Real vs Fake Christmas Trees

As a kid growing up in Los Angeles I was always attracted to the Christmas lots that had trees frosted with pink or turquoise fake snow. (What were they thinking?) I have yet to see those special specimens since, but it’s no surprise that as an adult I lean toward non-traditional trees. Part of that is just my stubborn attraction to the unique, but much of it stems from my feelings for trees.

Although I know that Christmas trees are farmed like any other harvested plant, it still makes me sad to think of those noble little guys whacked down for my temporary pleasure. But my humble homemade feather tree is starting to molt—and I wonder if it’s time to join the 29 million American households who will buy a fresh cut tree this year? Or should I opt for an artificial tree? How about a living tree that will take a Christmas miracle of its own to actually end up planted in my garden? To forego a tree altogether is way too bah-humbug for me, so what is the greenest Christmas tree option?


Fresh Cut Trees

In the early 1900s as the result of the craze for Christmas trees, the natural supply of evergreens began to dwindle.

Conservationists became alarmed and began to encourage people to use artificial trees, the early versions consisting of branches of deciduous trees wrapped in cotton. In 1901, Theodore Roosevelt requested no fresh cut trees in the White House out of concern for the forests. But the same year, a wise farmer started the first Christmas tree farm and the rest is history.

Nowadays almost all of the nearly 30 million Christmas trees Americans use for decoration are grown on farms—like flowers, or vegetables. But when you realize that a Christmas tree takes six to 12 years to grow, it seems like a lot of effort involved for a few weeks of holiday spirit. Not to be the Grinch here, but when you consider the use of water, pesticides and herbicides, in combination with soil erosion and the energy used to maintain the crop and transport the trees, well, I don’t know. On the other hand, the trees are renewable, provide habitat for wild animals, absorb carbon dioxide and create oxygen, and the industry provides many jobs. Still mass agriculture is mass agriculture, so if you decide on a fresh cut tree follow these tips.

• Try to buy an organic Christmas tree.
• Buy from smaller, local farms to reduce transportation miles and support a small, sustainable operation.
• Recycle your tree! Check your local municipality to see if there is Christmas tree recycling near you, or read here for tips on how to recycle on your own.
• Don’t use tinsel or fake snow spray; they are hard to remove and make your tree ineligible for recycling.


Artificial Trees

So is there any green logic behind using an artificial tree? They save a real tree and they can be reused, it’s true. However…well, where should we start? In the end, artificial trees don’t come out even in the carbon balance. Petroleum is used to make the plastics in the trees and lots of carbon dioxide-creating energy is required to make and transport them–and they are difficult to recycle. In addition, three out of four fake trees are made in China under less than favorable labor conditions. Fake trees made in China are required by California Proposition 65 to carry a scary warning label for lead content. The potential for lead poisoning is serious and frightening.

If the threat of lead isn’t bad enough, there is the PVC issue. Most artificial Christmas trees are made of PVC (polyvinyl chloride)—often referred to as vinyl, as well as “the poison plastic.” According to the Campaign for Safe, Healthy Consumer Products, PVC is dangerous to human health and the environment throughout its entire life cycle, at the factory, in our homes, and in the trash. Our bodies are contaminated with poisonous chemicals released during the PVC lifecycle, such as mercury, dioxins, and phthalates, which may pose irreversible lifelong health threats. When produced or burned, PVC plastic releases dioxins, a group of the most potent synthetic chemicals ever tested, which can cause cancer and harm the immune and reproductive systems. That is so not festive.


Live Trees

It would seem that the greenest way to enjoy a Christmas tree is to buy a live tree to replant when the holiday has passed. However, there are numerous things to consider when exploring this option. Since trees are dormant in the winter, live trees can stay no more than a week indoors or they will wake up and begin to grow again in the warmth. If this happens there is a good chance the tree will not survive once it is returned to the cold winter outdoors. It also needs gradual transition to the interior climate, and then again when it goes back outside. If you live in a climate where the ground will be frozen, you need to pre-dig a hole for the tree before the ground freezes. You also need to research what type of tree will do well with your soil and climate. See these tips for buying and caring for a live tree.


Alternative Trees

It was a puppy-shredded, vintage pillow that inspired the crafting of my feather tree (as in, oh my goodness, all these feathers, what to do?!). And although it falls firmly into the Charlie Brown class of Christmas trees, it is sweet and has become a tradition in our home. If you don’t have an old down pillow in need of re-use, you can buy a feather tree kit here.

