting such a tree out in a forest is not practical, since it will not survive through the first year without supplemental watering. Their roots are just too confined to reach out for moisture. Even if such a tree could survive, it would not be an asset to the forest, since it would be an exotic (non-native) species.

Seasonal Potted Plants For Christmas

91218thumb‘Tis the season for seasonal potted plants. These are not well established houseplant or potted plants that live out on porches and patios through the year. Seasonal potted plants are those that are purchased at their prime, allowed to live in our homes and offices while they continue to bloom or maintain their foliage, and then most likely get discarded when no longer visually appealing.

Poinsettia epitomizes winter seasonal potted plants. Florists’ cyclamen, azalea, holly, amaryllis, Christmas cactus and small living Christmas trees are other overly popular choices. All are grown in very synthetic environments designed to force optimal performance, with no regard to survival afterward. They are like cut flowers that are not yet dead. They are true aberrations of horticulture.

Technically, any of them can survive as potted plants, or out in the garden after they serve their purpose as appealing seasonal potted plants. Their main difficulty is that it is not so easy for them to recover from their prior cultivation, and adapt to more realistic environmental conditions. For now, it is best to enjoy them at their best, and try to maintain them at their best for as long as possible.

Eventually, they all experience a phase in which their original growth deteriorates to some extent, while they start to generate new growth that is adapted to the situation that they are in at the time. Christmas cactus are probably the most proficient at adapting, and becoming delightful houseplants. They are even likely to bloom occasionally, although not on any particular schedule for winter.

Holly, azalea and cyclamen can eventually get planted out in the garden. Most hollies grow into large evergreen shrubbery, but do not produce as many berries as they originally did. Azaleas are cultivars that were developed to be seasonal potted plants, so are a bit more finicky than those developed more for landscapes. Cyclamen can be added to pots of mixed annuals and perennials.

Living Christmas trees are not so easy to accommodate. Most are pines that need their space.

Christmas Trees – Dead Or Alive

41203thumbChristmas trees are like vegetables. Really, they are like big vegetables that do not get eaten. They are grown on farms, and then harvested and sent off to consumers. Although they smell like a forest, and they are descendents of trees that naturally grow in the wild somewhere, there is nothing natural about their cultivation. In fact, most are grown a very long way from where their kind are from. Therefore, bringing a cut Christmas tree into the home takes nothing from the wild, and does not interfere with nature any more than eating vegetables does.

Firs, particularly Douglas fir, are the most popular of Christmas trees. Pines are probably the second most popular. Redwoods, spruces, cedars, cypresses or even Junipers can also work. They each have their own distinct color, texture and aroma. Healthy and well hydrated trees that continue to get watered as needed should have no problem lasting through Christmas. Ultimately though, cut Christmas trees are not good for much after Christmas, and eventually get composted or otherwise disposed of.

Living Christmas trees might seem like a better option to cut Christmas trees because they dispel any unfounded guilt associated with cut Christmas trees, and initially seem to be less disposable. The problem is that they have problems of their own. Simply purchasing one is a big expense. Even the big ones are smaller than cut trees, but much heavier and unwieldy. Contrary to popular belief, only a few types that grow slowly, such as some spruce, can actually live in a tub for more than one or two years, and even they can be finicky.

The main problem is where to plant a living Christmas tree when it outgrows its container. Conifers innately do not like to be confined for too long. Yet, in the ground, most grow into substantial trees. The common little Christmas trees that are already decorated are actually the worst since they are juvenile Italian stone pines or Canary Island pines, which grow big and fast. Potted trees can not be planted out in the wild because their confined roots need to be watered until new roots can disperse. Even if they could survive, non-native trees should not go into natural ecosystems.

Potted Plants Are Living Things

90109thumbCut Christmas trees really are the way to go. There is no obligation to take care of them after Christmas. They do not need to planted out into a garden that will be too small for them as they grow. They do not need to be maintained in a pot, only to get disfigured or partially defoliated before next Christmas. They simple get removed from the home and composted or otherwise disposed of.

Potted living Christmas trees may seem like a good idea, but they are not as sustainable as they seem to be. Only the smaller and more compact types of conifers can be confined to big pots or planted into compact garden spaces. Rosemary shorn into small cones happens do well either in big pots or out in the garden, and if preferred, can be allowed to assume its natural bushy form.

Many other potted plants that are popularly brought into the home for Christmas decoration are easier to accommodate but take a bit of effort. Poinsettias are the most familiar of these. They can grow as houseplants for years, and might hold their colorful bracts for months. In mild climates, they can be planted in the garden, but will never look like they did originally. Most get discarded.

Hollies and azaleas are more sustainable, but are not as popular. Of these, hollies are the easiest. They can be planted in larger pots or directly into the garden later, when the worst of winter is over. Azaleas will eventually drop their flowers, and will likely look very distressed for a few months, but if watered regularly, can regenerate new foliage that is adapted to their new environments.

