There’s nothing quite like the fragrant scent of a live Christmas tree. It can lift your spirits, put you in a holiday state of mind, help uphold generations-old traditions, and act as a centerpiece for creating new memories.
How can you keep it as fresh as possible, though, for as long as possible? Here, we’re going to make the process as simple as three steps.
In a few minutes time, you’ll learn actionable tips that maximize your tree’s lifespan—as well as the cheer it can bring—this season.
Step 1: Choose a Variety
According to MiracleGro, most Christmas tree shoppers should have at least a couple of varieties to choose from in many areas of the country. In fact, Better Homes & Gardens reports that “there are more than 35 different species of evergreens used as Christmas trees across the U.S. How to choose the best one?
Largely, it’s going to come down to 1) available selection and 2) your specific needs and preferences. For example, Miracle-Gro explains that "Balsam fir trees have a stronger scent and stronger branches to hold all your ornaments. Scotch pines, on the other hand, will hold on to their needles for longer indoors. Spruces have that desirable conical Christmas tree shape, as well as strong branches.”
Better Homes & Gardens adds:
- Fraser fir – Feature a slender profile that might be ideal for small rooms
- Eastern white pine – A rich fragrance with long branches that are ideal for ornaments
- Grand fir – Another species great for ornaments
- Noble fir – Only grows in the Pacific Northwest, but features “cool blue-green, well-spaced branches and densely set, upwardly curved needles”
- Virginia pine – Holds its needles well and can tolerate warmer temperatures
- Eastern red cedar – A pungent fragrance and drought tolerant
Step 2: Decide Between a Christmas Tree Farm and Pre-Cut Lot
Popular Mechanics interviewed Mark Derowitsch, a spokesperson for the Arbor Day Foundation, who advised that “the best way to ensure the most beautiful Christmas tree is to cut your own from a local farm, or to have one cut for you.”
This way, you can guarantee freshness, help maintain sustainability, preserve local jobs and open space, and reduce carbon emissions related to transportation. How so?
According to Carolyn Forte of Good Housekeeping, “If you buy your tree from a garden store or roadside lot, it has likely come from out-of-state.” Not only does this likely mean that a lot of fossil fuels were used getting it to you, but it also means that you can’t know how long the tree has been out of the ground.
In some instances, it may have only been a few days or so, while in others, it could have been a couple of weeks. And it goes without saying that the longer the tree has been out of the soil, the more prone it will be to drying out.
Speaking of which, Carolyn Forte notes that trees transported over long distances have often been exposed to drying winds that could further reduce their useful lifespan. But whether you buy from a lot or a local farm, what should you look for during your search?
First, your tree should be green, with a minimal number of browning needles, and (preferably) stored in a shady—not sunny—location.
Second, its needles should also be flexible and healthy, says Jami Warner from the American Christmas Tree Association.
“Run your hands along the needles and branches,” she said. “If they don’t fall out in droves, then you know you have a healthy tree.”
Another way to check the health of the tree is to inspect the branches, says Jill McKay, whose parents are in the final year of owning Hickman’s Tree Farm, a Delaware-based company that’s been in business for around 40 years.
“A quick, gentle tug on a branch will typically tell you of the tree is fresh. If the branches feel brittle, it's best to steer clear,” she said. “If the branches are pliable (reasonably) or a little bendy, that's a good sign.”
Keep in mind that when you do this, a few of the inside needles will likely fall to the ground. However, if its outer needles are falling as well, you should choose another tree. And if you experience this same scenario with several trees, then it’s highly recommended that you leave and visit another.
Most trees you find will be about a month removed from leaving the tree farm, McKay told us.
Don’t be afraid to ask the retailer or vendor how long it’s been since the trees were cut. If it’s been longer than a month, try another store or lot.
Step 3: Prepare Your Christmas Tree for Setup
If you take a little extra time to properly prepare your tree before setting it up, the reality is that it should easily last up to four to five weeks.
If you don’t plan on putting it up as soon as you bring it home, you can maximize its life by cutting an inch off the bottom of its trunk, wrapping a wet towel around it, and storing it in a cool (not cold) place.
This is because sap forms over the exposed part of the trunk and inhibits the tree’s ability to absorb water, McKay told us.
