Everything you need to know about buying and taking care of a cut Christmas tree
By Tim Johnson, Chicago Botanic Garden
Dec 05, 2019 | 9:00 AM
I need some advice on purchasing and caring for a cut tree to decorate for Christmas this year.
— Jerry Johnson, Lake Forest
There will generally be a few different types of trees on a sales lot for you to choose from. Determine which species of tree you find most desirable from an aesthetic point of view, as color, form and texture vary widely among different trees.
Needle retention is also an important consideration when choosing a tree and varies tremendously between species. Firs such as Canaan, balsam, noble and concolor retain their needles the longest and make great cut trees. Their needles are rounded and softer to the touch. Some of the fir varieties will be more expensive than spruce or pine varieties.
When choosing a cut Christmas tree in the sales lot, select one with firm needles that don’t drop off when the tree is raised up a few inches and dropped to the ground. A small amount of needle drop is normal, though. The needles should be resilient; not brittle, and should adhere to the twigs.
Another way to check the freshness is to gently grasp a branch between your thumb and forefinger and pull it toward you. Very few needles will come off in your hand if the tree is fresh. Even fresh needles will be brittle when the temperature is very cold (below 10 degrees Fahrenheit), however.
The tree should have a fresh, pungent fragrance and a natural, waxy green appearance. The limbs should be full, bushy, symmetrical and strong enough to support your ornaments. It will be difficult to hang ornaments on trees that have been tightly sheared. The bottom of the stump should be moist with some sap present. Trees that were cut many weeks or even months earlier will drop their needles shortly after being brought indoors. I also avoid buying cut trees that have been “painted” green to improve their color.
Care of all cut Christmas trees is generally the same, regardless of the species. Selecting a fresh tree is most important, as a dry tree will not take up water and will quickly become a fire hazard. Store your tree in a bucket of water in a cool, 40 to 50 degrees Fahrenheit, wind-free and sun-free area, such as an unheated garage, until you place it inside.
When it is time to bring the tree indoors, make a right angle cut, approximately 2 inches from the base of the trunk — it is OK to cut more, if you need to shorten the tree. Staff at the sales lot will often offer to make this cut for you, but too much time may pass before you get it installed in the tree stand with water. Ideally, you would install the cut tree in water in less than two hours after the base is cut. Diagonal cuts will make it more difficult to mount in a stand. Cutting your own tree at a Christmas tree farm and bringing the tree indoors as close to Christmas as practical will give you the optimum freshness and quality.
Mount the tree in a stand that is big enough to provide firm support and hold a good amount of water. Add water to the stand immediately after placing the tree in it. Generally, water additives do not prolong the life of the tree. Check the water level at least a couple of times a day initially, and add fresh water as necessary. A large fresh tree may use 1 gallon of water or more in the first 24 hours. The cut end of the tree should be kept in water at all times. Never allow the water level to drop below the cut bottom of the trunk or a seal will form on the cut in four to six hours and prevent it from taking up water.
The tree will remain fire resistant as long as it keeps drawing water. Choose a location away from heat sources or open flames, such as fireplaces, radiators or furnace vents.
Tim Johnson is director of horticulture for the Chicago Botanic Garden in Glencoe.