Wednesday, December 12, 2012

O, Christmas Tree

There was a time, before Christmas tree plantations and plastic trees from China, when all the trees sold in cities were "natural" trees, grown of their own initiative and independence. Buyers from the city traveled into the country to acquire them from farmers who often had no choice but to sell them. The poet Robert Frost told of one such encounter in 1920.



 I had a chance last week to sit down with Dr. Henry Gerhold, a retired Penn State forestry professor who spent his entire career of over 50 years primarily researching Christmas trees. Henry earned his doctorate at Yale University studying the discoloration of Christmas trees in New Hampshire in the late 1940’s, and his work brought him to the attention of Dr. William C. Bramble, who had been studying Christmas trees here at Penn State since the Great Depression.

It was in the Depression that real interest in Christmas plantations and tree species started developing. President Roosevelt had created an agency called the Civilian Conservation Corps, which put out-of-work men to work building state and national parks and making other general improvements in the countryside. It was in these camps that it was learned that the Scotch Pine (Pinus sylvestris) was the easiest of all conifers to successfully plant and grow to reclaim deserted farm lands. This reputation brought Scotch Pine to the attention of Christmas tree growers, who were looking for a tree species that would have better survival and improve profitability.

So for the next thirty or forty years, Scotch Pine was the iconic symbol of Christmas here in the United States, and Pennsylvania became the leading state for Christmas tree growth in the country. But the 1970’s brought in changing tastes in clothes, hairstyles, and Christmas trees…the country turned tacky, and plastic trees replaced the dazzling space-aged aluminum trees that were so popular in the 1960’s. They were marketed as inexpensive, easy to assemble, and forever.

This is the Christmas tree I remember...Same blue balls, same colorwheel.  It was mesmerizing to watch with all the lights turned off. Looks kind of scrawny now, doesn't it? Source: http://www.kshs.org/kansapedia/cool-things-aluminum-christmas-tree/10148 
And they have caught on, to the point that about half the Christmas trees in the country are plastic. Now they’re pretty nice…look pretty real, pre-lighted to magnificence, and can be set-up in about ten minutes or less.  Perfect for modern man with his superficial appreciation of all things traditional.

But let’s face it, they just aren’t the same as having a fresh, piney-smelling, green tree in the house. So, as we seek desperately to find something real in our lives, real Christmas trees are making a comeback. And the masses are just discovering that, surprise! – real trees are “greener” than the plastic impostors. Who would have thought?

Henry’s work at Penn State resulted in, among other initiatives, the development of PennTIP, the Pennsylvania Tree Improvement Program, which has resulted in the continuing improvement of live trees for the market. Tastes have evolved from Scotch pine to Douglas-fir and more recently, Fraser Fir. Better logistics, including the trend toward family visits to Christmas tree farms, guarantee most buyers a tree that has been freshly harvested and smells great.

And here at Penn State, you can participate in a tradition that started decades ago, when forestry students started selling trees from Henry’s research farms for fundraisers. Their 2012 edition of the traditional Christmas tree sale is being held Friday from 3 to 6, Saturday and Sunday from 10 to 3 in the parking lot of the Forestry Research Laboratory on the corner of University and Hastings Road here on campus.

So, pitch that worn-out old plastic abomination, get out with the family, and have some fun by Going Wood.


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