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The complicated story of the real, red Christmas trees

The White House released video Nov. 26 showing first lady Melania Trump walking amid trees adorned with lights and “be best” ornaments. (Video: The White House)

BERLIN — When Melania Trump’s White House Christmas wonderland was revealed this week, visitors couldn’t escape a certain feeling that one color was being displayed more prominently than others: red. There were red ornaments and red drawings. And there were red Christmas trees, comprising thousands of berries.

The first lady was not around to explain the motif, but her office had a ready explanation: “The choice of red is an extension of the pales, or stripes found in the presidential seal designed by our Founding Fathers. It is a symbol of valor and bravery.”

Abroad, however, it’s also the color of sick Christmas trees.

Ukraine renamed the area around the Chernobyl reactor disaster site “Red Forest” after lethal radioactivity turned the green pine trees there red-brownish in 1986. Footage from that forest still serves as a reminder of deadly nuclear risks, especially at a time when threatening nuclear strikes has become more common again.

First lady Melania Trump fought back Nov. 28 against social media criticism of her red White House Christmas trees. (Video: Reuters)

More recently, the color red has also been disastrous for pine trees in Denmark, which are usually sold across Europe. The country is renowned for its magnificent dark-green trees that are exported far beyond its borders, but red needles are posing a growing threat to the lucrative business. Nine million trees are sold every year.

Melania Trump didn’t show up to explain her spooky Christmas decorations. So what about those red trees?

In some years since 2012, Denmark’s vendors have had to dispose of as much as 10 percent of all Christmas trees that were supposed to go on sale after their needles lost their green shine. Selling trees with red needles, vendors argued in interviews with Nordic media outlets, would have damaged the industry’s excellent reputation.

Christmas tree producers remain stymied by what is causing the strange phenomenon.

“Red needles occur every year, but in certain years it is particularly bad,” the Danish Christmas Tree Growers Association concluded, specifying that the problem has already caused damage of up to $8 million.

“It’s a mystery why the trees get red needles. It’s as if the trees get a stress reaction,” Torben Ravn, a board member of the Christmas Tree Association, told the Danish Broadcasting Corp. two years ago. A research project has been tasked with investigating the source of the problem.

One possible explanation is that diseases might be weakening the trees' ability to take in sufficient calcium to grow properly. In neighboring Germany, where vendors have faced a similar issue, researchers also observed that pine trees can “sunburn,” provided that springs are unusually cold and summers disproportionately hot. Climate change will make those extreme temperatures occur far more frequently.

Unless a solution is found, Europe might have to embrace Christmastime red more than it has done in the past.

The White House — where President Trump dismissed a dire climate change report by his own administration this week, saying, “I don’t believe it” — may have some advice on how to do it.

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