Christmas cactus happens to be a delightful houseplant regardless of the season. It will also drop its flowers, but will generate appealing pendulous foliage that cascades nicely from hanging pots. It can bloom annually, although timing of bloom is quite variable. It can do the same outside, if sheltered. Amaryllis also prefers to stay potted. It will replace its tall flower stalks with a few leaves that sustain the bulbs until dormancy next autumn, and can bloom again next winter if given a chance.

Secret Lives Of Christmas Trees

90102thumbPeople really stress out over Christmas trees. Some do not want a cut Christmas tree because it involves killing the tree. Some do not want an artificial Christmas tree because it is . . . artificial. Some do not want a living Christmas tree because it is too expensive for a tree that is too small. There are so many myths and misconceptions about Christmas trees, yet everyone wants one.

As mentioned, artificial trees are . . . artificial. Obviously. They are not a horticultural commodity, so are not an appropriate topic for a gardening column. What can be said about them is that they are not a more environmentally responsible option to disposable cut real trees. Countless dinosaurs died to make the petroleum for the plastic that these non-biodegradable trees are made of.

Cut trees are still the most environmentally responsible option. They are not harvested from forests, but from plantations, just like any other cut foliage, cut flowers or vegetable crops. Many are grown from the branched stumps of previously harvested trees, by a process known simply enough as ‘stump culture’. It works like coppicing, and allows some stumps to produce for many years.

Potted living trees are the most misunderstood type of Christmas trees. There is nothing environmentally friendly about them. They are exotic (non-native) trees grown in synthetic media (potting soil) in vinyl pots. They get synthetic fertilizer, artificial irrigation and very unnatural pruning while growing within artificially regulated environments that are designed to promote efficient production.

Only a few of the more compact types of living Christmas trees, like Colorado blue spruce and dwarf Alberta spruce, can survive confinement in pots for more than just a few years. Austrian black pine and dwarf limber pine need a bit of trimming as they grow, but also have the potential to work for a few Christmas seasons. The common small potted Christmas trees that are already decorated are Italian stone pine and Canary Island pine, which do not survive confinement for long, and get too big for home gardens.

Tannenbaum

IMG_1983Many towns display a Town Christmas Tree in a prominent and centrally located public space.

The Town Christmas Tree in Los Gatos is a now mature but formerly feral deodar cedar that grew by chance next to the railroad tracks where they passed through downtown a very long time ago. As the railroad tracks were removed, and the rail yard was redeveloped into the Town Plaza, the maturing cedar tree survived the process to become the most prominent tree there. Because it just happened to be a symmetrically conical coniferous tree in the most prominent spot in town, it was a natural choice for the Town Christmas Tree. It gets lit up and decorated for Christmas, and is where children can meet up with Santa Claus.

The Town Christmas Tree in Felton is the Featherstone Tree, which is a mature coastal redwood tree that happened to be planted right on the edge of Highway 9 a very long time ago by Mr. Featherstone, simply because he admired the species so much, https://tonytomeo.com/2017/10/05/big-tree-in-a-small-town/ . Like the Town Christmas Tree of Los Gatos, it just happened to develop into the right sort of tree in the right spot to become the Town Christmas Tree. It too gets lit up and decorated, although it is not as conical as it used to be.

Last year, someone delivered a decorated cut Christmas tree to a picnic area in Felton Covered Bridge Park, where many of the Homeless Community congregate. No one knows who delivered it, or how he, she or they did so undetected. It was a rather fancy tannenbaum (fir) that was not cheap. Someone or a few someones put quite a bit of effort and expense into this unusual gesture, to share a bit of joy with others in the Community.

It was not like a Town Christmas Tree for the Homeless Community, as if the Homeless Community is somehow separate from the rest of Felton. It was more like a household Christmas tree for those who lack a house to live in. It certainly made the annual Christmas Luncheon for the Homeless Community there at the picnic area much homier.

Living Christmas Trees Grow Up

81031All around town, there are Italian stone pines, Canary Island pines, Monterey pines and Aleppo pines that are much too big for the home gardens that they live in. Some are too close to pavement or foundations. Others are under utility cables. Many are shading or crowding out other more desirable plants. What most have in common is that they started out as living Christmas trees.

Because they seem to be so cute and innocent when they are decorated in a small pot, living Christmas trees very often get planted where they really do not belong. Not much consideration is given to their true potential. Pines are innately difficult to contain, and can not easily be pruned back for confinement once they get growing in a space that is not spacious enough for them.

Living Christmas trees simply are not often the horticulturally responsible option for Christmas trees that we would like to believe that they are. Very few end up in good situations where they have room to grow. Planting them in the wild is not practical, since their roots are too confined to survive without watering. Because they are not native, they should not be planted in the wild anyway.

