A decorated tree is a traditional symbol of the holiday season. Many Nebraska families choose a real tree for a truly traditional Christmas because the beauty and aroma of real evergreen trees contribute so much more pleasure to the celebration.

Along with legends and traditions, misconceptions about Christmas trees have become almost as prevalent as ornaments on the tree.

One such myth is that Christmas trees are harvested from pristine forests and, therefore, it is shameful to use a real tree instead of an artificial one. In fact, 98 percent of all real Christmas trees used each year are grown on farms as sustainable crops, just like corn or pumpkins.

Nebraska has more than 50 Christmas tree farms statewide that grow and sell natural Christmas trees. These businesses allow customers to choose and harvest living, growing Christmas trees. Also, each year the number of Nebraska-grown Christmas trees sold as cut trees on retail lots in urban areas is increasing. Buying a Nebraska-grown tree this Christmas ensures freshness and helps support the local economy.

To find a list of local growers, go to the Nebraska Department of Agriculture's Christmas Tree Grower web directory at go.unl.edu/treefarms.

Picking a tree

If you purchase a pre-cut tree, follow these guidelines to choose the freshest tree possible:

* To evaluate a tree’s freshness before purchase, gently stroke or pull the needles. If green needles drop off or pull off in your hand, then the tree is not fresh.

* Another test is to lift the tree and strike the butt on the ground. If brown needles fall from the inner portion of the tree, don't worry. These needles are remnants of fall's natural needle drop in evergreens and are being shed by the tree naturally — they are not a problem. However, if green needles fall from the outer portion of the tree, then the tree is not fresh.

* Check to see that the tree has a fresh, green color. Some trees are sprayed with a blue-green dye. This dye is harmless, but be sure it's not hiding a dry tree.

* Break a few needles. They should be flexible and will feel moist or possibly sticky. They should also be fragrant when crushed.

* Ask the dealer if the tree was locally grown. Local trees are much more likely to be fresh because they are cut nearer Christmas and aren't shipped long distances.

Christmas tree care

After selecting a Christmas tree, store the tree in a dark corner of your garage, away from sunlight if you don't plan to set it up right away. Cool temperatures slow the rate of water lost through the needles from the tree.

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Make a fresh cut to the base of the trunk by sawing off about an inch or two of the tree's stem, creating a nice, flat surface so the tree sits well in its stand. This cut removes several layers of cells at the cut surface that are filled with clotted resin, preventing the tree from absorbing water.

Place the tree trunk in a pail of water until you bring it inside to decorate and don't let the pail go dry. Your tree is still alive, even though it has been cut from it's root system, and needs water to prevent needles from drying and boughs from drooping. Before setting up the Christmas tree indoors, make another fresh cut to the base of the trunk to ensure that your tree has the best water up-take ability while it is in your house.

When choosing a location for the tree, use common sense safety precautions with your Christmas tree by keeping it away from heat sources such as fireplaces, TVs, radiators and air ducts, and never have open flames on or near a Christmas tree.

When you bring the tree inside, keep the base of the trunk in water. A Christmas tree may absorb a gallon or more of water daily depending on its size and condition. Providing plenty of water will keep the tree fresh and maintain the aroma throughout the season. Fresh cut trees, if cared for properly, can last four or five weeks indoors.

It is not necessary to add commercial preservative mixes to the water in your tree stand to keep your tree fresh. Another myth about keeping a Christmas tree fresh, recommends dissolving aspirin or sugar in the water for your tree. However, neither aspirin or sugar provide any benefits to your tree; research has found that plain water is best.

If you accidentally let the tree stand dry out during the hustle and bustle of the holiday season, realize this will shorten the life of your tree. Once the water is gone, the water-absorbing channels very quickly become plugged with resin and the tree's ability to uptake water is greatly reduced. The only way to fix the problem is to make another fresh cut to the base of the trunk, so make it a habit to check the tree stand each day.

Sarah Browning is an extension educator with Nebraska Extension and can be reached at 402-441-7180 or sbrowning2@unl.edu.

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