Choosing and Caring for Holiday Trees

A close up of a conifer's needles and branches
Selecting a great tree is easy with tips from The Morton Arboretum.
November 29, 2017

Many families will pick out fresh Christmas trees soon. Choose carefully for a tree that will stay beautiful and safe through the holidays, says Sharon Yiesla, plant knowledge specialist in the Plant Clinic at The Morton Arboretum.

It’s not just a matter of which kind and size of tree to buy. You’ll want a tree that is fresh, with plenty of moisture in its wood and needles. Once you get it home, give it a steady supply of water until you take it down.

A dried-out tree that quickly drops needles is dangerous. It’s also disappointing and messy.

“Trees begin to dry out as soon as they are cut, and a dried-out tree can be a fire hazard,” Yiesla says.

The more quickly a Christmas tree moves from the tree farm into a water supply, the fresher and safer it will be.

“Trees at a lot were probably cut several days or weeks ago, and bargain trees are likely to be older,” she says.

The freshest option is to cut your own tree and set it up the same day, but if you can’t do that, be a careful shopper.

Examine a tree carefully for freshness. When you run your hand along a branch, the needles should not pull off. They should feel soft, not brittle, and should bend, not break. If you lift the tree and tap its base against the ground, it should not lose many needles. Check the cut end of the trunk: Sticky sap indicates it was recently cut.

Once you’ve chosen your tree, take these steps to keep it moist and fresh:

Choose a tree that fits your tree stand. If it’s too wide, you may be tempted shave down the trunk to make it fit. Big mistake: You will cut the vessels beneath the bark that carry water throughout the tree. The tree will quickly become dangerously dry.

To avoid this problem, “bring the stand when you shop so you can be sure to buy a tree that fits,” Yiesla says.

It’s OK to cut off some branches at the base of trunk, but preserve as much of the bark as possible.

Make a clean cut. Have the tree lot saw an inch off the bottom of the trunk, or do it yourself when you get the tree home. The fresh cut will remove dried sap that plugs water vessels in the trunk.

To keep those water vessels open, immediately place the tree’s base in a bucket of water while you set up the tree stand.

“If you leave that cut surface exposed for more than 20 minutes or so, the sap will just seal it up again,” Yiesla says.

Keep the tree in water. As soon as you set it up, fill the stand’s reservoir. Check the water level often all through the holiday season to make sure water always covers the cut bottom of the trunk.

“Don't let that sap reseal it,” Yiesla says.

It’s especially critical to watch the water level for the first couple of days, because the tree is likely to absorb a lot of water quickly as it adjusts to the warm conditions of your home.

"It's common for a newly erected tree to absorb a gallon in just a few hours," she says.


What Kind of Holiday Tree is Best? 

What’s the best species for a Christmas tree? It’s largely a matter of taste, according Yiesla.

Some people love long, soft pine needles, while others prefer a short-needled fir with many branches for ornaments.

In general, firs and pines have the strongest fragrance. Spruces drop needles quickly, while pine needles tend to last longest.

Short-needled species include balsam fir, Fraser fir, and white fir, whose widely spaced branches can show off ornaments. Among long-needled pines, Scots pine usually keeps its needles longest.

Eastern white pine is lovely, but it tends to have floppy branches that can’t support much weight,” Yiesla said.