Caring for Holiday Evergreen Trees and Boughs

By the Plant Information Specialists

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Caring for Holiday Evergreen Trees and Boughs

For centuries, evergreen trees and boughs have been used to celebrate the winter solstice. Evergreens have always symbolized the promise of plant rebirth in spring. The custom of using evergreens as decoration traditionally marks the Christmas season. At one time all Christmas trees were cut from natural forest stands, but today almost 98% are grown on plantations.

To insure their freshness, beauty, and safety through the season, take appropriate steps in selection, conditioning, and care of trees and greens. Warm indoor temperatures and low humidity will cause desiccation unless certain measures are taken at the outset. Firs and pines stand up best indoors while certain species like hemlock and spruce are notorious for dropping their needles. All trees and greens will hold up better if they are conditioned and kept well watered. Here are the requirements for success:


Obtain your tree early in the season before it begins to dry out in the open tree lot. Measure the ceiling height where the tree is to be placed to be sure that it is at least one foot shorter; this also compensates for the height of the tree stand. When you gently pull a branch toward you, the needles of the tree should be pliable and bend, but not break. Shake the tree and bounce the trunk on its stump to test for freshness; if more than a few needles drop, put the tree back and try another. By shaking and bouncing the tree, insects and other foreign objects will also be dislodged.

Preparation and Conditioning

After the tree is brought home, make a fresh cut 1/4" above the end of the trunk to facilitate water absorption and wrap the end in a damp towel until it is placed in a bucket of water. Every four hours that a tree is out of water a new dried seal forms which will prevent the tree from absorbing water. Spray your tree with an anti-desiccant to reduce drying and transpiration. Store it in a cool place either outdoors or indoors until it is ready to be set up. Make a new cut across the trunk 1/4" above the dried seal of the original cut. Place the tree in a sterilized stand that will hold at least one gallon of water, as a newly placed tree can absorb up to a gallon of water the first day. Be sure that the bottom of the trunk is continually immersed and that the water is checked and replenished daily. Set up the tree in the coolest part of the room: away from the fireplace, TV set, heater, and other heat sources.

To condition evergreen branches to be used for holiday decoration, wash them thoroughly in warm water to remove dust and dirt, and then rinse them in cold water. Remove any defective leaves and needles and split the stems about 2-3" up from the ends. Place the material in warm water and store in cool temperatures for at least eight hours prior to use. Keep the water level high by replacing any water that has evaporated in the container.

Care and Preservation

All evergreen material will last longer if conditioned prior to use. Storing it in cool temperatures before bringing into a heated room will make a difference when you set up the tree or make wreaths, garlands or holiday arrangements. A tree in a warm room can absorb several quarts per day, so keep the reservoir well supplied with water.


For lighting the tree, use only UL approved lights and fireproof decorations. Check wiring before plugging into outlets. Turn off the tree lights when leaving home and before you go to sleep. If needles do dry out, creating a fire hazard, remove decorations and immediately remove the tree from your home. Needles are dry when they are dull, gray-green, and do not exude sap when broken. Remember that all evergreens kept cool and moist will be much more resistant to fire.

Recycling Options

Remember, trees are recyclable when taken down. If you have a fireplace, use the main trunk for firewood after removing the branches and needles. If you have a wood chipper, grind the tree into mulch for use on your garden beds and for composting. Many municipalities collect used evergreen trees and use them for compost. Check with local sanitation departments for collection and/or drop-off days.

Additional Options

A living potted or balled and burlapped tree offers a viable alternative to the cut tree. The indoor environment will be very harsh for a living tree, so it is best not to keep it indoors for longer than five days. To insure success, keep the pot or ball of the tree well watered during the entire time. After indoor display, avoid exposing the tree to the shock of midwinter temperatures and conditions. You can reacclimatize it gradually by placing it in an unheated garage for several days.

Choose a permanent location for the tree and prepare a planting hole well in advance before the ground is frozen. Keep the prepared backfill soil thawed and covered. Plant and water the tree right away and be sure to mulch it heavily to delay frost penetration.

If you are unable to plant right away, heel in the tree for winter with a heavy mulch of wood chips and compost, in order to delay planting until early spring.

Selecting a Christmas Tree

Scientific Name
Common Name
Needle Retention
Abies balsamea Balsam Fir Dark green with a pleasant fragrance Long-lasting needles
A. fraseri Fraser Fir Dark green with silver underneath and a pleasant fragrance Good needle retention
A. procera Noble Fir Stiff, 4-sided needles similar to Spruce with silvery blue-green color Long-lasting needles
A. concolor White Fir Soft, dark blue-green needles with a pleasant fragrance Good needle retention
Pseudotsuga menziesii Douglas Fir Not a true fir, soft, green needles with a sweet scent when crushed Good needle retention
Picea pungens glauca Colorado Blue Spruce Stiff, 4-sided needles, with very sharp points, bluish-gray with a strong resinous odor Poor needle retention
P. abies Norway Spruce Stiff, 4-sided needles, with very sharp points, dark green with a strong resinous odor Poor needle retention
Pinus sylvestris Scotch Pine Bright, blue-green needles in clusters of two Excellent needle retention
P. strobus White Pine Long, soft silver-green needles in clusters of five Excellent needle retention

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Generous support for the Home Gardening Center has been provided by Kenneth and Ellen Roman.