The debate on a real or artificial Christmas tree plagues many families this time of year, but for the Swiharts, there’s no question. They made the decision a decade ago to plant this year’s tree.
“My father had the foresight to plant a few dozen trees ten years ago,” Trees Forever Program Manager Emily Swihart said. “We’ve always had real trees for Christmas, but the tradition of growing our own came about in more recent years. It’s not a tradition from my childhood, but it’s the tradition my son will grow up with.”
On a rainy, cold November day, Emily and her husband, Fred, took their son, Frederick, on a special trip to Grandma and Grandpa’s. The property in Scott County, Iowa, has a patch dedicated to the holiday season.
“Frederick’s favorite part was the chainsaw,” Emily laughed. “He’s 19-months-old. Next year, he’ll have a better idea of what we’re doing.”
While some tree-huggers shy away from cutting down a tree for the sake of a holiday, Emily holds an alternative view.
“Christmas trees are a renewable crop. These trees were planted with the intention of cutting them down. In the meantime, they provide habitat for animals on our property.”
Emily holds a bachelor’s degree in horticulture and a master’s degree in landscape architecture, and she sees many advantages to a real tree in addition to her family’s nostalgia.
“Like any agroforestry crop, the tree cleans water, air and soil during its lifetime, and when the holiday season is over, the tree is composted. This is better for the environment than having a plastic tree that eventually finds its way into the landfill,” Emily said.
This year, the family cut down a 15-foot-tall Colorado blue spruce (Picea pungens) for the Swiharts’ living room, and three more for other family members and their church.
“The tree is symbolic to us in many ways,” Emily said. “As Christians, it’s symbolic of everlasting life. However, how we decorate the tree is also a symbol of who we are. Our family gives ornaments as gifts every Christmas, so we have a collection from years back. The tree displays a sense of history.”
Amongst the silver-blue needles are family memories, some of which are homemade relics made of salt dough. With the tree’s pleasant pine aroma, the tree is a guest in many homes this time of year—no doubt, making spirits bright.
In years to come, Emily plans on continuing the tradition by planting Christmas trees on the Swihart property in Jackson County, Iowa.
She’s learned a few lessons since the family originally planted the blue spruces a decade ago.
“We won’t be planting blue spruces this spring because the trees are susceptible to two prevalent tree diseases. Trees Forever does not recommend planting blue spruces right now,” Swihart said.
Cytospora canker is a destructive fungal disease that substantially weakens a variety of tree species, especially Colorado blue spruces. According to the Morton Arboretum, the disease starts on the lowest branches of the tree and climbs up the tree over a period of years, slowly turning the needles a purplish hue before drying up. In severe cases, the fungus will even enter the trunk of the tree.
Rhizosphaera needle cast also attacks Colorado blue spruces, among other conifer varieties. This foliar disease creates “holes” among health branches, as the disease infects needles and causes them to eventually drop off.
Both of these diseases can be treated, but if one is planting a new windbreak or patch of trees, there are other tree varieties to choose from that are not as susceptible to these diseases.
“We’ll be planting some Canaan fir, white pine and white spruce this spring,” Emily said. “Our plan is to plant a dozen conifers every other year. Some of these trees will be given to neighbors and loved ones, but others will stay in our yard and provide a nice and much-needed windbreak.”
The Christmas tradition is not only an opportunity for the family to spend time together, but it also helps little ones like Frederick grow a love and appreciation for trees.