Julie ThomsonPining for the real thing

Nothing quite defines the Christmas tragics like the decision to fake it or cut it. Talking Christmas trees here. And for years I was in the curled-lip ”as if”’ camp when asked if our tree was one that stored away from year to year. “You mean an ARTIFICIAL tree? ”I’d sneer when it was suggested I’d have anything but the real McCoy – pine-smelling, needle dropping and misshapen though they were.

I thought having a REAL Christmas tree was as sacred as the feast itself, poor misguided, pompous me. So year in year out, we trudged with our kids to the local state pine forest and duly selected and chopped a “thinning” – what looked in the open like a “perfect” shaped tree. But on reaching our living room, it had branches that were too irregular to hold the lights and tinsel with any symmetry and sloped downwards so all the ornaments slipped off, tangled and smashed. And our ”real deal” would never stand straight and true in the bucket of bricks we plonked it in, so by Christmas morning, our snobby obsession with authenticity meant we had a messy, shedding, sap-bleeding, leaning, almost nude Christmas tree, propped in the corner of the lounge, precariously held upright by string and pulley tied to the window handle.

We couldn’t close the window without collapsing the tree, so hoped for an absence of summer storms that blew and sprayed rain from the south through the screen. Anyone reaching for a wrapped gift under the boughs of this fragile set-up and who bumped it in the process risked toppling it to the floor, probably suffering concussion or facial lacerations from shattered glass balls, so it had to be erected again with all the painstaking balancing, redressing to follow. Merry Christmas – NOT!

But, boy it smelled nice! That was the mantra we recited every time someone visited. We’d echo it smugly and self-congratulate as friends walked in and inhaled. ”Oh yes. There’s nothing like a real tree at Christmas….”

Here’s where I depart from most gardeners’ creed.

Actually – there is something better. It’s plastic, or acrylic and regular shaped, balanced, upright and sometimes even comes with attached lights that NEVER fall off or clump up in one spot. It folds away in a compact box every year and is put up in the time it takes to sharpen the axe used on a “real” tree.

It does the job, carries the symbolism of the occasion and no carbon is taken from the atmosphere in the process. I’ve “come out” with this Christmas tree stuff. I am now the owner of a flat-pack green-bristled plastic tree. It’s like IKEA brilliance without the Allen key. You shake it upright in about 30 seconds and in another minute when the power is connected, the lights are blinking. It is symmetrical and pleasing to the eye and its sturdy cross-stand withstands all bumps that our army of Christmas visitors can throw at it. It’s an artificial tree and I reject inferences that it’s not quite as “good” as the green.

Real trees are for the garden, the paddocks and the fields. Christmas is for tizz, tinsel, baubles and showy bling, so let’s not inflict that on a dignified flora specimen. Let’s embrace the plastic, acrylic, wooden whatever ..that you erect and gather your loved ones around this season.

I was always mightily impressed with the majestic Douglas firs and cypresses the northern hemisphere, cold-climate countries boast for their yuletide tree. Summertime Australia is an odd backdrop for bushy alpine trees that dominate living rooms across the country. But tradition is a powerful force and there won’t be many families without a Christmas tree this year. Australian trees have usually not had the shape and density for the picture postcard Christmas look, usually presenting more scraggly than stately.

Wollemi pine

Some buy a tree that’s used indoors for Christmas decoration and kept in a pot to be re-used every year or later planted out for landscaping. This trend is popular with people who like to watch their tree grow with their family and see it as a reminder of special Christmas occasions. An ideal specimen for this is the Wollemi pine. It has been hailed by horticulturists as the perfect Christmas tree, as it has a natural conical shape and very flexible leaves that can support Christmas decorations. A large 1.5m to 2m Wollemi pine can also be kept in a pot if kept in the partial shade. When it’s not the family Christmas tree, it makes a fantastic patio or indoor plant.

Gymnostoma australianum at Plantline Nurseries, Toorbul Qld


There are also the bunya pine and hoop pine. Some of the Callitris species might be more suitable for long term pot culture or use in the the ground and in the years to come, perhaps some of the other lesser-known Australian native gymnosperms. There are also the familiar Casuarina and Allocasuarina trees commonly known as she-oaks. Less familiar is Gymnostoma australianum from the Daintree rainforest of North Queensland.


Syzygium ‘Pinnacle’ by Ozbreed


Wollemi is a good Aussie tub Christmas tree specimen. It has a conifer-like appearance and is available in garden centres. While the foliage of lillypilles isn’t particularly like that of conifers, the genus Syzygium and Acmena, its close relative, nevertheless has many Christmas tree candidates. There are many on the market to choose from. Disfiguring leaf psyllids are an issue with some lilly pillies, as they spoil the look of the tree, so pick a resistant species/variety. Some have a greater natural tendency to upright growth and a conical shape than others. This lillypilly at left already shows a natural tendency to conical growth, which could be further enhanced by pruning.

Sometimes plants are pruned before sale, but if you want an upright plant, look for an apical leader. Prune to shape and to encourage bushiness and maintain healthy and prolific foliage with sufficient water and fertiliser. Dwarf forms will be best for keeping in containers long-term. Rotate the pots regularly to get even growth on all sides.

