sealPurdue News

November 20, 1998

Expert offers tips on selecting, caring for Christmas trees

WEST LAFAYETTE, Ind. -- Today's consumers are putting up their Christmas trees earlier than in years past, and this makes tree selection and care more important than ever, says Daniel Cassens, Purdue University professor of forestry and owner of a choose-and-cut Christmas tree business.

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"Now it's not uncommon to see trees going up before Thanksgiving," Cassens says. "Some of our customers tell us that the family's all together on Thanksgiving, so they want to make a family event of putting the tree up on that holiday." Cassens says that putting a tree up in November or early December can work if homeowners select the proper variety and take proper care of the tree.

Cassens offers these tips for selecting and setting up a Christmas tree:

Select a good tree. If you are going to put your tree up early, avoid spruce trees, Cassens said, warning that these trees dry out faster and will drop their needles quicker than other varieties.

"If you are going to cut your own tree, you should know that if a tree is close to the woods it will have a side that is full that is facing the sun and a backside that is thin," Cassens said. "Those trees will tend to tip over as well."

Cassens also suggested that people be careful to select the proper size of tree. "Don't overdo it, because when the trees are in the field they don't look as big as they will once they get in the house," he said. "We like to joke that the trees tend to grow as they go through the front door."

Pick the freshest tree you can find. Test the tree by grabbing the needles and gently pull them toward you. On a fresh tree, the needles will stay on the tree.

Don't be put off by a few brown needles, however. All trees have these, and Cassens suggested having the business put the tree in a shaker, which will dislodge all of the dead and loose needles. "It's an expensive piece of equipment, so not every Christmas tree business has one, but it really cleans up the trees well," he said.

Select a good place for the tree. The first consideration is accessibility to the tree. Beyond that, the tree should be kept away from heating registers, which may tend to dry out the tree, or fireplaces, which could ignite the tree with embers. "Actually, the chances of a well-cared for tree catching fire is pretty slim, but you should obviously take precautions," Cassens said.

Select a proper tree stand. "There are a lot of cheap, lightweight tree stands on the market. You can even buy them in plastic now. Many of these aren't really adequate for a tree of any size at all," Cassens said. "If you have a seven- or eight-foot scotch pine, you've got a lot of weight there, and it's going to be difficult to keep the tree upright in a lightweight stand."

Cassens said that there are several good Christmas tree stands available. He recommended tree stands that have a five- or six-inch spike. With these stands, the Christmas tree business will drill a hole into the base of the trunk, and the tree fits down over the spike. Another good stand for a large tree uses guy wires that attach to screws drilled into the tree a couple of feet above the stand.

"On bigger trees we recommend that people try to tie them to a window frame or a wall with fishing line or fine wire. It really makes a difference on those bigger trees," he said.

Make a fresh cut: Just before putting the tree in the stand, be sure to cut about one inch off the base of the tree. "Since pitch tends to seal the trunk off, this opens up new wood and the tree can absorb the water," Cassens said.

Keep the tree properly watered. "Most people understand this," Cassens said, "but it's easy to let a tree dry out. I've come close to doing it myself once or twice." Other than spruce trees, fresh trees that are well cared for should last for the entire holiday season, and a well-watered tree keeps its fragrance much longer.

Cassens said that trees require large amounts of water for the first week or two. Homeowners should check the tree at least once a day and probably more often for a larger tree. "What happens is the tree is dormant when they take it inside because it is winter," Cassens said. "When the tree is moved inside where it's warm, after a day or two the tree thinks it's spring and begins to grow. That's when they take up a tremendous amount of water."

If the tree stand runs out of water, the tree forms a cap of sap over the bottom of the trunk and no more water can move into the tree, which will cause the tree to dry out. If this happens, the tree should be taken out of the stand and a fresh cut made on the trunk.

According to the National Christmas Tree Association, research has shown that ordinary tap water works better at keeping a tree fresh than commercial products, home-brewed concoctions or distilled water. Average-sized Christmas trees can aborb up to a gallon of water a day.

Store the tree properly: If the tree isn't going to be used immediately, Cassens said it should be stored in a sheltered area in a bucket of water so that the wind and sun don't dry it out.

Source: Daniel Cassens, (765) 494-3644

Writer: Steve Tally, (765) 494-9809;

Purdue News Service: (765) 494-2096; e-mail,

Purdue forestry Professor Daniel Cassens, who owns a Christmas tree farm near West Lafayette, pulls a tree through a baler that condenses and wraps the branches in plastic netting for easier handling. (Purdue Ag Communication Service Photo by Tom Campbell)
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