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Make your pick: Eeny, meeny, miny - tree!

Whether your Christmas tree comes from the forest or the factory, weigh its pros and cons before you bring it home.

By Yvonne Swanson, Special to the Times
Published December 8, 2007


It has been nearly 500 years since the world's first Christmas tree was erected in the marketplace of Riga, Latvia. Local merchants decorated it with paper roses, danced around it and then, after a few days, set fire to it in a festive celebration.

Five centuries later, we're still putting up Christmas trees and decorating them, but the tradition has become a lot more complicated, with endless choices of decorations, lights, tree stands and the like, plus concerns over environmental and health issues.

Then there are the trees themselves: big ones, little ones, fresh ones, artificial ones. Fraser fir, Virginia pine, blue spruce. Artificial trees in every color of the rainbow. Prelit trees. Showy ones that spin around on rotating stands. Trees that play music. Upside-down trees.

Americans buy approximately 30-million fresh Christmas trees every holiday season. The top sellers are balsam fir, douglas fir, fraser fir, noble fir, Scotch pine, Virginia pine and white pine, according to the National Christmas Tree Association, which represents the nation's tree growers.

Artificial trees have been around for more than 100 years. The first one was sold by Sears, Roebuck & Co. for 50 cents. Today's fakes retail from less than $100 to thousands of dollars. Americans purchased more than 9-million over the past five years, and the vast majority is manufactured from metals and plastics in China.

There are pros and cons to both kinds of trees. The Christmas tree industry is embroiled in a debate over the ecological and health effects of real vs. fake, an issue that has been fueled by the recent incidents of unsafe products made in China.

On the pro side, selecting a fresh tree at the neighborhood stand or cutting your own at a tree farm can be an enjoyable holiday tradition. A live tree can fill your home with the evergreen aroma associated with the season. Real trees, grown as an agricultural crop, are a renewable, recyclable resource. If you buy a potted one, you can plant it in the yard.

But a fresh cut tree requires frequent watering, or it can become a major fire hazard. It drops needles. Live trees can be covered with mold spores that can trigger allergies. When the holidays are over, you have to drag it out of the house and dispose of it. You have to buy one every year.

Artificial trees create less mess and can be stored in the garage or closet and used for many years. Some are prelit, so there's no messing with tangled lights.

Critics of artificial trees contend they are made of non-biodegradable plastics and possibly metal toxins such as lead, although no definitive studies establish lead levels. Only one state, California, requires a warning label on artificial trees, as well as on holiday lights, made of PVC (polyvinyl chloride) plastic, which may contain lead.

The U.S. Consumer Product Safety Commission, however, considers artificial trees safe as far as lead is concerned, as long as users wash their hands after contact and don't let the kids chew on them.

"The issue is exposure. Your child has to be exposed to something for a period of time to get lead poisoning," says spokeswoman Patty Davis. "The question is, Is your child going to be touching the Christmas tree and literally mouthing the tree? There has to be repeated hand-to-mouth contact."

Regardless of which kind of tree you choose, basic safety guidelines apply. Both real and fake trees can be fire hazards, although artificial trees should be fire-resistant. Dried-out Christmas trees are involved in about 200 fires annually, resulting in 10 deaths and about $10-million in property damage, according to the CPSC. Typically shorts in electrical lights or open flames from candles, lighters or matches start tree fires. Once a tree is ablaze, the flames can spread to the entire room within just 40 seconds, the National Institute of Standards and Technology says.

Experts at the National Safety Council recommend placing your tree away from the fireplace, radiator or other heat sources, and inspecting lights for broken sockets, loose connections or damaged wires. Lights should be UL-approved. Don't use more than three light strands plugged together so you don't overload them, and turn off lights when you go to bed or leave the house.

If you have a decorative metallic tree (like those aluminum trees that were popular in the 1950s), don't use lights on it. The tree can become charged with electricity from faulty lights, and a person touching a branch could be electrocuted.

Decorated trees can also pose health risks for children and pets. Don't hang edible decorations, such as popcorn chains and candy canes, if you have small children; they may try to eat them, along with glass balls and tinsel. Keep breakable ornaments on higher branches where young children and pets can't reach them.

And unlike the world's first Christmas tree, which went up in flames, it's never a good idea to purposely set your tree on fire, no matter how lively the celebration. The creosote in the tree can coat your chimney and create a fire hazard.

Yvonne Swanson is a freelance writer in St. Petersburg and a master gardener for Pinellas County.

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If you're buying a fresh tree

1. A fresh tree should be green. If its trunk is sticky with sap or the bottom is sticky, that's even better. Pine and spruce needles should bend (not break). It should be difficult to pull off the branches. Fir needles should snap when bent. Tap the tree on the ground to see if a lot of needles fall off.

2. You can find a tree farm by contacting the Florida Christmas Tree Association at (352) 357-9863 or visiting www.flchristmastrees.com. Florida-grown trees include Virginia pine, sand pine, leyland cypress and Arizona cypress.

3. Cut off about 2 inches of the trunk and put the tree in a sturdy stand that holds water. Keep the stand filled so the tree does not dry out quickly. (If it's difficult to reach the stand to add water, drop in ice cubes.)

4. If you have mold allergies, keep a live tree indoors for only four to seven days. Running an air cleaner in the same room as the tree may help reduce mold exposure.

5. Consider different kinds of trees at the lot to determine which meets your needs. The Colorado blue spruce has very sharp needles that little children may find unfriendly. The noble fir has stiff branches that will accommodate heavy ornaments. Some trees are bright green, some blue-green, some gray-green. Leyland cypress has virtually no aroma; balsam fir is highly aromatic.

* To learn more about the various tree types, visit www.christmastree.org and click on "tree types," then on "common characteristics."

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If you're buying an artificial tree

1. If you use an artificial tree, choose one that's tested and labeled as fire-resistant. It doesn't mean the tree won't catch on fire, but it should be more resistant to burning.

2. Artificial trees with built-in electrical systems should have the Underwriters Laboratory (UL) label. Lights should have "anti-twist" bulbs that don't all turn off when one burns out.

3. You can buy an artificial tree from a catalog or Internet source, but be cautious. It'sdifficult to assess the quality without seeing the tree in person. Check the description for its number of tree "tips," or branch tips. The more it has, the better the quality and the less chance you'll see the center pole. Tips with color andtexture variations are more realistic than single-color tips.

4. Avoid plastic or cheap metal stands. Metal legs with rubber feet prevent scratching your floor.

5. Hooked vs. hinged: A hooked tree is cheaper, but it requires time-consuming, branch-by-branch assembly onto the pole. Hinged branches fold down like an umbrella and are permanently affixed to the pole.

6. Check the product label to see if the tree is made from PVC plastic and if it maycontain lead. Wash your hands after touching the tree.

7. Store the tree in a location with low humidity and temperatures below 90 degrees to prevent discoloring. (In Florida that means an indoor closet.)