Christmas trees have been embedded in western holiday culture for hundreds of years, but it was only within the past several decades that artificial Christmas trees entered into the fold. Technological advancements in the plastics industry led the Addis Brush Company, a toilet bowl brush manufacturer, to use the same plastic fibers from their brushes as the needles for a Christmas tree. The artificial Christmas tree industry has been expanding ever since thanks to its convenience and affordability. As we head into a new holiday season, Texas A&M Forest Service is shedding light on the benefits of real Christmas trees.
According to Marsha Gray of the Christmas Tree Promotion Board, an average of 20-25 million Christmas trees are sold in the United States every year: roughly one tree for every five households. The real Christmas tree industry also employs around 100,000 people.
“Christmas trees are grown in all 50 states,” said Gray. “But the top producing regions are centered around Oregon, North Carolina, and Michigan.”
Trees from those areas are the ones you’re likely to find at retail lots, garden centers, and your standard home improvement store. Nevertheless, many Americans prefer going to local Christmas tree farms, picking out their favorite tree, and then carrying it back to their homes. And thanks to the hardiness of Christmas trees, Americans are able to do that almost everywhere.
Artificial Christmas trees, meanwhile, are almost entirely imported. Eighty-five percent of them are made in China, according to the U.S. Department of Commerce. They are made of metals and plastics—typically PVC, which, according to the National Christmas Tree Association, “can be a potential source of hazardous lead”—and they are almost impossible to recycle.
“If you wanted to recycle an artificial tree,” says Gray, “you would have to pull each individual needle off of the entire tree.” Otherwise, you would have to throw it away, where it would remain in a landfill indefinitely.
Real trees are entirely biodegradable (thousands of organizations will actually take the tree off your hands to convert it into mulch or composted soil), and, while it might seem counterintuitive that cutting down a live tree would be beneficial, sustainably managed forests actually have immense environmental benefits. Christmas trees are grown for an average of 8-10 years before they are cut down, and over 350 million trees are currently growing on Christmas tree farms alone, with only a fraction of that number being harvested each year.
Beyond converting CO2 into breathable oxygen, Christmas trees filter water; reduce runoff and the chance of flooding; and provide homes, food, and protection for wildlife. They cool the average temperatures around them by almost 10 degrees Fahrenheit, reduce erosion and pollution, and they produce food for animals and the wood that we use to build homes and businesses (more on the Environmental Benefits).
Christmas trees are also hardier than most trees, and they can grow where other trees might not have grown. Take the Virginia pine, for instance—the Christmas tree of choice for Fred Raley, Tree Improvement Coordinator for Texas A&M Forest Service.
“Virginia pine is native to more rocky or sandier soils,” explained Raley. “It’s very hardy, and it grows very quickly.”
Virginia pine trees were selected by the Texas Christmas Tree Growers Association for their survivability, growth, and form, and they are favored for their ability to grow across the state. This is crucial in Texas, since over 90% of all forested land is privately owned. In order for that land to remain forested (or, in some cases, to become forested), landowners need an incentive to maintain it. The Virginia pine provides that incentive. For one, they can grow to a standard Christmas tree size in half the time—just 3-to-5 years—and, according to Raley, they don’t need much care.
“For long term survivability, they like to be left alone. They don’t like it wet. They don’t even require a bunch in terms of nutrients,” said Raley. “In their native range, they grow in very poor soils, and that’s one of the thoughts behind bringing this species to Texas.”
Texas A&M Forest Service is leading the way in Virginia pine improvement and development. Thanks to a recent grant from the Christmas Tree Promotion Board, they’re currently working to make the Virginia pine even more adaptable, beautiful, and enticing to land owners across the state. But that doesn’t always offset the mentality of consumers, who are often drawn to artificial trees for the very fact that they aren’t real trees. Allergies to pine pollen and tree mold deter many potential buyers, along with the convenience of an artificial tree, including its price and reusability.
Ultimately, though, you can’t put a price tag on the personal and environmental benefits of having a real Christmas tree in your home. From improving mental health, productivity, and happiness, to boosting your immune system and lowering anxiety, research has proven time and again that living plants and trees are invaluable.
“There’s something special about having a live tree in your home,” said Raley. “Especially now, during the pandemic—when families are spending lots of time together and are looking for ways to enjoy that time together—I think going out and finding a live tree is something that really has a lot of value.”
Raley has brought home a live tree with his family every Christmas for 25 years, and his children have carried that tradition on to their families.
“It’s a very unique and very special experience, during a special time of the year.”
The choice is yours: spend money year-to-year buying a real Christmas tree and enjoy endless environmental and health benefits, or invest in an artificial tree, and try to make it last as long as possible. In the end, having a tree central to your celebration—whether real or symbolic—is our favorite way to enjoy the holiday.