Thursday, November 29, 2007


A tree is a cherished hallmark of Christmas, but what's the greener choice: fake, real or a living tree with a root ball? Like so many environmental decisions, it's a trade-off.

With artificial trees, no living tree is destroyed for the sake of a few twinkling weeks, and the tree can be used year after year without replacement. Yet according to the National Christmas Tree Association, 85 percent of artificial trees are made in China of plastics and metals that are not biodegradable. They also have to be shipped long distances.

Keith Ware is a co-owner of Washington's Eco-Green Living store, which sells such products as reusable grocery bags and recycled rubber-tire floors. He says he has had the same fake tree for six years. "I didn't like paying a lot of money for a real tree and then having to throw it away," says Ware. He says he would replace it if he found an artificial tree made of entirely recycled materials.

Even at eco-friendly Web sites such as, a green-focused media outlet, there isn't a single unassailable answer to which tree choice is greenest, except perhaps having no tree at all -- hardly acceptable to the public at large. TreeHugger's 2007 Holiday Gift Guide says the latest research shows that pesticides are found on some real trees, and the country is lacking a supply of truly organic Christmas trees.

Ecologically enlightened experts suggest shopping only at local tree farms, where no fuel was used trucking the tree across the country. Ask if pesticides or other chemicals were used at the nursery.

Real trees, wreaths and garlands are biodegradable and can be chipped into mulch, compost or wood chips after the holidays. Some used Christmas trees have been repurposed to build fences to combat erosion at coastal wetlands, to create nesting structures for great blue herons and to provide cover for animals at wildlife rehabilitation sites. The 84-foot Norway spruce at New York's Rockefeller Center this year will be cut into lumber to be used at Habitat for Humanity building sites.

Living trees, sold with the root ball attached and meant to be planted after the holidays, are often trumpeted as being the truly green solution. But usually, many of the tree's roots are cut off when it is removed from the ground, making its long-term survival dubious. If you go with this alternative, make sure to choose a variety that will thrive in your climate and won't grow too large. They must be well watered and ideally should not be kept inside the house for more than a week.

There is a new concept in living trees: container Christmas trees. Louis Nichols of Loudoun Nursery in Purcellville sells container trees grown in a synthetic fabric that releases heat and helps build the root structure of the tree (

The seedlings he plants will take about 10 years to mature into six- or seven-foot trees. The majority of the roots are contained inside the fabric, with only a few reaching out and drawing nutrients directly from the soil.

"You tear off only a few roots when one is sold and taken off the lot," Nichols says. The tree can be wrapped in a trash bag indoors or kept in a large planter. Then, after Christmas, plant it in the yard or donate it to a nearby park.

Jura Koncius

© 2007 The Washington Post Company