The Evolution of the Perfect American Christmas Tree

As we close in on Christmasonce again, we have this article on the evolutionary history of our Christmas tree.  It is more than you would expect and is worththe read.

If I have learned anything,it is that artificial trees end up been as throw away as the natural tree,though it takes a few more years in which it occupies far too much space in thegarage or attic.

Now at least a natural treecan be set up in capture bag that eases the removal of the tree itself.  In the event, the tradition continues andwill continue.

This year we will once againdo a natural tree and enjoy once again the potent odor.

The Evolution of the Perfect American Christmas Tree
By Wynne Parry,LiveScience Senior Writer
posted: 17 December2010 09:43 am ET

Rows of Fraser fir, a popular variety ofChristmas tree, grow on Tom Miller Tree Farm in LaurelSprings, North Carolina. Credit: Jeffrey H. Owen

Lynne Aldrich, who owns a farm along with her husband Lee in NorthCentral Iowa, got a call one holiday season from a upset woman. Apparently, herhusband had shown up at the Aldrich Tree Farm to pick out a Christmas tree alone. Mistake. His wife describedthe tree he had chosen as the ugliest one she had ever seen. Lynne Aldrich toldthe woman to bring the tree back and pick out a new one.

So, the couple returned and headed out into the 28-acre farm, leavingthe tree leaned up against the barn. Within 10 minutes another family haddriven up and claimed it. Then the complaining woman returned with a tree that,from Aldrich's perspective, was ugly, so ugly in fact that the couple hadn'teven tagged it for sale.  

"Beauty is in the eye of the beholder," Aldrich explained.But for American Christmas trees, there are oftencertain standards.

FromAldrich's perspective (and experience with customers), an ugly tree is one withgaps between its branches and a top that doesn't end in a perfect point.Usually, people arrive looking for symmetry and an absence of gaps.

"Theywant it perfect all the way around, forgetting that most people put it in acorner or up against a wall," Lynne Aldrich said.

We haven't always been this picky; Christmas trees were once gatheredfrom the woods, but since that tradition waned, the aesthetic has becomestricter, according to Ken Tilt, a professor of horticulture at Auburn Universityin Alabama."What we would term a 'Charlie Brown' tree, a sad-looking one- ortwo-sided tree would now not be acceptable. Like everything we have in produce in the grocery store, we expect a treethat is perfectly shaped," he told LiveScience.
And it'snot just about symmetry and flawlessness, as Aldrich points out, we want dense,cone-shaped trees. We also want trees stay fresh for weeks, even a month ormore, after they are cut. 

Evolution of atradition

The tradition of bringing evergreens indoors as decoration stretchesback to pagan times, but in the latter half of the20th century, Americans developed a distinctive taste in Christmas trees.

Afterthe German regiments hired by British during the American Revolutionary Warintroduced colonists to Christmas trees, Americans began harvesting from woodedareas. After World War II, an increasing number of trees were planted inplantations, plant pathologists Gary Chastagner, of Washington StateUniversity, and D. Michael Benson, of North Carolina State University, wrote inan article published in the journal Plant Health Progress in 2000.

Chastagner,62, remembers that his family Christmas tree was set up on Christmas Eve, andpresents were set out under it, after he had gone to bed. Now, people beginbuying Christmas trees as soon as Thanksgiving ends, roughly a month beforeChristmas Day. This means the cut trees must stay presentable and tidy for alonger period of time.

"Thelong display periods are really only possible if you have trees that have theability to retain moisture and good needle retention," Chastagner said.

Thesecharacteristics have driven increased demand for two popular species, the noblefir, which is native to the Pacific Northwest, and the Fraser fir, native tothe mountaintops of southern Appalachia, heand Benson wrote.

Whilekeeping trees in water is important, higher tech needle-loss prevention is onthe horizon. In work published earlier this year in the journal Trees, Canadianresearchers announced they had discovered that ethylene, a gaseous hormone thatis responsible for ripening fruit, is behind needle loss. They currently areworking on practical techniques to prevent it from decorating carpets.

