Chris Schulz Published

WVU Extension Tips For Keeping Your Christmas Tree Healthy And Safe

A night image shows a tall evergreen tree wreathed in lights standing in front of the U.S. Capitol, just to the right of the dome. People can be seen gathered at the base of the tree
The U.S. Capitol Christmas Tree, a tree from the Monongahela National Forest, stands on Capitol Hill in Washington during the holiday season.
Courtesy of WVU Today

The selection of this year’s U.S. Capitol Christmas Tree from the Monongahela National Forest is drawing attention to the classic holiday decoration. 

Reporter Chris Schulz spoke with Dave McGill, a WVU Extension forest resources specialist, about how best to give trees at home the same level of care as the U.S. Capitol Christmas Tree.

This interview has been lightly edited for clarity. 

Schulz: What is the first thing that they should do as they’re bringing that tree into the house to ensure that it is healthy for the longest amount of time?

McGill: Whether they purchase a tree out of a big box store, off of a lot, or go out to the Christmas tree choose-and-cut farm, once they get it home, the most important thing is to get that in water. Before you get it in water, you want to make sure you take another new slice off that trunk, the base of the trunk to kind of open the little tubes that conduct the water up the stem of the tree. Make sure those are open and flowing and then get it in the water as soon as you make that cut.

Schulz: A lot of families have had the tree stand that they’re using this year for many, many years. What are some things to look out for as far as ensuring that you’re putting that tree into a stable position?

McGill: That is something that you take some time with. I’ve had my stand for many years, it’s a cast iron LL Bean and, not promoting any kind of brand, but it’s it’s one of these you crank the screws into and it really really grabs on and it’s a long lasting one I’ve had it for a couple of decades now. Every stand is different, but it is something that you will know if it is stable. Usually once you get it fixed kind of straight up right and you kind of either screw it in or fix it in one way or another, you kind of shake it a little bit you can feel whether it’s loose or not. 

There’s also opportunities out in some Christmas tree farms to get a hole drilled in from below the tree as it stands straight and a particular type of stand that there’s a little peg that you stand it up on and I know a number of the choose and cut farms have those available.

Schulz: What are the water needs of a tree?

McGill: Once you bring the tree in and water it, maybe even for the first four to five days, you’ll probably want to water it maybe even twice a day. You want to check closely because it really draws up water initially. While we say you have to water it once a day, you want to pay close attention right when you get that into the stand.

I’ll water it in the morning and check in the afternoon, and usually it’s ready for some more water. So for about four or five days, you want to water it, at least pay closer attention to it in that early part of the season.

Schulz: If you under water or don’t water a tree, you run the risk of the needles falling off of it becoming dry and perhaps a little unappealing to the eye. But are there any other risks that you run with having a dry tree in the home?

McGill: Of course, if you have a dry tree in the house, and there’s an ignition source, it can catch on fire. But that’s why we, as part of our safety awareness, we make sure we put it in a place that’s away from any kind of heating, or even air conditioning that can dry out a tree. Any kind of thing that blows over the surface of the needles will tend to dry it out. 

When you go out to a tree farm, for example, or even at the lot, one of the things you kind of want to look for is the freshness of the tree. There’s even some preparatory observations you can make as you’re out on the farm. Generally, the trees that are standing, growing are the healthiest, the freshest, the most vigorous. Then, as you get farther and farther from the time it has been cut, it tends to become drier, obviously. When you’re choosing, especially from a lot or a big box store, you want to check the needles. You want to take the end of a little branch in your hand and kind of tug on it a little bit, as if you were trying to pull the needles off. If you use enough force, you can pull needles off, but you just kind of want to gently tug and see if they’re dry. 

