Texas Forest Service

12/01/2020 | Press release | Distributed by Public on 12/02/2020 08:16

Christmas Trees - Real vs Fake

Christmas Trees
- Real vs Fake -

Christmas Trees have been embedded in western holiday culture for hundreds of years, but it was only within the past several decades that artificial Christmas trees entered into the fold. Technological advancements in the plastics industry led the Addis Brush Company, a toilet bowl brush manufacturer, to use the same plastic fibers from their brushes as the needles for a Christmas tree. The artificial Christmas tree industry has been expanding ever since thanks to its convenience and affordability. As we head into a fresh holiday season, Texas A&M Forest Service is weighing in on the pros and cons of each option.

According to Marsha Gray of the Christmas Tree Promotion Board, an average of 20-25 million Christmas trees are sold in the United States every year-roughly one tree for every five households-and the real Christmas tree industry employs around 100,000 people1. 'Christmas trees are grown in all 50 states,' says Gray, 'but the top producing regions are centered around Oregon, North Carolina, and Michigan.' Trees from those areas are the ones you're likely to find at retail lots, garden centers, and your standard home improvement store. Nevertheless, many Americans prefer going to local Christmas tree farms, picking out their favorite tree, and then carrying it back to their homes. And thanks to the hardiness of Christmas trees, Americans are able to do that almost everywhere.

Artificial Christmas trees, meanwhile, are almost entirely imported (85% of them are made in China, according to the U.S. Department of Commerce2). They are made of metals and plastics-typically PVC, which, according to the National Christmas Tree Association, 'can be a potential source of hazardous lead'-and they are almost impossible to recycle. 'If you wanted to recycle an artificial tree,' says Gray, 'you would have to pull each individual needle off of the entire tree.' Otherwise, you would have to throw it away, where it would remain in a landfill indefinitely.

Real trees are entirely biodegradable (thousands of organizations will actually take the tree off your hands to convert it into mulch or composted soil), and while it might seem counterintuitive that cutting down a live tree would be beneficial, sustainably managed forests actually have immense environmental benefits. For one, Christmas tree farms can store almost as much carbon as unmanaged forests - especially since the average Christmas tree is grown for 8-10 years before it is cut down. Over 350 million trees are currently growing on Christmas tree farms alone, with only a fraction of that number being harvested each year. So, beyond converting CO2 into breathable oxygen, well maintained forests also filter water; reduce runoff and the chance of flooding; and provide homes, food, and protection for wildlife. They cool the average temperatures around them by almost 10 degrees Fahrenheit3, reduce erosion and pollution, and they also produce food for animals and the wood that we use to build homes and businesses (more on the Environmental Benefits).

Christmas trees do all of these things and more because they are hardier than most trees, and they can grow where other trees might not have grown. Take the Virginia pine, for instance-the Christmas tree of choice for Fred Raley, Tree Improvement Coordinator for Texas A&M Forest Service. 'Virginia pine is native to more rocky or sandier soils,' explains Raley. 'It's very hardy, and it grows very quickly.' Virginia pine trees were selected by the Texas Christmas Tree Growers Association for their survivability, growth, and form, and they are favored for their ability to grow across the state. 'We've tested on a little bit of all soil types,' says Raley.

This is crucial in Texas since 90% of all forested land is privately owned. In order for that land to remain forested (or, in some cases, to become forested), landowners need an incentive to maintain it. The Virginia pine provides that incentive. For one, they can grow to a standard Christmas tree size in half the time-just 3-to-5 years-and, according to Raley, they don't need much care. 'For long term survivability, they like to be left alone. They don't like it wet. They don't even require a bunch in terms of nutrients,' says Raley. 'In their native range, they grow in very poor soils, and that's one of the thoughts behind bringing this species to Texas.'

Texas A&M Forest Service is leading the way in Virginia pine improvement and development. Thanks to a recent grant from the Christmas Tree Promotion Board, they're currently working to make the Virginia pine even more adaptable, beautiful, and enticing to land owners across the state. But that doesn't always offset the mentality of consumers, who are often drawn to artificial trees for the very fact that they aren't real trees (e.g. allergies to foliage), and for their price and reusability.

Evaluating the cost of real trees vs artificial trees, however, is more complicated. The average Christmas tree in 2019 cost $78. While that is starkly less than your standard fake tree (which can cost anywhere from $200 - $2,000), artificial trees don't have an annual price tag. Their average 'usable' lifespan is just 6 years4, though most Americans expect to keep them for up to 10. If you did manage to keep an artificial tree for 10 years, the equivalent cost of real trees for that same period of time would likely amount to the cost of a higher-end artificial tree. When you factor in the net loss of a lump-sum payment, and the benefits of spreading out the costs of real trees, the more cost-effective choice is difficult to calculate: especially when you consider that some artificial trees go for as low as $160, and some bargain shoppers get fully grown real trees for just $30.

Ultimately, though, you can't put a price tag on the personal and environmental benefits of having a real Christmas tree in your home. From improving mental health, productivity, and happiness, to boosting your immune system and lowering anxiety, research has proven time and again that living plants and trees are invaluable5. 'There's something special about having a live tree in your home,' says Fred Raley. 'Especially now, during the pandemic-when families are spending lots of time together and are looking for ways to enjoy that time together-I think going out and finding a live tree is something that really has a lot of value.'

Raley has brought home a live tree with his family every Christmas for 25 years, and his children have carried that tradition on to their families. 'It's a very unique and very special experience, during a special time of the year.' Ultimately, though, the choice is yours: save money year-to-year by buying a real Christmas tree, and enjoy endless environmental and health benefits, or invest in an artificial tree, and save money down the line by trying to make it last as long as possible. In the end, having a tree central to your celebration-whether real or symbolic-is our favorite way to enjoy the holiday.

Visit www.healthytreeshealthylives.com to learn more about how trees can boost your health, and check out the Texas Christmas Tree Growers Association to find a Christmas tree farm near you.


Fred Raley, Tree Improvement Coordinator, Forest Science Laboratory, [email protected], (979) 862-8751
Marsha Grey, Christmas Tree Promotion Board, https://itschristmaskeepitreal.com/, [email protected], 517-242-1630
Stephen O'Shea, Communications Specialist, Texas A&M Forest Service, [email protected], (979) 458-6649