Tocreate strains of trees more likely to keep their needles, Chastagner's labdeveloped a detached branch test. Researchers cut limbs from promising trees inthe field and keep them for about 10 days at room temperature to see how theneedles respond; they repeat the process over three years to account foryear-to-year variability, according to Chastagner.

"Ifwe screen 100 trees, we can generally find maybe three trees out of a hundredthat won't shed, so then those trees are propagated," he said.

All traditional Christmas trees, be they firs, pines, spruces, orcypresses, are conifers, a type of plant whose seeds are encased in cones, andwhich often has needle-like leaves that stay on its limbs in winter. [Christmas Trees Survival Secrets Discovered]

Buyersand growers have specific preferences. The Aldriches grow Scotch pine, Whitepine and Canaan fir, and have some Fraser firon the way.

"Thefir has become more popular in recent years; we sell more and more of themevery year. They look like the old-fashioned Christmas tree you think of 50years ago," Lynne Aldrich said. She described the firs – Canaanand Fraser firs are quite similar – as having a deep green color and awonderful fragrance making no attempt to hide her own favorite.

"So,to me the beautiful trees are the firs," she said. "I would take oneof those any day over a Scotch pine and a White pine."

Cartoonishly conical

In Europe, where the Christmas tree tradition began, peoplepurchase their trees closer to Christmas and leave them up for shorter periods.Europeans are also resistant to the pruning typical of American trees. And treeresearchers jokingly refer to dense American trees as "Donald Ducktrees," referring to their cartoonish appearance, Chastagner said.

It's notentirely clear how the American preference for trees densely packed with limbsand leaves originated; Chastagner has heard stories that include tree-nibblingdeer. It's more likely that growers, who were former foresters, began to prunebranches as a way to encourage growth to fill in gaps in the tree, andconsumers responded, he said.

Nowsheering, or pruning a tree's sides and top (called its leader), to encourage amore dense conical shape, is standard practice.

"It'svery important you trim the top, you don't want the leader too long or tooshort, you want the branches around the leader to be just right," LynneAldrich said.

>A tight market

Realtrees face competition from artificial ones, which can hit the market muchearlier, don't require the same care and last from year to year. And althoughfewer homes display real trees today than they did 60 years ago, real treesstill have the edge over artificial ones.

In 2009, Americans purchased about 28 million real trees, according tothe National Christmas Tree Association. This organization is not to beconfused with the American Christmas Tree Association (ACTA), which describesitself as a nonprofit education association, however, its website is decidelypro-artificial tree. (Both organizations' websites tout the environmental benefits of their genreof tree, while pointing out the fire danger posed by the other.) In 2009,Americans purchased an estimated 12 million artificial trees, according toACTA.

It's notsurprising that growers are always looking for a leg up, through traits likebetter needle retention and insect resistance. In the southeastern United States, including Alabama,growers have turned to a surprising variety: the feathery Leyland Cypress.

These fast-growing plants are often used in landscaping as windbreaks,according to Kelly Ivors, a plant pathologist at North Carolina State University. [Image of a Fraser fir]

"It'sreally odd to see people are growing Leyland Cypress as a Christmas tree," Ivorssaid. "It doesn't have the kind of branches you would typically see on atypical Christmas tree."

At North Carolina State, where Ivors works, researchersfocus on a more established Christmas tree, the Fraser fir. Its shape, scentand needle retention make this fir, "the most desirable Christmastree," she said.

In the Pacific Northwest, researchers are working with Nordmannfir – a European Christmas tree – and the Turkish fir to develop alternativesto the trees typically grown in that region.

But atthe end of the day, does it matter whether you have a sad-looking tree or aflawless one?

"Whenyou buy a Christmas tree, you are not eating the thing. It's kind of like hanginga painting on your wall. It’s a decoration. It's a symbol of the Christmasseason... Beauty is in the eye of the beholder," said Rick Fletcher,Christmas tree and forestry specialist at Oregon State University.

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