Some people swear by ornament trees—sculptural arboreal forms to hang ornaments from–and some of those trees are pretty cute. Ornament trees can be decorated seasonally and thus used all year, and can be used to clip photos and mementos to as well—visit this site for a huge selection of ornament trees. You can also make a natural ornament tree by gathering some dramatic dormant branches from outdoors and setting them in a large, weighted vase.

And of course, you can always decorate a houseplant. I have seen some fabulous ornament-bedecked, twinkling cacti, or how about a giant rosemary bush (like the one above) that can be planted outside when the weather turns from frightful to fruitful.


Lori H
Lori Habout a year ago

Velma Hawkins, you aren't saving forests by not getting a real tree. They are grown on tree farms. That's all they grow on those farms is Christmas trees and once cut, if they aren't used, they get burned or chopped up for mulch. If we don't buy one to plant, (they've gotten so expensive in my area), then we do at least recycle them into mulch. Our city will take the tree then give you a coupon to use to get free mulch next spring. We don't always get a real tree, but on those occasions when we do, that's what we do with it. And, even if the trees come for a forest, sometimes it's necessary to thin them out for new growth. And, just so you know, I am an environmentalist, I work on many projects pertaining to the environment and conservation efforts, so I am not just tossing the idea of a using a real tree out there because I don't care, because I do.

Velmapearl Hawkins
Velma Hawkins6 years ago

May I add, unless you are getting a live one to plant in your yard

Velmapearl Hawkins
Velma Hawkins6 years ago

Save our forrests, , and the fake trees are more lifelike anyway, with lights built in, and reusable for my fiberoptic one.

Asako F.
Asako F.6 years ago

Noted. Real christmas trees are so beautiful and smelling so sweet!!

sharon c.
sharon coughlin6 years ago

live trees are nice. we have a neighbor who can write off taxes for farmland (and preserve open space) by growing a whole field of christmas trees, and then selling them at the holidays. they are a renewable source of income for her.

she gets lots of families who come during the holidays, get outside, enjoy the outdoors, and cut down their own tree. i enjoy seeing those people getting outside and having a nice time.

i also like live trees because while they are growing, they remove pollutants from the atmosphere, put out oxygen, and brighten the countryside.

so, please consider all of these positives the next time you see live trees for sale.

C.M Padget
Carolyn Padget6 years ago

Mendoza books recently had where they used stacked books to make a "Christmas tree", complete with lights. Perfect for a book-lover like me.
And easier to take down & store than a fake tree

Robert O.
Robert O6 years ago

Thanks Melissa. I've always liked fake trees. The ones produced get a little better and more realistic looking with each passing year. You can use them over and over and not have to worry about cleaning up pine needles for the better part of the holiday season. ;)

aj M.
aj E6 years ago


Zee Kallah
Past Member 6 years ago

A tree does not have to die for my Christmas.

Doreen P.
Doreen Ryan6 years ago

Fake trees don't harbor ticks. When employees at Lowes, Home Depot, etc. get the new trees in, they put them on a machine to shake them and get the branches to drop. they report finding ticks on the floor afterwards. Considering that Lyme has surpassed Aids in this country, I don;t want to invite the pesky little critters in. I've had long term Lyme, so I say NO to real trees.

Why is it we feel the need to contain nature and own it, but then we disregard it when it no longer serves our purpose? Trees serve us more alive than dead.

I DO like the idea of having a tree in your yard that you decorate. And if you choose plastic, then don't buy a new one every other year and create more landfill.

Joy A., I like your 1st, 2nd, and 5th points. I agree to a point that we support the petroleum companies, but we should be making those trees LAST, instead of constantly wanting a new one. I don;t understand what you mean by "placing in the lakes for food", but paving walking trails is good. Your 4th point is null, enjoyment, like beauty, is in the eyes of the beholder. enjoyment is a choice. If you chose artificial, that would also provide enjoyment. My other question is how much of the money actually goes to the Boy Scouts? I know that the Girls Scouts get only about .50 for each box of cookies, but what is the return for the Boy Scouts on trees?

What did I choose? I was given and artificial one, and with care it will last me many many years. Each has its good and bad point