My search for the imperfect Christmas tree
I used to think a lot about starting a Christmas tree farm. Hilly cheaper land could be used and I had some, machinery investment would be low, or so I thought, and the customer would maybe do the work of harvesting.
What stopped me was what I took to be the insane human desire for the “perfect” tree. Every true American is convinced that a Christmas tree must be shaped in a perfect, pyramidal form and so thick with foliage that a flea can’t fly through it. To prune an evergreen tree to this kind of perfection requires hours of hand trimming, often in the heat of the summer. It also requires sprays to combat bugs and sometimes fungal disease, and almost constant mowing around the trees. Instead of a natural grove, a Christmas tree plantation is almost as environmentally hazardous as a corn field.
Then there is consumer fickleness to deal with. Right now in our area, everyone seems to think that the perfect tree is a Canaan fir, which I never heard of until a few years ago. If I started a tree farm now and planted Canaan firs, how do I know but what they’d be out of style by the time I shaved and groomed them to the proper perfection. A blue spruce will grow to near perfection without trimming, but no sir, most of the American public does not, will not, buy a blue spruce. Beats me.
For awhile I argued against the idea of a perfect Christmas tree in my writing, a debate I was doomed to lose. People are bent on having the most perfect tree in their circle of friends and family and if it scrapes against their cathedral ceiling, taller than other trees in neighborhood homes, so much the better. Why? Why does a tree have to be so thick with needles that you can barely find air space enough to hang the ornaments? Why does having the tallest tree in town make you the tallest guy in town? The ornaments don’t hang on trees today; they drape. What is wrong with a perfectly natural tree that you can actually see through? Does it really matter that the branches aren’t perfectly symmetrical? Do people understand the cost, in human labor and in environmental risk, to make a “perfect” Christmas tree?
Then I met my wife and was introduced into her Kentucky family. On their farm grew thousands of red cedars (common juniper) considered by most farmers to be a pesky weed. Her father went to the woods and pastures every Christmas and cut one of them for the Christmas tree. Red cedars can be a cultural shock to someone like me used to seeing pines, spruces and firs in the parlor, but they very quickly look just as pretty with the gifts piled around them as any evergreen. And the scent of cedar oil is heavenly.
These trees grow naturally into a nice bushy shape without a bit of laborious pruning. They are immune to bug damage except sometimes from bagworms, and deer, the bane of the Christmas tree farmer, rarely bother them. Red cedars also make long lasting fenceposts, beautifully grained woodenware and cedar chests, and the trees provide food and cover for many kinds of birds.
Eventually I planted red cedars on our farm, bringing seedlings up north from Carol’s home farm. Apple growers do not like to see red cedars, which can support a fungus harmful to apple trees, but in my experience that threat is vastly overrated. One of Carol’s brothers had an orchard surrounded with red cedars and he didn’t spray any more than any other orchardist. So now we go each year into our fence rows and woods like Carol’s Dad did and cut a free Christmas tree that requires no labor whatsoever to grow. The boughs are also great for wreaths especially when the branches are loaded with blue berries, which is nearly every year. Much of the mid-South is literally covered with these shapely trees while most of the people are buying their perfect firs and spruces and pines. Just doesn’t make any sense to me but I suppose I irritate Christmas tree growers by showing a way around the hard work they have done to make their trees salable.
All I can say is that if we could change the definition of the “perfect” Christmas tree, tree farmers could be selling red cedars with a fraction of the labor they now must employ. And they would have bluebirds on their farms all winter, even in the north.
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