Answer: The quick answer is: The fresher the tree, the better it will hold its needles. The only way to know you have a freshly cut tree is to cut it yourself or, in my case, I just point to the tree and tell one of my kids to cut it for me. If you buy a tree from a local "choose and cut farm," it probably doesn’t matter what species you purchase. The key to keeping the needles attached is to get the freshly cut tree stump into water as quickly as possible.
Choosing a pre-cut tree from a sales lot can be a little riskier than cutting the tree yourself, but if you follow these tips your chance of getting a good tree will improve greatly. Purchase a tree as soon as trees are available – even if you don’t plan to decorate it for several days. The sooner you can get the tree in water the longer it will last. Most of the trees on sales lots were cut at the same time, so the longer they stay on the lot without water, the less likely they will even take water up when they are placed in home tree stands with water reservoirs. Look at the tree trunk near the base and, if you see splitting, the tree most likely has dried so severely it will not absorb water.
Look for a tree with a healthy, green appearance and few dead or browning needles. Run your hand along a branch to see if needles seem fresh and flexible. Needles should definitely not easily pull free. If possible, bump the base of the tree on the ground. You should expect some of the old dead needles to fall off, but if green needles also fall off, the tree is not very fresh.
Once you have chosen that perfect tree and have arrived back home safely, you should make a fresh cut a couple inches above the original cut. This removes any clogged wood that would prevent water uptake. If you are not ready to place the tree indoors, you can store it in a shady area outdoors or in an unheated room or basement. Regardless of where you locate the tree, make sure to check the water reservoir frequently and keep it filled a couple inches or more above the tree’s base. I have not seen any research proving any concoction added to the water works significantly better than plain tap water.
Another tip to consider involves tree location in the home. Keeping the tree away from heat sources such as air ducts, woodstoves and fireplaces will prolong the freshness and reduce the risk of fire. Make certain all lights and extension cords are in good working order and turn lights off when the tree is not attended. Because our homes are much drier in the winter when the heating system is operating, a small room humidifier can be good for you, your houseplants and Christmas tree.
Some trees are just naturally better at retaining their needles. Douglas fir, Eastern white pine, Fraser fir, Leyland cypress, Scotch pine and Virginia pine are considered to have excellent needle retention. Freshness, however, is the key to needle retention. The ultimate in freshness is to purchase a living tree. I have used everything from hollies to Arizona cypress as a living tree to be moved into the yard after Christmas.
To find a local Christmas tree farm, visit: http://www.southernchristmastrees.org/ALfarms.html.
Tony A. Glover is a County Extension Coordinator in Cullman County.