There are many shades of green Christmas trees and no official green meter to gauge which one is the greenest. You can decorate a fake tree, a farmed tree, a wild tree, a living tree, a tree delivered by bike, a potted plant, a cut invasive plant, or maybe just a tree in your yard. Here’s a list of options, along with some of the environmental benefits and drawbacks. Which do you prefer?
An Artificial Christmas Tree
Decorating a fake tree avoids the impacts of farming a new tree every year and driving to a farm or a lot to pick up a fresh tree, but artificial trees have impacts of their own from the manufacturing process.
If you can rescue one from a dumpster or buy a used one from a thrift store, you can spread out the environmental impacts that went into making the tree and keep it out of the landfill. One study found a fake tree would have to be used for 20 years to match the environmental impacts of natural trees.
A Fresh-Cut Tree From A Nearby Farm
The typical fresh-cut tree has lived for several years on a farm soaking up carbon dioxide. In Oregon, they don’t have to travel far to get to your neighborhood, and you can recycle them to keep them out of a landfill. (You can even donate them to salmon habitat).
But commercial trees are treated with pesticides and herbicides on a farm with tilled soil.
There are two environmental certifications for Christmas trees from the Coalition for Environmentally Conscious Growers and Socially Responsible Farms that protect waterways from chemical runoff and prevent erosion, but neither requires growers to use organic practices.
An Organic Christmas Tree
Almost all the Christmas tree crops in the U.S. – 99 percent, according to Oregon State University’s extension service – are grown using some kind of chemical inputs. But there is that 1 percent of trees grown organically such as these noble firs from Trilliam Farm in Eagle Creek, Ore.
A Regenerative Christmas Tree
Like a creature with regenerative limbs, Christmas trees will continue to sprout new stumps if you cut them just right.
The Christmas trees at Pieropan Farm in Massachusetts were planted in 1955, and they’re still alive even though they’ve been cut down numerous times. With this “stump culture” method, the farmer doesn’t have to dig up the stump of the cut tree. You can see a video of the farm here.
A Wild Tree From The Forest
You can cut your own “wild” tree in the National Forest with a $5 permit. They provide a carbon sink and habitat in the forest without farming impacts, but you will probably have to drive farther to get them. I just gone mine from Mt. Hood, so I burned some gas, but I went to Bagby Hot Springs on the same trip with three other people sharing the ride.
A Living Tree
You can avoid killing a tree by getting a live tree that you replant after the holiday … as long as it survives the shift from indoors to outdoors. In Oregon and California, you can rent a live tree. That way trained professionals will make sure the tree lives after Christmas
An Alternative Potted Tree
You can decorate any potted tree that would already be indoors for the winter. Maybe something aromatic like rosemary.
An Invasive Plant Tree
You can cut an invasive species near your house, as Portland resident Charles Maclean did last year.
“In the spirit of a non-commercial holiday and responsible land stewardship,” he said he has decorated an invasive English holly bush instead of a traditional tree.
Maclean says there are fewer needles, it stays green longer, it takes invasive plants off the land, raises awareness of what invasives look like, and gives people a new way of thinking about Christmas trees.
Cutting invasives improves the chances for native plants in the area, but you have to be careful how you dispose of your tree so you don’t spread the seeds.
“When possible cut the roots of the holly tree so it won’t regrow,” Maclean said, “And the ‘natives’ will thank you.”
A Tree Delivered By Bike
In Portland, you can have a tree delivered by bike, which avoids the carbon footprint of driving to get a tree.
A Tree In Your Yard
Mark and Peggy Corbet in central Oregon sent me this picture of their “off the grid” Christmas tree.
It’s a juniper tree in their yard that they decorated with colorful reflectors, as they wrote:
“As a vehicle moves up our driveway their lights illuminate the reflectors in blazing colors. The effect is quite striking and looks as if the tree had electric lights on it.
We get to have the look of bright Christmas lights without any electricity being consumed and they are only “on” when someone is there to see them.”
I’m sure there are other options, too. Which ones do you think are the best?