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.
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.
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.
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.
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]