Christmas preparations

In the Garden
Ralph Purkhiser, Purdue University Master Gardener

     With Thanksgiving behind us, the attention of most people turns to preparations for Christmas.  One of the most important of these preparations is getting a Christmas tree.  Many people, myself included, choose to use artificial trees, at least indoors, but others choose to put up a live tree.  Actually, calling a cut tree “live” is a bit of a misnomer.  While evergreen trees will remain green for several weeks after being cut, they are no longer living.  They also are drying out and becoming fire hazards.  Steps must be taken for safety.
     Water is the basic need to keep a tree in good shape for a few weeks, and trees need a lot of water.  Make certain that your tree stand will hold enough water to keep the tree hydrated.  Check the water level and add water as needed.
     Just before placing your tree in the stand, saw a slice off of the base, exposing fresh wood.  Once a tree has been cut, it tries to preserve moisture by sealing its wound.  Exposing fresh wood will allow it to more easily take up moisture.  Plenty of fresh water is really all the tree needs.  Purdue University researchers have determined that adding preservatives do not really keep the tree fresh longer.  Site the tree away from heat sources to further retard desiccation.
     The other bit of advice I would offer is to get a freshly-cut tree.  The trees trucked in from other areas may have been cut weeks ago.  They probably were sprayed with antitranspirants to slow moisture loss, but they will still have lost significant moisture.  Buying from a local tree farm or cutting your own tree is the best way to ensure your tree is fresh.
     When I was in college, a fellow student came by my home on his way to visit relatives near-by.  I remember that he laughed that we had a red cedar tree decorated on the front porch of the house, and made a comment that he had never seen a cedar Christmas tree.  For me, that was the most natural thing in the world.  The red cedar is actually the only evergreen conifer that is native to all 92 counties of Indiana.   Our tree was always on the porch.  There simply was no room for a tree in our four-room house.  Presents were generally placed on a table, on which a small artificial tree was displayed.
     That cedar on the porch was Christmas for us.  It was not decorated with fancy ornaments.  Most were either homemade or cheap plastic ornaments from the dime store.  There were a couple of strands of the old-time Christmas lights and a star for the top.  The base was an old hub sitting in a tub.  A great bonus was the scent of the red cedar each time we went out the front door.
     Actually, the eastern red cedar is not a cedar at all.  It is really a juniper.  That aromatic scent repels many insects.  That is the reason the red wood is used for cedar chests for storing clothing.  The wood is also rot-resistant, making it ideal for fence posts and natural siding.  The beautiful red color of the heartwood is valued, but if not sealed, the wood will turn a soft gray in time.  Junipers are dioecious, meaning that the male pollen-supplying cones and the female seed cones occur on separate trees.  The cones actually look like blue berries.  They are a valuable food source for birds, squirrels and other wildlife.
     Eastern red cedar is considered a pioneer tree.  It is one of the first trees that will grow along roadways or in a fallow field.  A mature tree may top 60 feet, but trees that size are not common.  Because the cedar does not compete well with large deciduous trees, the rich soil and abundant moisture of Indiana favors the deciduous forests.  
     While most Christmas tree farms favor non-native spruce, pine and firs, I will always associate the red cedar with Christmas.  It is the very reason I have left some cedar seedlings to grow at Sandhill Gardens.


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