Cutting this part off and exposing fresh wood allows the tree to drink, she said. Any reputable tree lot or farm should cut this off for you before you take the tree home.
While you (or the retailer’s associate) have a saw in hand, take a couple of seconds to measure about six to eight inches up the trunk and remove any branches that are in the way. Why? This will allow it to fit into a stand more easily, as well as to place gifts underneath.
» Related: How to Save on Holiday Decorations
Step 4: Optimizing Your Christmas Tree’s Placement
Once you’ve taken a bit off the trunk and tidied up the bottom branches, it’s time to bring your tree inside. During this process, you’ll want a long-sleeved shirt and a good pair of leather gloves, because the tree’s needles can be quite sharp.
Speaking of which, if you wrap your tree in an old sheet prior to carrying it in, it can drastically reduce the number of needles you’ll have to pick up afterward. In many instances, the tree farm or lot you purchased from will wrap the tree in netting (or a sheet of plastic) to help minimize the mess and water loss until it’s set up in your home.
Once your tree is inside, immediately place it in its stand, and fill it with at least one gallon of warm water (this temperature can be better absorbed by your tree).
According to the Arbor Day Foundation’s Mark Derowitsch, “a rough rule of thumb is that a typical tree might absorb a quart of water for each inch of its diameter. This means many stands need to be topped off daily.”
Speaking of which, Purdue University recommends that you avoid setting up your tree near “direct sources of heat such as warm-air floor vents, operating wood stoves, fireplaces, hot lights, etc.,” which can quickly dehydrate your investment.
Step 5: Preserving Your Christmas Tree for as Long as Possible
In this same line of thinking, the bottom line is that the key to keeping your tree fresh for as long as possible is maintaining hydration.
As such, Purdue notes that you can often extend its lifespan by lowering the temperature in the room and even placing it next to a humidifier, which can help maintain needle freshness and reduce potential fire risk.
Keep in mind, though, that your tree will be especially thirsty the first few days, and it isn’t unusual for it to drink as much as a gallon of water during this time. So, be sure to frequently monitor water levels after you first bring it home.
“The best way to care for a real tree once you’ve purchased it is to water it every day with a gallon of water,” the ACTA’s Warner said. “It’s extremely important to water it every day.”
As for lights, remember that they produce heat and that can contribute to drying out your tree, reducing its lifespan.
“Lights are okay for trees, but do yours a favor and use only [those] that produce low heat, such as miniature [ones]. The lower the heat, the less the drying effect on the tree and the longer the needles will stay on,” TODAY contributor Karen Gibbs wrote in an article about prolonging tree life.
Now, most of us have received (or bought) preservation products along with our Christmas trees, but do they actually help extend its life? In a nutshell, there are mixed reports as to their usefulness.
Interviewed in the Popular Mechanics article cited earlier, Tchukki Andersen, a staff arborist for the Tree Care Industry Association, points out that, “many people have found success in their tree longevity by mixing a tablespoon of corn syrup or sugar in the basin water as a food source for the tree.”
However, she adds that “the jury is still out on this procedure, with some experts arguing that adding such substances doesn’t do anything.” Adding his two cents, Derowitsch from the Arbor Day Foundation said that using additives is “totally unnecessary.”
Along these same lines, LiveScience adds that, while a recent study at the University of Wisconsin-Stevens Point confirmed that watering trees will help keep them fresh and reduce needle loss, “the study’s author, tree scientist Les Werner, says additives such as sugar, aspirin or even vodka don’t help. Clean water still works the best, he advised.”
And not to put too fine a point on it, USA Today interviewed forestry expert Steve Nix, who recommended using tap water.
“Your best bet is just plain tap water ... It doesn’t have to be distilled water or mineral water or anything like that," he said. “So, the next time someone tells you to add ketchup or something more bizarre to your Christmas tree stand, don’t believe it.”
While it’s easy to become overwhelmed with all the information available online, the reality is that—according to industry professionals—maximizing your investment and keeping your Christmas tree looking and smelling ideal for as long as possible is as simple as following the five steps outlined above.
For more holiday tips and guides, head over to our 2018 Holiday Shopping Guide.