The following are special releases from Richard Hentschel, University of Illinois Extension Horticulture Educator.
Holiday tree history
Decorating evergreen trees at Christmas is an old German custom that originated along the upper Rhine River. The Christmas tree was first brought to America by Hessian troops during the Revolutionary War.
Another early account tells of American soldiers setting up and decorating a tree at the wilderness outpost of Fort Dearborn (now Chicago) in 1804.
In the early 1800s celebrating Christmas with a tree was still considered a quaint foreign custom, practiced mostly by the German settlers in Eastern Pennsylvania. During the 1850s, the Christmas tree became fashionable along the East Coast, and in 1856, President Franklin Pierce had a Christmas tree brought into the White House as a treat for a group of Sunday school children.
The custom continued to gain popularity, and in 1923, the first National Christmas Tree was displayed in the Capitol.
A more complete history of holiday trees can be found at go.illinois.edu/ChristmasTree.
How to recycle your live Christmas tree
I know you are thinking, "Why is he talking about what to do with the holiday tree while presents are still under it?"
Well, I may be rushing the calendar a bit, yet having an expectation of how best to recycle the tree makes the follow-through easier.
Right now, taking care of the tree once it is up and decorated really means making sure there is plenty of water in the reservoir. If you made a family event out of tree hunting at any one our local Christmas tree farms, your tree is much fresher and will easily last till New Year's even if you put it up the first of the month.
For trees that were cut down months ago, the needles are likely already drying and the tree is no longer taking up any water. Those trees need to be watched carefully and any heat or flame source, such as a lit candle, need to be kept far away for safety reasons. The older style incandescent string lights can generate a lot of heat around the bulbs as well, so be careful.
Once the decision is made to take the tree down, you can recycle the entire tree or use pieces of it for different projects. Here are a few ideas:
Evergreen branches, boughs:
• Cut up the evergreen branches and place them over your tender perennials or other perennials in the garden that are early spring targets for the rabbits. Spring bulbs can also benefit from this rabbit protection too.
• Evergreen boughs also act to collect leaves and falling snow, providing more protection from icy weather or other weather or wildlife threats.
• Use the leftover tree trunk next spring to grow climbing peas or pole beans since you cannot burn the trunk indoors in the fireplace because of all the sap.
• You will be able to burn that trunk in the outdoor fire pit by summer though.
• An interesting idea from the Arbor Day Foundation is to make drink coasters from the trunk as the wood dries down. Something fun could be 'burning in' the family initials or names too. You can varnish or polyurethane them, glue a nonslip bottom on or felt circles and you'll be ready for that summer iced tea.
• Those fallen needles under the tree in the house aren't garbage. They can be collected and added to the compost bin or pile or scattered in the flower beds on the snow or bare ground.
The whole tree:
• If you want to leave the tree whole, tie it to a tree trunk or other structure in your yard. It will provide shelter for the birds, especially if you feed the birds.
• Want an interesting project for the kids over the holiday break and into January and February? Make edible decorations for the tree that will benefit the birds. Pine cones covered with peanut butter or sunflower butter, and strings of popcorn and fresh cranberries are easy ones. Suet balls would be welcomed by the larger birds but little hands will need the parents to help.
• There also are city and community tree recycling programs available in many areas if that is best for your family. Just don't forget during gardening season to go pick up and bring home some of the mulch they make from the donated trees.
Our old Christmas trees can truly give back to nature, so do not throw them in the garbage. There are many ways to recycle and reuse them for practical and even entertaining purposes!