At Crossroads, we think about evergreens most of the year, but trees are of special interest as the holidays approach.Most folks are thinking about trees. Fresh cut? Artificial? Clearly, fresh cut trees are more environmentally friendly choice.
Christmas trees are not harvested from forests, but rather, grown as crops. During in the years they are growing, trees make significant contributions to the environment–oxygen production, reductions in air pollutants, water conservation, and animal habitat. In contrast, artificial trees are made of metal and [some possibly toxic] plastics An estimated 85% of artificial trees are imported from China.
Clearly, I am in the “fresh cut” camp. A couple years ago, I had the brainstorm of cutting a non-native tree, hoping to improve our wildlife habit one Christmas at a time. So we cut a Colorado Blue Spruce. (The name is the tip-off that this is not a local species.)
It was a pretty tree….. shapely, dense, an attractive color, but decorating it was like cuddling with a porcupine. I could live with that. The real problem was that Colorado Blue Spruce simply did not have characteristic aroma of the holidays. In fact, its scent was unpleasant.
Understand that Christmas tree preferences are cultural, learned in childhood and treasured. So to me….and to many people in the Eastern part of the United States… balsam fir is the scent of Christmas.
Balsam fir trees were an important “export” from Door County during the early days of European settlement. Chicago and Milwaukee were filled with German and Scandinavian immigrants, for whom decorating a tanembaum was a cherished tradition. So each year, sailors would come on shore, cut balsam firs from the forest, then load (and probably overload) their schooners with the trees and head for the cities hoping for a big profit. The winds of November can be treacherous; some Christmas tree ships were lost.
One ship which left the village of Newport never made it. So back when I was the naturalist at Newport State Park, I got caught up in the legends of the Christmas tree ships and was curious about why balsam fir was so desirable. The trees actually are kind of spindly little things. So I asked some of the residents at Scandia Village, expecting some answer like: They grew at the edge of the forest or Balsams were of little commercial value or maybe, because balsams smell good.
The Door County natives laughed and told me the real reason. Candles. Balsam and white pine were the only trees with enough space between the branches for lighted candles. But, yes, they do smell good.
Turns out that pine and firs smell good because they contain volatile oils called pinenes . These and several other chemicals form compounds which evaporate at moderate temperatures. We humans find the odor of these compounds to be pleasant, but they repel insects. (Good for us; good for the trees)
Pinenes do more than smell good and repel insects. They actually combine with chemicals in the air to form particles called aerosols which act as the nuclei on which water vapor molecules can form droplets. So pinenes help clouds to form. Clouds increase precipitation and create shade. Consequently clouds cool the Earth’s surface. So evergreen trees, in a very real way, slow global warming.
But pinenes, being volatile oils, are flammable so forest fires tend to spread quickly in evergreen forest. When trees are indoors, care should be taken to prevent house fires (which are not a common these days as they were when they used to decorate with lighted candles.)
The Friends of Crossroads invite the Community to help Deck the Halls of the Collins Learning Center at 5:30 on Thursday, December 1. Sloppy Joes, warm cider, cookies and music will be provided, but vounteers are encourage to bring something to enhance the meal. We would appreciate a call 920-746-5895 if folks want to join us, but it isn’t necessary. Drop-in volunteers will be more than welcome.
If you want to learn more about Christmas trees, you are invited to attend a lecture called, “The History of Christmas Trees” on December 3 at 2:00. It will cover the history of somewhat odd holiday tradition [cutting down a tree and dragging it into a clean house where it will shed…..really?.] and also describe some of the species which are locally available.
A workshop on identifying native evergreens will be offered at 10:00, Monday December 5 in the Lower Level Learning Space. This worshop is free and open to the public.
Crossroads is an education facility made up of the Big Creek Preserve, The Cove Preserve, and the Ida Bay Preserve. The Collins Learning Center, located at 2041 Michigan Street, just east of the highway roundabout in Sturgeon Bay, is open daily from 2:00-4:00 and during scheduled activities. Trails are always open.
Thursday, December 1
5:30 Friends of Crossroads Deck the Halls Party
The Friends of Crossroads invite the community to help decorate the learning center for the holidays. Sloppy Joes, warm cider, cookies and music will be provided, but volunteers are encourage to bring something to enhance meal. We would appreciate a call 920-746-5895 if folk want to join us, but it isn’t required. Drop-in volunteers will be more than welcome. Meet at the Collins Learning Center.
Saturday. December 3
2:00 Lecture: The History of Christmas Trees
This lecture will cover the history of Christmas trees and discuss the various species and their attributes. Free and open to the public. Lower Level Learning space the Collins Learning Center. Free and open to the public.