December - Wisdom from the Trees

Tree of the Month - Christmas Tree
Balsam Fir - Abies balsamea

Is it an environmentally sound thing
to buy a real Christmas tree?

The answer is an emphatic YES!  

Balsam Fir (Abies balsamea) by Lesley Bruce SmithChristmas trees are a totally renewable resource, and the trees harvested each year end are replaced 3 fold with young saplings in the spring.  Christmas trees are grown on farms in the USA that are dedicated for that purpose and employ over 100,000 people here.  Christmas tree farms are providing oxygen, reducing soil erosion, creating habitat for wildlife and sequestering carbon.  The farmers that grow Christmas trees usually also grow blueberries or other fruit crops keeping jobs at home. Three of our closest neighbors are among the top Christmas tree producing states in the nation: Wisconsin, Indiana and Michigan.  We have been producing Christmas trees commercially in the USA since the mid 1800‘s.  Artificial trees are manufactured overseas.

If keeping a fresh cut tree in the house, the best way to help it from drying out is to put it into a cooler room.  We put ours on our porch where the temps stay a bit cooler than the rest of the house, also making clean-up a breeze.  When you bring your tree home cut about a 1/4” off the bottom to open the cells that take up water.  Then use a tree stand that has a reservoir of at least 1.5 gallons.  A freshly cut, averaged sized tree can use up to a gallon of water each day.  Also turn the lights out when you are not home, for safety and to help prevent drying out.

 If you still aren’t convinced that a fresh tree is a good idea because you hate the idea of cutting down a tree, you can do what we have done many times.  Buy an actual live tree  from a garden center, in a root ball or pot and plant it outside when you have finished with it.  This is a great way to commemorate a baby’s first Christmas or some other special family event. To do this you need to do a little planning ahead.  We usually dig a hole before the ground freezes (which this year is now).  You can’t keep it inside for more than a few days and you need to keep it protected, if you didn’t dig a hole ahead, until the ground is thawed enough to plant.  Otherwise it will dry out.  (Request our planting abstract for more details on this.)

One last positive thing about buying a fresh Christmas tree is that the Real Christmas Tree industry donates many thousands of trees to our troops and their families each year.  Nothing beats the smell of a Frazier or Balsam Fir tree in the house at Christmas time.

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Winter Silhouettes

Backyard Wisdom by Gilbert A Smith
ISA Certified Master Arborist

Oak Silhouettes by Gilbert A SmithMy almost favorite tree is the native Downey Hawthorn (Crataegus mollis).  Not because of it’s leaves, flowers, or fruit and certainly not because of it’s thorns;  I love it because of it’s shapely winter silhouette.

Without leaves you can see that it has sinuous bark which resembles torturously twisted rope or muscles taught to the breaking.  The limbs stretch out horizontally so far from the trunk you’d think they would certainly crack.  Then they cascade almost to the ground and curve back upward again.  However,  you can only see this properly in the winter.  One of my favorite Downeys is on Deerfield Road, the North side just West of Highway 94/41.  All summer this little tree is just a 20 foot, nondescript, green tree. But in the winter she is a stand out specimen especially if snow outlines those graceful, swooping branches.  

So it is with my most favorite tree, the Illinois native Burr Oak (Quercus macrocarpa).  The huge branches are impossibly horizontal making highways in the sky for squirrels and other tree climbers.  Burr Oak branches are favored roosts for Hawks, Owls, and Raccoons to sit and contemplate their next meal.  Again, you can’t really see their true character until the winter.  

This winter, as you drive any of the east-west corridor roads, (Route 60, Route 22, Lake Cook Rd, Dundee, Lake Ave.) through Hawthorne Silhouette by Gilbert A Smiththe forest preserves flanking the DesPlaines River, take a look at the tree silhouettes.  You will see my friends, the Burr Oak, White and Red Oaks, Sugar Maples, and Elms each with a new face.  Each has its own signature silhouette that sets it apart from all other species.  When you do, you may find that it’s as if you’d never seen them before.  After the drama of the striking fall color the winter is a good time to slow down, and to let the trees introduce themselves to you.  

If you would like a friendly introduction, plan a day with your friends, and Lesley and I can take you on a brisk walk through Elawa Farm in Lake Forest, Ryerson Woods in Riverwoods, Fort Sheridan in Highland Park, The Chicago Botanic Garden or The Morton Arboretum.  Call, and let’s make a date.

Poinsettia’s - Facts and Fiction

Mother Nature's Moment by Lesley Bruce Smith
ISA Certified Arborist

Poinsettia's by Lesley Bruce SmithWe sometimes get asked:  Aren’t Poinsettias (Euphorbia pulcherrima) poisonous plants?  The answer is not really.  Both the websites for child and animal toxicity on plants state that if these plants are digested they may cause some intestinal discomfort and the milky white sap they exude could cause some irritation to the skin, BUT they are not lethal!  

I think they get a bad rap because of their name’s similarity to the word poison, however, they are named after Joel Roberts Poinsett who was the botanist, physician, and first US ambassador to Mexico that introduced this plant to our country in 1828.  The only time I have ever seen them growing in the landscape in the US was Hawaii, but I know they grow in many southern regions of the country.  They originate from Central America and are best known there as "La Flor de la Nochebuena" or the flower of the Holy Night.

What we traditionally see in red on the Poinsettia, which is confused as a flower, is actually the leafy part of the plant or bracts.  These plants turn color in the winter months of the year due to day length exposure.  As a matter of fact, when we were in university a situation in a greenhouse filled with Poinsettias shed light on how sensitive the day length requirements are.  A security guard would stop on his rounds in the same place every night and light up a cigarette.  That brief flash of light prevented the plants in that area of the greenhouse from turning red.

The Aztecs used the Poinsettia’s bracts to make a reddish purple dye for fabrics, and used the sap medicinally to control fevers.  The Poinsettas are one of the best selling potted plants in America and most are sold within the six weeks before Christmas.  December 12 is Poinsettia Day marking the death of Dr. Poinsett in 1851.