Contrary to popular belief, the most popular of the living Christmas trees do not do well in containers long enough to function as Christmas trees for more than just a few years. Some spruces and small pines can be happy in containers for many years, but can be demanding. If their roots get too disfigured, they are less likely to adapt to the landscape when they outgrow containment.

Ironically, cut Christmas trees are usually more practical than living Christmas trees. They may seem to be expensive, but they are less expensive than living Christmas trees of good quality (unless a living Christmas tree functions for a few years.) Even though they are bigger, cut Christmas trees are not as heavy and unwieldy as the big tubs of soil needed to sustain living trees.

Cut Christmas trees are not harvested from forests, but are grown on farms like any other horticultural commodity. There should be no guilt associated with bringing one into the home. In the end, they can be composted or otherwise recycled like green-waste. There is no long term commitment, and no need to provide accommodations for an eventually humongous tree in the garden.

Those who insist on procuring a living Christmas tree should choose responsibly, and be ready to accommodate a growing young tree. Although not big enough to be real Christmas trees, dwarf Alberta spruce like those in the picture above are sometimes decorated as a small live Christmas tree. They happen to be conducive to confinement in proportionate pots. One in the ground, they grow like strictly conical shrubs that do not get big enough to cause problems.

Horridculture – All Hallows’ Eve

P81031All Saints’ Day is November 1. As the name implies, it is a feast day that honors all Saints. It is one of the most important Holy Days of the Catholic Church. Yet, not many of us know about it.
We are much more familiar with the day before, which had been known as All Hollows’ Eve, and is now known simply as Halloween. Although some of the associated traditions are fun for children, Halloween has become an excuse for people to dress up in costumes, party, ruin perfectly good pumpkins, and behave stupidly. What an unsaintly way to celebrate, just prior to the day designated to honor all Saints!
Saint Patrick’s Day is no better. People dress up in green, party, exchange disposable potted shamrocks, and behave stupidly, all on a day that had been designated to honor a Saint whom they know very little about, and care even less about.
Mardi Gras at least makes a bit more sense, with all the indulgent behavior just prior to forty days of good behavior and fasting. Even societies that do not party for Mardi Gras have old traditions of feasting on foods that will be abstained from through Lent, just to avoid wasting them. It is easy to see how such feasting and indulgence evolved into over indulgence and partying. Mardi Gras lacks a tradition of wasting innocent horticultural commodities like pumpkins and shamrocks.
Easter, at the other end of Lent, is still a respectable Holy Day. Most people know that it is a celebration of the Resurrection of Jesus, and celebrate accordingly. Perhaps a bit of indulgence is in order after forty days of fasting, Colored eggs nestled in fake grass, and disposable potted lilies, do not seem to be as inappropriate as ruined pumpkins.
Christmas is the most complicated Holy Day of all. It should probably be divided into two separate Holy Days. The primary Christmas should be the celebration of the birthday of Jesus. The secondary Christmas, which could be assigned another day, and given a different name, could be a celebration of disposable potted poinsettias, dead mistletoe, and a fat guy in red coming down chimneys to deliver gifts under dead coniferous trees that would be terribly embarrassed by their tacky adornments if they were alive.
There is more to Holy Days than pumpkins, shamrocks, lilies, poinsettias, mistletoe and coniferous trees.

Christmas Trees And Cut Foliage

31211thumbThere should be no guilt associated with a cut Christmas tree. They were stigmatized many years ago, when some people believed that they were harvested from forests, and more of them likely were back then. However, most of us now know that, except for a few that actually are harvested from the wild, Christmas trees are grown on farms like most other cut foliage or horticultural crops.

That is how Christmas trees get their nice Christmas tree form. Only spruce and a few types of firs grow so densely and symmetrically in the wild; and spruce are not commonly cut as Christmas trees. Almost all types of Christmas trees need to be pruned or shorn for density, symmetry and maybe even form. Most of the foliage for wreaths and garlands is likewise grown on foliage farms.

Contrary to popular belief, living Christmas trees are no more environmentally responsible than cut trees are. They are farm grown and artificially irrigated exotic (non-native) trees in vinyl cans filled with synthetic media (potting soil) and synthetic fertilizers. Just like cut trees, they need to be shorn unnaturally. Then, after all that effort, most die and get discarded after Christmas anyway.

Those that survive are usually more trouble than they are worth. Because they are exotic, they should not be planted out in the wild. Because their roots are confined, they would not survive without irrigation through the first year anyway. A few types that grow slowly and maintain density might stay potted and be brought in at Christmas for a few years, but that requires diligent maintenance.

The worst problem with living Christmas trees is that they often get planted into home gardens that can not accommodate them. Few people know what kind of tree their living Christmas tree is, or realize how big it can get. Some trees are Italian stone pines or Canary Island pines, which simply get too large. Even junipers, arborvitaes and smaller pines need adequate accommodations. Arborists can attest to damage caused by living Christmas trees in bad situations.