Plants of the season part 3: the Christmas tree

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    Long before the advent of Christianity, plants and trees that remained green all year had a special meaning for people in the winter.

    Just as people today decorate their homes during the festive season with pine, spruce and fir trees, ancient peoples hung evergreen boughs over their doors and windows. In many countries it was believed that evergreens would keep away witches, ghosts, evil spirits and illness.

    Germany is credited with starting the Christmas tree tradition as we now know it in the 16th century, when devout Christians brought decorated trees into their homes.

    The first record of one being on display in America was in the 1830s by the German settlers of Pennsylvania. By the 1890s, Christmas ornaments were arriving from Germany and Christmas tree popularity was on the rise around the U.S.

    The early 20th century saw Americans decorating their trees mainly with homemade ornaments, while the German-American sect continued to use apples, nuts and marzipan cookies. Popcorn joined in after being dyed bright colors and interlaced with berries and nuts. Electricity brought about Christmas lights, making it possible for Christmas trees to glow for days on end. With this, Christmas trees began to appear in town squares across the country and having a Christmas tree in the home became an American tradition.

    Care of cut trees

    Whether you cut your own tree from the forest or buy one from the local tree lot, care should be taken to maximize the tree’s freshness indoors. The following tips should help:

    • Use a tree stand with an adequate water-holding capacity. A tree stand should have a water basin that provides 1 quart of water per inch of stem diameter. For most Christmas trees, the stand should hold at least 1 gallon of water. A cut tree will absorb a surprising amount of water, particularly during the first week, so replenish the water daily.

    • The tree stand should fit your tree. Some stands have circular rings at the top, so the ring must be large enough for the trunk to go through the hole. Avoid whittling down the sides of the trunk to fit a stand. The outer layers of wood are the most efficient in taking up water and should not be removed.

    • If the tree is to be stored more than a couple of days before display, it is advisable to place its trunk in water and store it in a cool, shaded and protected area such as an unheated garage.

    • If the tree has been cut within the past 12 hours, it will not be necessary to recut the trunk prior to display indoors. If it has been longer than 12 hours since harvest, the trunk should be recut to improve water uptake.

    • Cutting off a disk of wood about one-quarter inch thick from the base of the trunk is all that is necessary before putting the tree in the stand. Make the cut perpendicular to the stem axis. Don’t cut the trunk at an angle, or into a V-shape, which makes it far more difficult to hold the tree in the stand and also reduces the amount of water available to the tree.

    • Keep displayed trees away from sources of heat (fireplaces, heaters, heat vents and direct sunlight). Lowering the room temperature will slow the drying process, resulting in less water consumption each day.

    • The temperature of the water used to fill the stand is not important and does not affect water uptake.

    • Check the stand daily to make sure that the level of water does not go below the base of the tree. With many stands, there can still be water in the stand even though the base of the tree is no longer submerged in the water.

    • Drilling a hole in the base of the trunk does not improve water uptake.

    • The use of IV-type devices to supply water directly to holes drilled into the sides of the tree trunk is not as effective as displaying the tree in a more traditional, water-holding tree stand.

    • Adding water-holding gels to the stand is not beneficial and they can reduce the amount of water in the stand that is available to the tree.

    • Do not use additives in the water, including floral preservatives, commercial tree preservatives, molasses, sugar, bleach, soft drinks, aspirin, honey and other concoctions. Clean water is all that is needed to maintain freshness.

    • Monitor your tree for dryness. Run your fingers across the needles to determine if they are dry and brittle. If the needles break easily or fall off in your hand, the tree is dry and should be removed from the house. A well-cared-for tree should normally remain fresh at least three to four weeks before drying to an unacceptable level.

    Planting live trees in the landscape

    A living Christmas tree is an increasingly popular choice as they can be planted outdoors after the holidays. If this is your choice, be sure the tree and large pot will fit in your house and through the door openings. Also consider the mature size of the tree. That cute little spruce can become a problem later if planted too close to the house or other trees.

    It’s best to purchase the tree a few days before Christmas, but, if you purchase it earlier, you may want to leave it in the garage for a few days before bringing it into the house. If you can, dig the hole for the tree in advance as the ground will likely be frozen when it is time to transplant. Dig the hole at least twice as wide but no deeper than the size of the rootball. Save the soil in the garage or outdoors in a black plastic bag so it is less likely to freeze. You will need this soil for backfill when transplanting.

    The most important factor in the tree’s survival outdoors is the length of time it is left indoors as a Christmas tree. Warmth received indoors may cause the tree to become less cold-hardy once it is moved outdoors. The less time the tree is inside, the better its chance of survival. Seven days is maximum; five is better.

    Before bringing the tree indoors, give it a couple of days in the garage to ease the transition. Make sure the rootball doesn’t dry out and water thoroughly a few hours before bringing it into the house. Indoors, place the tree in a cooler room, away from heat sources such as stoves, fireplaces and heat registers. If desired, you can decorate the container with foil or place it in an ornamental pot. You may want to protect carpeting from water, as the rootball probably will need water during the stay indoors. Decorate the tree with miniature lights, which develop less heat than larger lights. After five to seven days indoors, return the tree to the garage for a couple of days to ease the transition to the outdoors. Water the tree.

    To transplant, remove the rootball from the container and place in the previously dug hole so the top of the rootball is slightly above ground level. Put some backfill in the hole. Remove any wire around the rootball and any burlap and rope tied around the trunk. Fill with the rest of the backfill. Water heavily to settle the backfill and be prepared to add more backfill soil if needed. Allow water to soak into the soil, and then apply a 3- to 5-inch thick mulch of straw, pine needles or wood chips over the planted area to help keep the soil moist.

    Water the area at least monthly through the winter, if we don’t have snow cover. If you need to stake the tree for winter and early spring winds, remember to remove the stakes the following summer.

    Information for the above article was taken from the following sources: “History of Christmas Trees,” “Consider a Living Christmas Tree this Year,” written by Robert Cox, CSU Extension agent, and care of Christmas tree guidelines provided by Rick Bates, Department of Horticulture at Penn State University.

    CPR and first aid classes

    CPR and first aid certification classes are now being offered monthly by the CSU Extension office on the second Monday and Wednesday of each month from 6 to 10 p.m. Anyone needing to receive or renew certification can register by calling the Extension office at 264-5931.

    We will also attempt to schedule classes on additional dates with five or more registrations. Cost for the classes is $80 for combined CPR/first aid and $55 for CPR, first aid or recertification. The type of first aid information provided will vary by the needs of the audience.