What kind of Christmas tree should I get?

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by Theresa Peluso

Ah, Christmas, the season of peace and goodwill toward men.  And also the season of giving and getting, when we’re told no gift is too good for our loved ones, and we’re encouraged to spend, spend, spend. So forget about the guilt-inducing advertisements and focus on what really matters: the peace and goodwill part – and that, of course, includes women, children, and nature too. To make my life easier, I’ll leave the “peace and goodwill toward men” challenge to you, and restrict my column to the most environmentally-friendly choices for the Christmas tree that is a huge part of our celebrations.

One option is to go minimal.  After all, isn’t that the trend these days, with all those sleek, modern furnishings and room designs you see in shop windows and magazines?  My husband and I did that one year.  We found a few large pine boughs, put them in a tall, heavy crystal vase, and decorated them with our most meaningful and beautiful ornaments.  We thought our “tree” looked wonderful, but it only induced chuckles from our relatives and friends.  Advantages: more space for guests to circulate in our living area, no cost, easy set-up and take-down, minimal needle-shedding, ease of watering, no environmental impact.  Disadvantages: not “traditional”, perceived as cheap and not the real thing.  Conclusion:  If you’re free-spirited and not concerned about what others think, this is the way to go!

If you’re not willing to go out on a limb (pardon the pun) and take the minimalist approach, then you’re faced with the perennial dilemma of whether to use an artificial tree or real tree.

According to an article by John Collins Rudolf in the New York Times (Dec. 17/10), Jean-Sebastien Trudel, founder of Ellipsos, an environmental consulting firm in Montreal, states their study found that an artificial tree made in China would have to be used for more than 20 years for it to have the same carbon footprint as using a fresh-cut tree grown and bought locally every year.  The calculations included greenhouse gas emissions, the use of resources, and impacts on human health. Trudel notes that artificial trees contain polyvinyl chloride (PVC), which produces carcinogens during manufacturing and disposal. Furthermore, according to Clint Springer, PhD assistant professor of biology at St Joseph’s University in Philadelphia, “real trees are the optimal choice for the environment.  Since they use photosynthesis for energy, they act as a carbon ‘sink’, taking excess CO2 from the atmosphere and storing it in their tissues and the surrounding soil.  The carbon stays there for long periods of time because the land on which the crops grow is not tilled, thereby slowing its re-release into the atmosphere and lowering its potential to alter the climate.” (Newswise, 21 Nov. 2011) The living trees also produce oxygen, provide habitat for birds and animals, help to preserve farmland and green spaces, and provide local jobs. Finally, the dead trees can be chipped and resold as mulch for gardens, thereby enriching the soil and not adding to the perennial landfill problem.

This conclusion is questioned by Thomas Harman, founder of Balsam Hill, a manufacturer of premium artificial trees, who points out that the average amount of driving involved in buying a real tree outweighed the added energy and pollution costs of buying a fake tree from China.  The American Christmas Tree Association says it completed a study in 2009 showing that using a fake tree for 10 years would result in the same carbon footprint as a new fresh tree every year during that time.  Fresh trees often have to be shipped long distances to reach the market.  Buying a tree at a tree farm is considered to be worse than going to a local retailer because of the extra burning of fossil fuels that’s incurred by driving to the farm. In addition, it usually takes 7 years before Christmas trees are ready to cut down, during which time they are fertilized, pruned (usually with mechanized equipment), and sprayed with pesticides and herbicides. In addition, creating a monoculture in the form of a Christmas tree farm, where the trees are chemically treated, does not promote a beneficial habitat for many creatures. (Regarding the tree farm versus retail outlet debate, for most Lanark residents the difference in driving distance is negligible.)

According to Wikipedia, many pests target conifers, such as the Balsam woolly adelgid, aphids, pine shoot beetles, and gypsy moths.  These trees can also be attacked by plant pathogens which can cause root rot, shoot dieback and stem cankers.  Deer, gophers, ground squirrels, and some birds, such as pine grosbeaks, which eat conifer buds, can also be a problem. That being said, some conifers are easier to grow and more naturally disease-resistant than others. Of the trees that are usually available at Christmas, white pine, red pine, white spruce, red spruce and balsam fir are native to Ontario. Scotch pine, Norway spruce, Colorado spruce, Serbian spruce and Fraser fir are not native. As for which trees are easier to grow (specifically in residential areas), the Ottawa Horticultural Society (OHS) identifies white pine, red pine, white spruce, balsam fir, Scotch pine and Norway spruce as sensitive or very sensitive. (Red spruce is uncommon, both in the wild and in urban settings.) Colorado spruce is considered tolerant and Serbian spruce has moderate tolerance, and may therefore need less spraying for pests. (Fraser fir was not mentioned in the OHS analysis.)

So there, in a nutshell, are the pros and cons of buying a real versus a fake tree. Your best bet would be to buy an artificial tree made from recycled materials, or a real tree from an organic farm, but either option doesn’t seem to be available in this area.  Ultimately, the smaller the tree you get, the smaller its environmental cost (and monetary cost too). Yet another possibility is to buy a potted evergreen tree, but these tend to be quite small.

If you want some incredibly original ideas on how to create your own Christmas tree, you must visit the website http://inspirationgreen.com/eco-christmas-trees.html!  On this site, you’ll see trees made out of old bicycles, plastic bottles, cardboard, CDs, plastic bags, chairs, soda cans, shopping carts, hubcaps, poplar and willow branches, rolled up newspaper, bamboo sticks, plastic discards, lobster pots, a simple ladder, books, and plywood.

After viewing this website, I’m leaning towards the ladder – or the cardboard tree.  Then again, the pine boughs in the crystal vase solution that we chose many years ago also avoids the whole pesticide-fossil-fuel-landfill-toxic-chemical problem.  Now we just need to steel ourselves against the reactions from our holiday visitors….

I wish you all peace, friendship and joy, and hope you’ll always support the well-being of the people, animals and plants with whom we share this planet