My Christmas tree memories from childhood are of spindly casuarinas, spikey radiata pines and scratchy Norfolk Island pines stooping under the tinsel and stars in our lounge room. But truthfully, I paid scant attention to the type of tree we put up each Christmas, focussing instead on what was UNDER it with my name on it.

So, alas, for a passionate gardener, I am a revelling in the ease and tidiness of a “not” real Christmas tree in our house. But I am relishing the other aspects of Christmas bursting into flower outside. Like the dazzling poinciana tree and the glorious New Zealand Christmas tree, the pohutukawa.

Poinciana tree

And I wish you a very happy and safe Christmas season and holiday time and joy in your garden.

[For more fascinating Christmas tree facts, visit Julie’s Garden Grapevine blog]


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Julie Thomson

About Julie Thomson

Journalist, writer, editor, television and book publicist, formerly with ABC Gardening Australia, passionate gardener, soil improver, digger, mulcher, living in acreage splendour near Sunshine Coast, Queensland. Subscribes to the Cicero edict: "I have a garden and a library, so have everything I need." Read my full blog at Julie's Garden Grapevine

9 thoughts on “Pining for the real thing

  1. A fake tree? Sorry Julie, never! We had a bunya pine grown from a “nut” when our kids were at primary school; it came inside in its concrete pot for two weeks a year for maybe 10 years at Shorncliffe… then it went into our front paddock at Maleny. It had no tap root, of course, but surprised us by rocketing up and out into a perfect conical shape… and surviving storm after storm. It’s now 50ft tall and last year provided its first cones. The kids, now parents too, took “nuts” home to plant their own Aussie Christmas trees.

    • Graham, You always were a nut job and now I see why.
      I love the history of your Bunya pine and its course through your moves and family years and its progeny growing into new little Bunyas in Earle households now and in the future. It has me feeling very shallow about my store-bought tree. But you haven’t said what you put your decorations on these days? Can’t see you scaling the 50ft number to place the star and fairy lights.
      Fess up if you have a little mantlepiece acrylic number..

      • Thanks Julie, nut comment noted. Definitely no acrylic trees around here. I tried lights on the freed bunya about five years ago but they looked ridiculous. Very difficult hauling them up and down too. Bow and arrow to get a rope over the top (very Robin Hood). Oddly — and embarrassingly — a wonga vine this year has made it to the top where it looks like a white star. Sort of. I haven’t the heart to cut it. We have a second generation bunya, already 3ft, for use inside. Cheers

  2. I’m all the way with fake, Julie. My mother would never have the messy and mis-shapen pine tree thinnings that were sold as Christmas trees back in the 1960s and 70s so I didn’t grow up with the scent. In fact, most people’s harvested ‘live’ Christmas trees smell distinctly ‘dead’ to me. It was pre the days of good fake ones so my resourceful father made one himself of green-dyed thick, jute rope, cut and teased out to resemble conifer foliage and threaded onto twisted wire (with a hook at the end for decorations), which was attached in rows onto small casuarina branches. Each branch was sharpened like a pencil at the end and slotted into a numbered hole on the tree ‘trunk’, also made from casuarina, to create a conical tree. He made it in the late 1950s and it lives on at my sister’s house. I still think it’s the best Christmas tree ever!

  3. Haha, very entertaining! Our family ritual was eldest daughter and dad heading off to get a radiata pine each year. There are plenty of them along the local roadsides and they’re a terrible weed here, invading native bushland, so we always felt faintly virtuous in removing one! But sometimes the shape was, as you say, less than ideal!

    The godsend that revolutionised the ease of a real tree was the Xmas tree stand – three screws that clamp through a ring around the bottom of the trunk, with the base of the trunk in a bowl-shaped cavity (for water) supported by three legs – ours was the red and green image second from the top left, but you can see there are plenty. No more crooked trees, buckets and rocks!

    Also, every year since they were babies, we bought our daughters one new decoration each, so that when they left home they had ornaments for their own trees.
    But I’m afraid I’m a bit of a humbug when it comes to that stuff for myself, and seeing as we’ll be away this Xmas, I heaved a sigh of relief not to have to do the tree thing AT ALL!

    • Thanks Helen. I think that tree stand is a pearler. Wish I’d had one years ago. The yearly ornament idea is a lovely one. Our family ditto. We went for a few years after the kids left home of not having a tree at all as we celebrated Christmas away from home. But lately, have felt pressure from these same ( grown) kids to have one again, hence the purchase of an easier model. This year, our daughter decorated the tree and I watched, and unlike when she was small, I didn’t re-do it all after she went to bed. I merely poured another glass of bubbles and watched the lights flicker prettily while I drank it.

  4. My Scottish aunt always went with the fake tree. Taking a sense of convenience to the next level, she would simply place the assembled tree as is, complete with decorations, into a cupboard at the end of December. The following December out it would come, exactly the same as it was the year before! This went on for decades.

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