ANNAPOLIS – The great holiday debate continues — real vs. artificial Christmas trees.
There’s nothing like going to a tree farm and cutting down your own tree, farm owners say. But an artificial tree can save time and money during an already hectic holiday season, and it reduces the risk of fire, artificial tree dealers said.
In recent years, more people have sided with the dealers.
About half of American households had an artificial tree in 2000, up from 40 percent in 1996, according to a survey by the National Christmas Tree Association. A real tree was in about 31 percent of households last year.
Time constraints are driving more people away from the countryside and into the stores to pick out a tree, farm owners said. An artificial tree lasts longer, doesn’t require much maintenance, and is easy to assemble and decorate, said Sandy Gamble, the Christmas buyer at American Plant Food Co. in Bethesda.
“It’s about convenience,” she said. “There’s not a lot to it.”
But an artificial tree just isn’t the same, said Lucretia Tanner of Tanner’s Enchanted Forest in Brandywine.
“People think it’s easier, but is that what it’s all about?” she asked.
A trip to the tree farm is more than just cost or convenience, she added.
“It’s about building memories,” she said. “That’s what the holidays are all about.”
The 110-acre Tanner farm offers hot tea and candy canes to visitors, who can come enjoy the ambiance of the farm, with its barnyard animals and peaceful atmosphere, while they shop for a tree.
“People come and make it a tradition to pick their tree,” she said. “You get the feel of the tree, the smell, the environment of having your own tree.”
But it’s getting harder to tell the real trees from the fake ones, Gamble said.
“(Artificial trees) have come a long way in the past couple years,” she said. “Some of these you have to walk up and feel to make sure it’s not real.”
An artificial tree can cost from $80 to more than $500, depending on the size, shape or added features, such as frosted branches or built-in lights.
Not only have artificial trees started to look more like their natural counterparts, but they can last up to 20 years, giving the purchaser “more bang for their buck,” said Allen Blakey, spokesman for the Vinyl Institute, an Arlington, Va., organization that represents vinyl manufacturers.
A real tree can from cost from $20 to $75 and can be a fire hazard if not properly cared for.
Artificial trees, most of which are primarily made of vinyl, are flame- retardant, Blakey said.
More than 400 residential fires are started each year from real Christmas trees igniting, according to the National Fire Protection Association.
But the fires that do start each year represent less than 1 percent of the more than 33 million real Christmas trees that are sold annually, according to the National Christmas Tree Association.
If the tree is watered carefully and kept away from heat, fire can be easily avoided, according to the association. Trees should immediately be placed in water after being cut and the water supply should be refilled as it empties. Trees can absorb up to a gallon of water in the first day after it is cut and one or more quarts daily after that.
Once the holiday season is over, a real tree can be easily recycled, while artificial trees don’t decompose easily, tree farm owners said.
Trees are also a good crop to grow because they provide habitat for wildlife, hold soil in place, prevent runoff and give off oxygen, said Wayne Thomas, owner of the 85-acre Thomas Tree Farm, in Manchester.
“A lot of folks say, `How can you cut down such a beautiful tree?'” but it’s beneficial because a seedling will be planted to replace the old one, he said. “The live tree is definitely an outstanding environmental benefit.”
But a real tree can pose environmental problems if not properly disposed, said Beck Cowles, a spokeswoman for the Ecology Center, a nonprofit environmental research group in Berkeley, Calif.
Neither artificial nor real trees will break down much in a packed landfill, she said. Reducing a real tree to mulch will have a better ecological impact.
Buying a live tree, then planting it again afterwards, she said, is the more ideal environmental situation.
— CNS staff writer Marie Beaudette contributed to this report.