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Real or Fake? The great tree conundrum

Alex Aspacher • Nov 30, 2011 at 11:35 AM

So all your neighbors have decorated for the holidays, but you’re still struggling with a crucial decision: Real or fake?

The smell of a real tree might take you back to your childhood, but what about the mess? What about the environmental impact?

Is an artificial tree better? Or is it worse when you consider the overseas manufacturing?

For some, picking a tree may just come down to tradition.

Julie Barnes, an owner of Barnes Nursery in Huron, said families start coming to pick up real trees the weekend after Thanksgiving.

“I was raised with the tradition where the whole family goes to the lot and picks out a tree,” Barnes said. “I think a lot of others were too, and for me, there’s no substitute for the scent of a real tree.”

Twenty-seven million real trees with retail value of almost $1 billion were purchased in 2010, according to a Harris Interactive poll commissioned by the National Christmas Tree Association. The organization reports that farm-grown trees outsell artificial ones by almost three to one.

Howard Smith, an owner of Country Hill Tree Farm in North Fairfield, said sales of real trees are up from last year. He credited the growth to an increased advertising efforts and the lasting tradition of farm-grown trees.

“You just can’t get that smell from anything that’s not a natural Christmas tree,” Smith said.

Country Hill charges $5-8 per foot for its locally grown trees, Smith said. He said it makes sense to go natural because trees are a renewable resource that help clean the air and produce oxygen.

A four-foot, pre-lit artificial tree starts around $150, though bargain hunters can find better sales.

Determining which type of tree is more environmentally friendly is complicated, and the source of much debate between real tree growers and those who sell their artificial counterparts.

Factors in determining the environmental impact, some of which cannot accurately be measured, include transportation costs. Artificial trees are typically shipped to U.S. stores from overseas. Families can buy real trees locally, but there is an impact in driving to get the tree year after year.

The American Christmas Tree Association, which supports companies who sell artificial trees, claims artificial trees are better. A study from the organization, however, shows fake trees need to be used annually for 20 years or longer for the benefits of their longevity to show.

The National Christmas Tree Association, which supports real tree growers, says real trees are the way to go because they aren’t made with environmentally damaging plastics.

Although some will never give up the nostalgia of a real evergreen, the convenience of artificial trees has affected Barnes Nursery in recent years. Barnes now carries about half the natural trees it carried 10 years ago, Barnes estimated.

That hasn't stopped the nursery from setting up fake trees of its own inside its store to display products like Christmas ornaments.

“There’s really no argument against their convenience,” Barnes said.

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