When I was a kid, there was a year my parents bought a spruce for our yard. But before we planted it, the three-foot tree had another role to play: our family’s Christmas tree. My mom pulled the conifer inside, and we decked its boughs in ornaments. While it was festive and admittedly adorable, I remember feeling somehow offended that, instead of a traditional Christmas tree from a lot, our small little tree was still nestled in its nursery planter.
What I as a grade schooler saw as a Christmas crime of opportunity is now becoming a more common sight in some homes: potted Tannenbaums. These trees, both reusable and real, provide an authentic feel for consumers in search of an environmentally friendly tree.
Monica Hudson, originally from Switzerland, had the idea to loan out Christmas trees in 2009. Hudson worked as an independent historical tour guide in Carmel, Calif., at the time, but business had slowed due to the recession. She saw on TV that a garden shop in Britain was renting trees, and she took the idea and ran with it. By the holiday season of that same year, she had 500 trees, about two thirds of which ended up in homes that Christmas.
Now, her business, Rent A Christmas Tree, has about 1,000 trees growing for renters in certain parts of the San Francisco Bay Area and central coast of California. They remain in their pots year-round, hooked up to a drip irrigation system. Most of them are booked by Thanksgiving, Hudson told NPR. About 300 trees stay behind that aren’t quite tall or pretty enough to be loaned out.
Customers order their trees online, where they can pick their tree based on species, height and price. Then, the trees are delivered to their homes or businesses for a period of 30 days, after which they are picked up. This makes trees accessible to older people and business owners who don’t have the capacity to install one themselves, Hudson said.
“There is no crawling around the floor seeing if it’s straight, crawling under there to water it,” Hudson said — her trees come with a funnel to make daily watering easy. “It’s ready for you to put the lights on.”
Very rarely is one of the rented trees stolen or killed. Only three have been swiped in 13 years of business, and those were largely due to customers leaving their trees in the wrong place to be picked up, Hudson said. Otherwise, about 2% of trees die each year of dehydration, despite people signing a waiver promising to water them each day. Hudson described it as a big loss, as the trees take a long time to grow: It can take about 10 years to cultivate a six-foot tree.
The environmental impact of Christmas tree farming is complicated and depends on factors like how far the trees are transported, how they’re watered, and what kinds of fertilizers, herbicides and pesticides are used.
The National Christmas Tree Association points out on its website that real trees are grown as crops, not harvested from a forest, and seedlings are planted in place of each one cut down.
“Real Christmas Trees are a renewable, recyclable, natural product grown on farms throughout North America,” the association said. “Fake Christmas Trees however are a non-renewable, non-biodegradable, plastic and metal product most often made in overseas factories.”
In many places, potted Christmas trees aren’t really an option, said Chal Landgren, a Christmas tree specialist at Oregon State University. He told NPR that, in certain climates, the temperature shock between the frigid outdoors and warm indoors would kill some tree species.
Lienna Hoeg is a Christmas tree specialist at Perennia Food and Agriculture Corporation in Nova Scotia, where cold temperatures preclude indoor potted trees. She recommends that environmentally minded buyers look for a nearby cut-your-own tree farm or retail lot to keep fuel emissions low. When the season ends, roadside tree collection will help with responsible disposal. Alternatively, people can put the tree in their backyard for wildlife or donate it to farms for goats to munch on.
Hoeg said that for each tree harvested in Nova Scotia, one to three more trees are planted or cultivated. The Christmas tree industry provides about 4,000 full and part-time employment each year in Nova Scotia, which supports around 1,100 families, she said.
“Not many people are aware that for every one acre of Christmas trees, daily oxygen can be produced for 18 people. If you use or purchase an artificial tree, you’d have to use that tree for 20 years for it to have the same environmental impact as one natural Christmas tree,” she told NPR in an email.
Thank you Yew Tree Farm Shop for our gorgeous tree. Cut and potted trees available in many sizes (can be delivered to local area) pic.twitter.com/xcDkM1KJkR
— Yew Tree Coffee Barn (@Yewtreecoffee) December 3, 2016
For Hudson, the benefits of a living tree aren’t all about the environment. There’s the aspect of convenience, since live trees don’t drop needles that need to be cleaned up like cut trees do. They look fresh and produce oxygen.
There’s also a feel-good factor, she explained; customers know that their tree won’t end up in the trash after Christmas Day. Instead, they’ll likely end up like the spruce tree from my own childhood: planted in the ground.
“Because once the trees are too big to rent, they get planted,” Hudson said. “So we are educating our clientele that not only are they having a living tree, but they’re really adding to the beauty of the state.”
For example, Rent A Christmas Tree is trying to loan out more California Redwoods, which are native to the region and can live for hundreds, if not thousands, of years. They can be donated to help reforest areas that have been affected by wildfires, Hudson explained.
For those interested in renting a Christmas tree, be warned: There is one major thing living trees don’t do. They don’t quite smell as much like Christmas.
“When you buy a dead tree cut tree, it outgasses as it dies, and that smell that you adore for Christmas is actually the smell of it dying,” Hudson said. To get that strong, fresh pine smell? “We recommend that customers get a balsam wreath.”