What’s in a tree?

Memories and preferences abound when we choose our holiday tree.


I grew up in Upstate New York, and I can remember going out with my family to cut down our Christmas trees. My dad would grab an old rusty hand saw that lived in our garage and off we’d go. It snowed a lot back then and my brothers and I would weave in and out of rows of pine trees as snow piled onto our heads and onto the tree limbs. In my 30s, I did something I never thought I’d do: I bought a fake tree. I felt a little embarrassed by this for some reason — as if I’d broken some long-standing family tradition, or simply become lazy. But I was recently divorced, my child was only 3 years old, and I didn’t have the energy — or the heart — to cut down a tree by myself.

On the Vineyard, we don’t have a huge selection of native pine trees to choose from. “There are red cedars and pitch pines,” Tim Boland, executive director of Polly Hill Arboretum, said. “White pine is also an option. It’s naturalized, which means it was introduced here and spreads, though it’s not invasive, but local native options are limited.” In Boland’s opinion, balsam firs are the best trees for Christmas. “They last for a long time before they drop their needles. They also have a really nice scent — sort of orange and eucalyptus.”

The real vs. fake Christmas tree saga is ongoing. Every year I read (and hear) impassioned comments from both sides. Some people are die-hard real Christmas tree people, while others believe that reusing a fake tree every year is more environmentally sound. According to onetreeplanted.org, it’s more sustainable to cut down a real tree each year. That’s because most small-scale Christmas tree farms are sustainable, leaving certain sections open for harvesting every year, while keeping other areas closed to give younger trees a chance to grow. The other side argues that buying a real tree and then throwing it away simply adds to our landfills, where a fake tree can be reused for decades. There is another option, however.

“One thing people could consider doing, is buying a small potted tree or an American holly bush, and decorating those,” Boland said. “Then after the season, they can plant them.”

Planting in the winter may sound strange, but it’s possible. “What you can do is cover the planting site with a board and straw to keep the ground from freezing,” Boland suggested. “Though it hasn’t gotten that cold here in years, so you can probably get away with planting in January. Just remember to water it four to five times a winter, because evergreen trees are always leaking moisture through their needles.”

If you still want that big old tree to put in your living room, you’re in luck. “There are a lot of places you can buy Christmas trees on the Island. Middletown Nursery carries them — most of the nurseries on the Island carry them,” Boland said. “If you do buy a live tree, though, don’t just toss it, because you can use it for mulch or as erosion barriers on hillsides.”

I was happy to hear Boland’s suggestions because I remember feeling sad when Christmas was over, not just because of the massive adrenaline dump, but also because my street looked like a Christmas tree burial ground. At the end of nearly every driveway, a dead Christmas tree, with tinsel still wound around some of its branches, could be seen lying in a heap with its needles scattered across the sidewalk. Looking back, I wish my dad had taken that rusty ax of ours and chopped up our tree to use as mulch for our meager suburban tomato plants.

“All of the refuse districts have compost piles where you can dispose of your Christmas trees,” Signe Benjamin, membership and programs director of Vineyard Conservation Society, said.

“Any tree waste should always go into compost. The other option is to maybe not buy a Christmas tree.”

I know. I know. It’s hard to let some traditions go, but no one is saying you have to. The consensus seems to be that if you’re going to buy a real tree, just remember to find ways to reuse it if you can. Aside from making mulch, there are a number of other creative ways to repurpose your Christmas tree. You can make a bird sanctuary with the boughs, insulate your beloved perennials, make arts and crafts from the trunk, and so much more. For me, I’m sticking with my little Charlie Brown Christmas tree. I’ve been carrying that tree around from house to house for 26 years and it’s still kicking. Well, maybe it’s losing some of its needles, but I love it because it has a history. It’s been with me through thick and thin and I think I’ll keep it.

Top 8 Holiday Trees
  1. Scotch Pine
  2. Sugar Pine
  3. White Spruce
  4. Norway Spruce
  5. Blue Spruce
  6. Balsam Fir
  7. Douglas Fir
  8. Noble Fir

We asked a pro, Patty Mundt, nursery manager at Donaroma’s, about Christmas trees.

What’s your best selling Christmas tree?
Fraser/Cook Fir

How many trees do you sell during the holiday season?
We sell approximately 200 trees, including to the town of Edgartown.

Which type of tree do you buy for your family and why?
Fraser fir because it’s long-lasting.

What’s the tallest tree you remember selling?
11 to 12 feet.

How should we take care of the tree so that it lasts longer?
I would recommend a fresh-cut trunk before putting it into the stand, and keep refilling it daily or as needed.

Any safety tips?
Keep away from heat sources, because the tree will dry out too quickly and could become dangerous.

Do you also sell smaller trees, what might be called a “Charlie Brown” tree? 
Table top trees up to 3 feet.

Do you get many customers who wait until the last minute?
We always have last-minute shoppers arriving for the holidays.

Do you have a favorite memory from selling a tree? 
The kids …. Their faces say it all!