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Fresh vs. fake: Choosing the right Christmas tree

Piney-sweet smell, or perfect branches every year? See how the West is changing the way we make that decision


Tom Norby, owner, Trout Creek Tree Farm, Corbett, OR

  • What he grows: 80 acres of Noble fir, “the Cadillac of Christmas trees,” says Norby. Nobles grow like weeds in Oregon’s rich soil, temperate climate, and generous rainfall—from 12-inch sapling to 7-foot beauty in 6 to 8 years.
  • Why: Too often, people buy artificial trees thinking they’re saving a forest, says Norby. “Most people don’t realize that Christmas trees don’t come from pristine forest—we grow them as a sustainable crop.”
  • How he spends Black Friday: Before dawn, Norby oils the chain saws and readies for sunup harvest with his 12-man crew. They hand-haul each tree to the bailing station. (The trees can’t be dragged, or mud will sully the needles.) His entire harvest happens in a three-week frenzy. “He loses about 15 pounds every November from the work and sweat,” says Norby’s wife, Terri Barnes.
  • His customers: Real-tree buyers in California, Oregon, and Utah who favor green practices. Among other things, Norby uses ladybugs instead of pesticides to control aphids, and runs his trucks on biodiesel.
  • The future of real trees: Oregon harvests about 7 million Christmas trees per year, more than double the nation’s number-two producer (North Carolina). While the Oregon tree market has been robust, those of Washington (about 785,000 trees), California (about 119,000 trees), and other states have flagged. Estimates from real-tree and fake-tree associations indicate that, today, one artificial tree is purchased for every 2.4 real trees—but presumably every fake tree sold takes a potential real-tree buyer out of the market for a number of years.


  • Price tag: A 7-foot tree ranges from $25 to $150.
  • Longevity: A cut Christmas tree stays fresh for 2 to 3 weeks. After that, it can become so dry that it turns into a fire hazard.
  • Convenience: Freshly cut trees can be found in seasonal tree lots and big-box stores. Some families prefer the ritual of going to a tree farm to select and cut a tree on the spot. Some tree sellers will wrap the tree in netting for you to protect it in transit; if they don’t, bundle it in an old sheet and tie securely, trunk end forward, to the top of your car with a sturdy rope.
  • Care and feeding: A trunk seals itself within a few hours of cutting, so before you bring your tree inside, use a hacksaw to cut 2 inches off the base. Trees drink a lot. Check the water level and replenish as needed every day. Avoid placing the tree next to a heater vent or fireplace where it can easily dry out.
  • Eco factor: Real trees sequester carbon dioxide and produce oxygen. After they’re cut, about 93 percent of Christmas trees are recycled, becoming wood chips for use in parks, or sunk whole in waterways for fish habitats (earth911.com for programs). Even more sustainable: a living, potted Christmas tree. A few companies in the West, such as Living Christmas in Southern California, rent potted trees for the season (7 to 8 ft., $195; livingchristmas.com).
  • BOTTOM LINE: Go with the real deal if the ritual and environment are your top priorities.


Many people go with a Noble fir, considered the premier Christmas tree for its full look and strong branches to hold larger ornaments. Compared to other Western species, it also keeps its needles longest.

  • Tips of branches should be green, not brown.
  • Be sure to pick a tree that’s lush, fragrant, and full of color.
  • To gauge freshness, pick a few needles and bend in half. Fresh fir needles should snap cleanly. For pines, it’s the opposite: Fresh needles should bend without snapping.




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