on Wolford is the dean of Douglas firs. If you've got a question about Christmas trees, take it to Wolford and he'll likely have the answer.

What's the best additive for making a tree last through the holidays?

None, says the pine-needle savant. Forget the aspirin, Jack Daniel's and packaged additives. Nothing works better than plain old H20.

Which trees are least likely to shed their needles on the living room rug?

That's an easy one. Scotch pines, balsam firs, Douglas firs, Fraser firs, noble firs and white pines tend to suffer less needle loss than their tree-stand companions.

Wolford, an extension educator in horticulture at the University of Illinois, never set out to become the answer man of the Tannenbaum set. It happened only by chance, as he was trusted in years past to update the university's Web page listings of greater-Chicago area Christmas tree farms (www.urbanext.uiuc.edu/trees).

"People would call us all the time with tree questions," he says, "so I decided to make the Web site more informative. I tried to include everything a consumer might want to know."

And then some. Consider a few of the historical facts Wolford uncovered in his extensive research:

* The custom of decorating trees dates back to the ancient Romans, who adorned them with tiny metal shards during the winter festival Saturnalia.

* In the 1500s, church reformer Martin Luther supposedly decorated the first indoor tree with candles after walking through an evergreen forest on a starry night.

* Around 1851, a man named Mark Carr transported a load of trees from the Catskills to New York City and opened the first Christmas tree lot.

* Sometime in the 1980s, future "Today" show host Matt Lauer applied for a job at an upstate New York tree farm.

Okay, so the last one came from People magazine. But Wolford will probably have it on the Web site by the end of the day. That's assuming there's still room on a site loaded with sub-categories such as tree selection, tree care, tree farms, tree events, tree fun and tree recipes (not the trees themselves, just tree-shaped cookies).

"As far as information goes, only the National Christmas Tree Association's Web site comes close to being a competitor," says Wolford. "But we've got more general information than they do. We even have a link to their site."

Does Wolford feel as though he's wasted his time collecting so much Christmas-tree minutiae?

Hardly. In fact, the site records more than 300,000 hits during the holiday season.

"But the thing that amazes me," says Wolford, "is that we've gotten as many as 12,000 to 15,000 hits in July. You have to wonder why people are going to a Christmas tree site in the middle of the summer."

Wonder, yes. But Wolford can also relate to the Christmas-tree jones that many Americans suffer once the holiday season has passed.

"I once threatened to keep up an artificial tree year-round," he confesses. "My plan was to change the theme as the year progressed: Valentine's, spring, Fourth of July and so on. But my wife said no to the idea. She's not quite as enthusiastic as I am."

Wolford's wife did compromise on his wish for volume. That means five fresh trees in the house during the holidays: dining room, living room, basement and two bedrooms. He, his wife and son decorate the trees in different themes. Wolford sometimes drives the family crazy with his habit of applying tinsel one strand at a time.

"I can be a little too particular about choosing and decorating a tree," he says. "I once bought a van in about a half-hour, but I'd never be that impulsive about a tree. If my son is at the tree farm with me, he'll say, 'Will you pick one, already?' "

Not surprisingly, Wolford's fascination with the Christmas tree dates back to his childhood. With six brothers and a sister in the house, Christmas was always a big deal; and decorating the family tree was always Wolford's thing.

He's not alone, and his research once again tells the story. As the Web site notes, there are currently more than 15,000 commercial Christmas tree growers in the United States selling upward of 36 million trees a year. The demographics are vast, as proven by the assortment of Christmas-tree ornaments marketed by Hallmark. This year Barbie can share limb space with Darth Vader, Derek Jeter and E.T. Of course Santa would likely be perched above them all in his "Racin' NASCAR Sleigh."

While it's a well-known fact that the yule season leaves many feeling depressed, even year-round brooders pause from their ruminations to put up a tree. Trystan Bass, a California-based writer, editor and self-proclaimed "Gothic Martha Stewart," offers Gothic tree-trimming tips on her Web site (www.toreadors.com/martha).

Bass prefers a "rich, decadent, Victorian ambiance" that might include purple Christmas tree lights and floppy bows in burgundy, purple, silver and gold. Music-wise, she recommends Gregorian chants for a properly subdued gathering.

"The chants are religious," Bass says, "but they don't feel pushy since they're in incomprehensible Latin."

Decorations aren't the only tip-off to America's obsession. On the tree front, the choices continue to grow. At TreeClassics.com, you can order an artificial Fraser fir for the living room and a 40-foot giant sequoia fir for the front yard. If you're pinched for space, the Hammacher Schlemmer catalogue -- purveyor of the "world's best nose hair trimmer" -- offers a split-down-the-middle, "wall-hugging" tree that takes up half the space of regular artificial trees.

In an effort to rid the world of tangled light strands, scientists at Zurich's Swiss Federal Institute of Technology have even pondered the creation of a genetically modified tree that could mimic the actions of electric eels and illuminate itself in hues of red, green and blue. No confirmation yet that this tree would be called a Liberace fir.

Stepping back from such genetic marvels for a moment, there are some basic steps you should consider to guarantee enjoyment of this year's tree. For starters, Wolford suggests measuring the space in which you plan to display it.

"When you get to the lot, or tree farm, the trees might not look so big surrounded by a hundred other trees," he says. "So it's best to take a measurement and make sure you don't buy one that's too big."

If you buy a precut tree, always ask to have the bottom half-inch of the trunk cut off. This will allow the tree to soak up water better once you take it home.

Also, in regards to precut trees, you can check for freshness by gently running your hand along a limb or tapping the trunk against the ground a few times. If needles start to rain down, the tree is most likely past its prime.

For the freshest tree, Wolford says, go to a cut-your-own-tree farm. On the Web site, he guides visitors through a typical tree-cutting experience. The tips include everything from what type of clothing to wear to whether or not you should bring along the family pet (not a good idea, as old Shep could leave his "mark" on someone else's tree).

"I've been asked every type of question you can imagine about Christmas trees," Wolford says, "and a lot of them are covered on the Web site. It's enjoyable for me because I have such an interest in it, and it's great to get calls and e-mails from people all over the country saying they were able to find the perfect tree because of the Web site."

In recent years Wolford has noticed a surge in questions pertaining to cut-your-own-tree farms. He's a big fan of the hands-on experience.

"It's a great family outing," Wolford says, "because everyone can take part, from helping choose the tree to taking a turn with the saw. Nowadays, when everyone is so busy, it's a nice thing to head out to the country and spend the day together."

As he notes on the site: "To some, Christmas just isn't Christmas without a real Christmas tree." Of course there's only one downside to that. You can't keep up the real tree year-round.

"That's true," Wolford says. "The longest I've had one last was until February."

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