American families favor real Christmas trees over plastic ones by the rate of 3-1, says Rick Dungey, public relations manager for the National Christmas Tree Association in Chesterfield, Mo. Once you’ve made that choice, a new set of questions arises, like how long will it last and how do I take care of it?

There are as many as 35 species and varieties of conifers among the 25-30 million Christmas trees sold in the United States every year, according to Dungey. “Growers are responding to consumer demand by increasing the varieties of needle colors and shapes,” Dungey said.

Regardless of where you live and what kind of tree you plan to bring home, there are two rules everyone should follow to ensure your tree will last through the holidays.

  1. Cut a small portion off the bottom of the tree. Dungey advises cutting a disk ¼- to ½-inch thick from the trunk. After making that cut, he says the tree should be placed in a stand of water within three to six hours. If the trunk of the tree has been scarred either in transit to the tree lot or getting it home, the trunk should be cut above the scar. The fresh cut on the bottom of the trunk primes the tree to take up water. The reason for promptly covering that fresh cut with water (or to cut the trunk above a scar) is to prevent air molecules from forming in exposed tissue. “Air inhibits the ability of the tree to uptake water and move it through the trunk and into the stems and foliage,” said Dungey. “Air is the enemy,” he said. “This is the same principle as cutting stems from flowers you bring home from the florist before arranging them in vase of water.”
  2. Add water to the tree stand every day. Top off the stand with water even if it looks like the tree has taken up almost no water at all, said Dungey. Water absorption will vary from day to day. Some days the tree may take up very little. Then, without warning, it may absorb a lot. On the days the tree is thirsty, it may take up all of the water in a basin that isn’t completely full. If this happens and the bottom of the tree is exposed to air, then air molecules will form in the exposed bottom of the trunk and prevent future water uptake. The tree at this point will be susceptible to drying out, and perhaps losing its fresh look and becoming a potential fire hazard, as if you’d never trimmed the bottom of the trunk when you got it home. There are several reasons water uptake is variable, Dungey said. Low humidity in homes is a primary culprit. Another is that conifers used as Christmas trees have probably been dormant since late summer or early fall. Bringing a tree into a heated home can cause it to come out of dormancy. In fact, Dungey said, sometimes trees will even begin to sprout new growth with the lights, decorations and tinsel on them and presents under the boughs. This new growth is not sustainable, of course, because the tree has been harvested and doesn’t have roots.

If you take the above steps, Dungey said your tree should easily stay fresh looking for three or four weeks.

The only other precaution he suggests is to avoid placing your tree in areas where there will be small pockets of dry air. Places to avoid, he said, are south- or west-facing windows where the tree will get direct sunlight, near heat vents or near a wood-burning stove. Hot air blowing on the tree will adversely affect the amount of moisture the tree loses through transpiration.

And if the weather is especially cold during the holidays, you won’t have to turn the temperature down to lengthen the tree’s life indoors as long as you take the above steps. “If you like the temperature at 72 degrees, then it’s OK to leave it there,” he said.

And when the season is over, the last piece of advice is to be sure to recycle your Christmas tree. Many communities, Dungey said, even offer curbside tree recycling pickup as part of their municipal services. Just check with your local provider to see what recycling opportunities are available in your area.

And don’t worry about availability for next year. There will be plenty. For every tree the growers cut down, the National Christmas Tree Association says they plant one to three seedlings the next year.

How can I make my Christmas tree last?
Regardless of where you live and what kind of tree you plan to bring home, there are two rules everyone should follow to ensure it will last through the holiday