This column was originally printed in the November/December 2016 issue of Northern Gardener. It was part of our series on Heritage Plants.
By Beth Probst
The debate over whether to display a real or an artificial Christmas tree dates back to the 1930s. That was when a toilet brush manufacturer—Addis Brush Company—discovered it could create an artificial tree using the same bristles it used in its brush. (Before that, many artificial trees were made of feathers dyed green.) At the time, it provided folks across the country a solution to a problem they didn’t even know they had: the potential mess that comes with a natural tree.
There are certainly some benefits to going artificial. It saves money over time, and may be the only option for renters. But, for me, real is the way to go. Perhaps it is my roots as a northerner who spent quality time with my dad finding that perfect tree at cut-your-own tree farms. Or, perhaps it’s because I married a forester who shares my love for seeing just how big a tree we can squeeze through our patio doors and then erect underneath our 19-foot vaulted ceiling.
Our first choice tends to be a balsam fir. This is partly due to its availability in the county forest we live in, but its sturdy branches lend themselves well to hanging countless ornaments showcasing our vacations, milestones and child’s creations. And then there is, of course, the smell. It is distinct. You either love it or hate it. For our family, it is synonymous with the holiday season.
A close runner-up that is perhaps more appropriate for this column is the Norway pine. As Minnesota’s official state tree, the regal Norway pine is a favorite of Minnesotans seeking that perfect tree. Norway pine, often called red pine, became the official state tree in 1953. The Minnesota Legislature designated the Norway pine as the state tree because of “the sturdiness and majesty of the tree, and how it helped lay the foundation for the wealth of Minnesota.” This workhorse, while not as fragrant as some options, is known for its needle retention. The needles, which are 3 to 5 inches in length, give it a distinct look compared to some of the other tree favorites. Similarly to the balsam, it holds up a lot of ornaments that aren’t extraordinarily heavy.
As a landscape tree, Norway pine should only be grown in full sun and wide-open areas. It matures to 50 to 75 feet tall with a spread of 40 feet. The tree is useful in windbreaks, especially in areas with sandy soils.
According to the Minnesota Christmas Tree Association, a few other tree favorites in Minnesota include the Canaan and Frasier firs; Scotch and white pines; and Colorado, Norway and blue spruce trees. Each one comes with a distinct look, fragrance and strength, providing myriad options for those who want to stick with real trees.
Despite my love of a real tree, there are a few lessons I’ve learned the hard way that challenged this love. First, never underestimate the power and importance of a sturdy tree stand. Second, contemplate the possibility of reinforcing your tree to a wall (or three in our case). This becomes particularly true when you have a toddler or active pet. Third, if you can, keep your tree away from main heat sources. Fourth, when you bring your tree home, don’t forget to trim the bottom inch of the tree to reopen the tree stem so it can absorb water. Finally, water is your best friend. I often forget that an average-sized tree can drink up to 2 gallons of water in the first day alone! As for what type of water to use, research shows that you can steer clear of additives and use just good old tap water.
Finding a natural tree in Minnesota is easy. There are more than 40 cut-your-own tree farms in the region, not to mention countless corner tree stands. Those more adventurous will want to check with county, state or federal forests on the permitting process for scouting out their own tree. Just be sure to stay off of private land.
While the debate over real versus artificial may never end, the most important thing to remember is that it isn’t so much the tree you choose, but rather the traditions and memories that take place around it.
Beth Probst is a freelance writer based in Iron River, Wis.