Selecting and Caring for Christmas Trees

— Written By and last updated by Sarah Roberson
Thanksgiving weekend is the official beginning of Christmas tree retailing. Growers have been hard at work all year to produce the best trees for our homes. I hope these tips will help you select a tree that will be a special part of your season.
A fresh Christmas tree can bring special beauty, fragrance, and meaning to the holiday. Selecting a fresh tree and caring for it properly are critical to having the tree hold up well through the end of the year. With just a few precautions, a cut tree will take up water and stay fresh for well over a month.
The precautions begin with selecting a Christmas tree that is fresh. The best way to tell if a tree is fresh is to lightly grasp a single branch and to gently pull your hand away from the tree. No needles should fall off the branch where you held it. If you are selecting a fir, pine, cedar, or cypress, the needles should feel supple, not stiff. The needles should bend with your grasp without breaking. However, spruce needles are very stiff and sharp even when fresh. The key point with any tree species is that foliage not be dried out. Needles should look smooth rather than shriveled. There should be no browning foliage or shedding needles anywhere on the tree. Cracks in the trunk that occur in some trees after they are cut do not effect the freshness of foliage or water uptake, but can be a problem for some drilled tree stands. Look at all sides of a tree from top to bottom before making a final selection.
Many people want to know how long a tree has been cut to find out if it is fresh, but the answer to that question can be misleading. A Christmas tree harvested a month ago could be fresher than a tree cut the day before, if the first was properly cared for and the second was not. A Christmas tree can lose more than half its water in a single day if it is exposed to drying conditions in full sun and wind. That’s why Christmas tree growers bale trees, move them out of the field, and into irrigated and shaded storage areas as quickly as possible. Christmas trees that are cut in dry weather can actually pick up additional water during storage. Thus, the length of time that a tree has been cut is only important when care is lacking. Some Christmas tree retailers have also added shade and water to protect tree freshness.
Responsibility for the freshness of your Christmas tree doesn’t stop with the grower or retailer. Make sure that you or the sales person cuts off at least a half-inch from the trunk of your Christmas tree. By making a fresh cut on the trunk, the new surface will take up water better. Any time a tree is left dry for three or more days, a fresh cut on the trunk can increase water uptake. If you don’t display the tree right away, store it with the base of the trunk in water. Store the tree out of direct sunlight in a cool place. When you display the tree, keep it away from heat sources that could dry it out. Contrary to some reports, a Christmas tree that has been watered consistently will not readily catch fire and never serves as the ignition source of a fire.
With a little care in selection and handling of your Christmas tree, it can welcome in the New Year in about the same condition as when it was first displayed. However, let a tree dry out and it could be a candidate to go up in flames. For information about where to choose and cut locally grown Christmas trees visit Extension Master Gardener Volunteers are still working around the arboretum this time of year but their office hours are reduced to Mondays and Thursdays from 10 a.m. to noon. They will take phone calls, return phone calls, and be available for client visits at those times. Call 902-1705 to ask a question during those hours or any time to leave a message and have them return your call. You can also email questions to them at As always you can find out more about what N.C. Cooperative Extension in Pitt County is doing by visiting us online at Remember Paul James is coming on January 25, 2014 so visit this site or call 252-902-1709 for ticket information. There you can find links to our blogspot, facebook, and Twitter gardening pages in addition to information about the Pitt County Arboretum and many gardening resources. Enjoy the Holidays!