Friday, December 8, 2017

Living Christmas Trees: The Good, The Mediocre, The Pretenders


Looking for an alternative to the annual holiday household display of a decorated dead evergreen?

Consider a living Christmas tree instead. If chosen wisely and treated correctly, this Yuletide addition can thrive in your yard for generations. The main thing to remember when choosing a living Christmas tree: pick a variety that will flourish in our area. Among the conifers available at local nurseries that will do well outdoors in most areas of Northern and Central California after their indoor holiday use:

Aleppo, Mondell or Afghan Pine. Also called Pinus eldarica or Pinus halepensis. These evergreens can take sun and wind. As an added bonus for those who own acreage, these pines are good for windbreaks and erosion control. Rapid growers, these pines with gray-green needles can get to 30 to 60 feet tall with a 20 to 30 foot spread. They aren't that thirsty, either; a deep, twice a month watering is all they require during the summer.


Italian Stone Pine. Another good choice for the interior valleys. Can take heat and drought when established. Has a moderate rate of growth to 60 feet.


Colorado Blue Spruce. Can take sun, shade and cold, but is susceptible to spider mites. Likes most soils, as long as they're well-drained. This tree with the bluish needles is a slow grower that will eventually get 60 to 80 feet tall with a 40 to 50 foot spread.

Deodar Cedar. A tree that actually prefers clay soil, as long as there's no standing water. This evergreen can take sun, wind and heat. It's a rapid grower that will reach 50-80 feet with a 40-foot spread. Aptly known as, "The California Christmas Tree".

Some tips for caring for a living Christmas tree:

• Don't keep it in the house for more than a week.

• Keep it away from heating vents, wood stoves and fireplaces.

• Water the tree every day while it's in the house. A good way to insure a slow, thorough watering is to dump a tray or two of ice cubes into its container.

• Decorate it with the smaller, cooler, flashing bulbs.

• The tree can remain in a large container for a number of years, but you may need a furniture dolly to move it in and out of the house.

Marginal Living Christmas Trees:

Given a little care, the dwarf Alberta Spruce can survive as an outdoor living Christmas tree here. Give it afternoon shade for best results. 

Coast Redwood (Sequoia sempervirens). Give this tree plenty of room in the yard. The coast redwood can get 70 feet tall with a spread at the base of 30 feet. It can take our sun, but needs frequent, deep watering, probably more water than our wallets should spend on plant survival. During the last decade, many coast redwoods have been suffering from crown rot diseases, with extensive dieback, usually starting in the upper canopy of the tree. Our area's propensity for years-long drought conditions may be causing the coast redwood to be a poor choice for a long life here.

Limber Pines (Pinus flexilis), native to mountainous areas, tend to revert to rounded tops as they age. The exception is the "Vanderwolf Pyramid" variety, which keeps its Christmas tree shape. 

Another one to be wary of is the Grand Fir (Abies grandis). This tree could soon overwhelm a small yard, reaching heights of 200 feet. 

Other borderline trees that may have trouble here in the Valley include the Tempelhof cypress (Chamaecyparis obtusa) and the Blue Point Juniper (doesn't like too much water or slow draining soil).


At the top of Santa's horticulturally naughty list is the Monterey Pine, which is better for coastal environments; even in its native environment, Monterey Pines are in decline due to pine pitch canker. Here in the valley, the Monterey Pine is susceptible to pests, diseases and sulks in our summer heat.


Another Christmas-tree type plant that is widely available here is the Norfolk Island Pine. Known as the Hawaiian Christmas Tree, this is best planted Hawaii. Here, it makes a good house plant year round.


When is a Christmas tree not really a tree? When it is a Rosemary plant, an evergreen shrub that's been pruned into a pyramidal shape. This herb is a great addition for its culinary and bee attracting qualities (blooms in the winter and spring), but would require constant shearing to keep it looking like a Christmas tree...uh, bush.

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