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Hal Kibbey
IU Media Relations

Last modified: Thursday, December 4, 2003

Cutting a Christmas tree not always bad if you do it right

EDITORS: The following is the first of a series of holiday features from Indiana University.

BLOOMINGTON, Ind. -- Feel guilty about cutting down a tree for Christmas when we are all being encouraged to plant and conserve trees? If you do it right, cutting your own Christmas tree can actually benefit the environment.

"If someone goes out and indiscriminately cuts an isolated tree, that's bad because each tree of that kind has a niche in the environment. And just cutting off the top of a tall tree is really bad," said Bruce Hronek, director of the National Center for Recreation Resources at Indiana University Bloomington.

"But at a place like a Christmas tree farm where many trees of the same species are competing for space, thinning them by cutting one here and there is good for the rest," Hronek explained. "It's like thinning a row of carrots in a garden so the ones left will grow better."

There are Christmas tree farms in every county in the state, so people who want to cut their own trees have a chance to do it the right way. But it is harmful to the environment when people take their Christmas trees from natural forests, Hronek said, because Indiana is too far south for pines and spruces to be plentiful in the wild.

"In northern Michigan it would be different, but here we don't have wild land that can support that kind of random cutting," he explained.

There are other benefits to cutting your own tree for Christmas. By making it a family event, for example, parents have an opportunity to teach their children about how trees grow and why they are valuable for everyone. Then a Christmas tree can be something to cherish for its own sake, not just a prop for ornaments and presents.

Some people compromise by buying a live tree with its roots in a bag, using it for a few weeks as a Christmas tree and then planting it in their yard so it can resume growing.

"The trouble is that when the tree is brought indoors in December, after a while the warmth makes the tree think it's spring, and it breaks dormancy and begins growing rapidly," Hronek said.

"Then when the tree is planted outdoors in January, its cells that expanded for new growth are killed by the cold. If that happens in the spring because of a late freeze, the tree can start over again in the warm weather. But in the winter it can't start over again because everything stays frozen, and the tree ends up being killed. Trees that are treated like that have a low rate of survival," he said.

The only way around the problem is to leave the tree outdoors for the entire time it is used as a Christmas tree, he said. Then it will remain dormant and will not be harmed by cold when it is replanted, though it may still have a hard time because so many of its roots are missing.

One possibility is to plant such a tree in the yard and then each year decorate it for Christmas with various kinds of food for wildlife. Delicacies such as suet balls, cranberries, popcorn and pine cones dipped in fat can be combined with traditional Christmas lights to make a festive tree that also benefits animals in the area, especially when a cover of snow makes their regular food hard to find.

Land under electric power lines has been shown to be a place where future Christmas trees can be beneficial during the time they are growing to the height at which they will be cut, Hronek said.

"The trees grow in an area that otherwise would be unused, providing scenic and environmental benefits without getting so tall that they become a hazard to the power lines," he explained. "When they reach 10 to 12 feet in height, which is when they have their best market value, they are cut and the process starts over again."