Home & Garden

O Christmas tree, how needly are thy branches

It did my heart good when a friend told me this week that she and her husband had bought a real Christmas tree this year after three or four years decorating an artificial one.

"It's beautiful," she said of her new Fraser fir, enthusing about the quality of the trees at Johnson's Garden Center, where she bought hers.

I came back from Thanksgiving to find my house smelling wonderfully of balsam fir but seeing that my Christmas tree had shed more needles than I anticipated.

I thought I had a really good idea this year: Put the tree in a nice bucket rather than in my shallow tree stand, fill the bucket with water, crank down the heat, and feel free to leave for several days.

When I came home the one good thing was there was still plenty of water in the bucket. But I wondered: How long does it take for sap to seal the cut on the trunk of the tree, preventing it from taking up water? I had the bottom of my tree cut before I left the nursery where I bought it, and I did not repeat the procedure when I got home.

It also dawned on me that the base of the tree needed to be elevated rather than flat on the bottom of the bucket, to allow water to be taken up. This is normally provided by spikes in the base of an official tree stand.

When I got back to work I read a story about a Wisconsin tree scientist who never used to water his Christmas tree on the reasoning that trees stop photosynthesizing when they're cut from their root systems. His wife, however, would water the tree behind his back.

This tree man, Les Werner, an associate professor of forestry at the University of Wisconsin-Stevens Point, finally decided to test whether watering mattered, according to the story in the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel. A tree farm donated 54 fresh-cut trees of four different species for a four-week study.

Werner found, as most of us have by experience, that unwatered trees lose a lot of moisture over time, while watered trees maintain theirs. He found that after about a week, a tree will respond to the cut on its trunk by excreting resin to naturally seal the wound. Then it no longer takes up as much water.

The newspaper story reads: "Cutting a few inches off the trunk before putting it in the stand opens the capillaries to allow the tree to draw moisture up the trunk and into the needles," said Werner. "The water level should be two to three inches above the cut."

(We interrupt this column to report that my Christmas tree has just fallen over in the middle of the night. Unfortunately, I have a bad history of this. The good news is that the bucket itself did not overturn. We now resume this column with no more mention of buckets.)

The study also ranked the four varieties of trees on their needle retention. Fraser firs ranked best for water uptake, sap flow and needle retention, followed by Balsam fir, Scotch pine and Black Hills spruce (which we in this part of the country can buy at local nurseries as living Christmas trees to be planted in the yard, not as cut trees in Christmas tree lots).

Werner also said that clean water — with no additives — works best in tree stands.

To add to my unusual — perhaps, more specifically, simplistic, lazy or minimalist — tree arrangements this year, when I ran out of lights near the bottom, I pruned the boughs that would have been in the dark. I then used them festoon some windowsills and the creche, giving me more ways to sprinkle needles — and joy — along the way.