Now, when you’re at the farm, sometimes it’s very natural to have dead needles in a tree. It’s just part of how a tree grows. We think evergreens, the needles are gonna stay there forever, but they don’t. Typically, especially like the spruce and the firs will retain their needles for two to three years. Then the older ones will die off and the newer ones will have kind of bushed out the tree more. It’s real obvious in white pine. Every year, the white pines turn yellow, and everyone thinks “Oh my gosh, they’re sickly and there’s something’s wrong, we have to fertilize them.” But that’s just the two-year-old needles upsizing, they’re falling off the tree, and it can create quite a mess below the tree, but it’s actually a beautiful golden color as some of these needles really carpet the ground beneath these white pines.

Schulz: How long can someone reasonably expect a tree to survive in their home?

McGill: Well, the reality is, as long as you want to keep it there, if there’s no ignition source, it will continue to dry out. It’s not living, really, any it’s not going to be growing and the needles are not gonna be getting any healthier. As long as it looks nice and you’re enjoying it you could leave it in your house, but just know that when you’re ready to take it out, you’re probably going to get some debris falling off of it. I know I do every year. 

Schulz: What about the safety of decorations? I know we’ve come a long way since the original tradition of hanging lit candles on the ends of tree limbs. But what should people look out for in their lights, for example, to make sure that that doesn’t become an ignition source? 

McGill: Properly plugged in plugs, make sure they’re secure. Most lights these days are not big heat generating lights. They just don’t get real hot. If your lights get real hot you want to look for some that don’t get hot and just replace those. But for the most part they are fairly low heat lights and are not generally a problem. I have not looked it up honestly, what most ignition sources are with Christmas tree fires, but lights probably are an ignition source, but probably a rare event.

Schulz: I’m sure that’s changed in even the last two generations, because you used to hear a lot more about tree fires.

McGill: Oh my gosh, yeah. Well, when I was a kid, the lights we put on those things, you would go up and “Oh, man, that’s really hot.” So, I’m sure that we’ve done better and better with our Christmas tree fire statistics.

Schulz: I don’t know if this is happening in West Virginia, but in other locations, people can buy trees with the root ball still attached. Do you have any experience with that in the home?

McGill: I don’t have any experience with that. Although I have to admit that this year, I’m going to right after we talk here in fact, I’m going to get a little northern white cedar or Arborvitae. It’s living in a pot, you can plant it out afterwards. It’s small scale for my house, and so it’s a little kind of a festive decoration. It’s not as big as some of the grown trees that take lots of our family ornaments. Which is why you want to get the nice trees up if you have a collection of ornaments, which it’s always nice to get your ornaments on and think of the people that you bought them with or for or whatever.

Schulz: What is your suggestion that people do with their trees? 

McGill: What I usually do is leave it out to be taken to the landfill. That’s the easy way. These guys who collect our landfill waste are great, because they take a lot of grief from us. 

But you can also leave it in the backyards. It’s one thing I’ve done in the past because we’ve had bird feeders that the birds come in and kind of allow some protective habitat for them to land and check things out, “Is it safe to go to the birdfeeder yet or not?” And there’s a little bit of cover for them in the backyard.

Schulz: Is there anything else about bringing a tree into your home that I haven’t given you an opportunity to discuss with us today?

McGill: Just in terms of selecting the tree there’s all sorts of different types and they all have different kinds of leaf retention expectations. Some trees are expected to drop their needles quicker than others. Generally the firs are ones that really hang on like Canaan fir, Frasier fir you’ve heard those names, those hang on to their needles longer. The spruces, they kind of dry out a little bit. They’re the prickly ones that if you roll a little needle in your finger, you can feel that it has four sides on it. The pines are kind of intermediate. So the most common ones, I think, are the firs and the spruces for Christmas trees around here. 

But I encourage people to go out and to go to a farm. It’s a great experience, it’s healthy, it’s restorative. I had a colleague at WVU recently do a research study on shopping for trees: artificial trees, big box stores and trees out on forest on Christmas tree farms. And found that it’s very, very much more restorative in many ways to be out on the farm and smelling the fresh air and feeling you can cut your own tree down and have that whole experience. So I encourage people to try and go out and find their local live Christmas tree, choose and cut farm and have a great time, a great holiday season.