With Christmas almost upon us, and for those that don't yet have a Christmas tree, some words
of experience from Dan Kraus, a Senior Conservation Biologist with the Nature Conservancy of Canada
on the benefits of having a real Christmas tree this Christmas.
People living in the northern hemisphere have brought trees and boughs into their
homes during the winter for thousands of years. The evergreens that we decorate
with during Christmas can represent a celebration of holidays and a reminder that
spring will come again.
I'm a Christmas tree traditionalist, and will never give up the ancient ritual of
bringing a fresh tree into our home. Each year, Canada's 1,872 Christmas tree farms
produce over three million pine, spruce and fir trees. In addition to supporting
Canadian farmers, Christmas tree plantations provide habitat for songbirds, including
chipping sparrow and American robin.
Three lessons about nature from your old Christmas tree
But what happens to your Christmas tree after the holidays?
We've come a long way since the days when Christmas trees were dumped into landfills.
Most municipalities now have programs that chip and compost old trees. Some conservation
groups even collect trees to create fish habitat or stop erosion along streams.
These are great ways to recycle your Christmas tree, but you can also let nature
recycle your tree in your own backyard. It takes a little longer than hauling it
to the curb, but you can give your tree a second life by giving it as a gift to
wildlife. This small act of nature conservation can also help your family learn
three lessons about how, even in death, trees are an important part of life and
renewal in our Canadian forests.
Lesson 1: Gimme shelter
The first step in recycling your tree is easy. Just put it anywhere in your backyard
until spring. Many of us do this anyway when we miss the pick-up for municipal tree
Your Christmas tree will enrich your backyard ecosystem right away. Evergreens provide
important shelter for birds on cold nights and during storms and as a safe place
to rest while they visit your feeder.
You can even use your old tree as a bird (and probably squirrel) feeder by redecorating
it with pine cones filled with peanut butter, strings of peanuts and suet.
Lesson 2: Downed woody debris
Come spring, your tree will probably have lost most of its needles and be looking
like, well, a dead tree. It's time to put your tree to rest and help out your flowers
by mimicking what happens with dead trees in forests.
Scientists call trees and branches on the forest floor "downed woody debris" (the
cool scientists just say DWD). This debris is not trash. It is an important indicator
of healthy forests by providing habitat, sheltering wildflowers, holding moisture
and helping build the soil.
You can recreate DWD in your gardens. Cut off the tree's branches and lay them where
spring flowers are starting to emerge. Lay the trunk on soil and it will provide
a home for many backyard animals. Toads will find shelter under the log, and insects,
including pollinators such as carpenter bees, will burrow into the wood.
Lesson 3: Spruce to soil
By fall, you'll start to witness the final stage in the life of your Christmas tree,
as the branches and trunk begin to decompose and turn into soil. Many of our Christmas
trees, particularly spruce and balsam fir, have very low rot resistance and break
down quickly when exposed to the elements. The more contact the cut branches and
trunk have with the ground, the faster it will start to be recycled by fungi, insects
After a few years, not much will remain of your tree. The needles and braches will
have returned to soil, and the trunk will be soft with rot. It will just be a memory
of your new tradition of backyard Christmas tree recycling.
Dan Kraus is Senior Conservation Biologist with the Nature Conservancy of Canada.
He is an expert on Canadian species and landscape ecology, and a member of the International
Union for the Conservation of Nature Species Survival Commission.