By PAUL HETZLER
Of all the memorable aromas of the holiday season, nothing evokes its spirit like the perfume of fresh-cut evergreen. Even if it turns out that using a polyvinyl chloride Christmas tree is more eco-friendly than using a real one, no chemistry lab will ever quite match the fragrance of fresh pine, fir or spruce in the living room.
The origins of the Christmas tree are unclear, but the Encyclopedia Britannica states that the ancient Egyptians, Chinese, and Hebrews used evergreen trees to symbolize eternal life, and that tree worship, common among pagan Europeans, survived their conversion to Christianity. In Eastern Europe in the 15th century, decorated Christmas trees were erected in guild halls.
In Germany in the 16th century, Martin Luther apparently helped kindle, so to speak, the custom of the indoor Christmas tree by bringing an evergreen tree into his house and decorating it with candles.
Traditionally, Christmas trees were brought into the house on December 24th, and not removed until after January 5th.
In terms of New York State favorites, Douglas, balsam, and Fraser fir are very popular, being the most aromatic group of evergreens. When kept in water, they all have excellent needle retention. Scotch and white pine also have excellent needle retention.
While the native white pine is more fragrant, Scotch pine far outsells it, possibly because the sturdy Scotch can bear quite a load of decorations without its branches drooping down. The spruces have strong branches, but don’t hold their needles very well, especially Norway spruce. They tend to naturally have a good Christmas tree shape, though none of them is particularly scented; in fact some people think white spruce smells bad.
If you have any plans to buy or dig a rooted Christmas tree this year and want to plant it outdoors later, dig the planting hole now before the ground freezes too deeply.
After piling the soil on a tarp, cover both hole and soil pile with a layer of leaves, and then cover all that with another tarp, anchored down. This will ensure you can plant the tree as soon as it has served its holiday purpose, thus helping assure its ultimate survival as a landscape specimen.
To assure the most fragrance and the least mess (not to mention fire hazard), remember to cut an inch or two off the butt end before placing the tree in water, and keep the stand reservoir tanked up every few days. Although there are various additives designed to increase needle retention, testing by the U.S. Forest Service has proven them ineffective -- the chemicals, that is, not the Forest Service; that’s a matter of opinion.
Locate the tree away from heat sources, including electronics, and turn off the tree lights when you leave the room, even if only for a few minutes.
Whatever your holiday traditions, may your family, friends, and evergreens all be sweet-scented and bring you much cheer.
Paul Hetzler is a forester and a horticulture and natural resources educator for Cornell Cooperative Extension of St. Lawrence County