PULLMAN, Wash.-- Composers of Christmas carols probably didn’t have artificial trees in mind when penning their Yuletide odes. Now researchers are figuring out how to turn consumers’ thoughts from fake plastic trees to the real thing.
“Consumers need to understand there are new and improved methods for maintaining Christmas trees,” said Jeff Joireman, a marketing professor at Washington State University. “I mean, when I was a kid, we’d have to lay on the ground with a little flower watering pot...but there are ways these days that you can do that today without getting under the tree and all that stuff.”
Washington and Oregon produced 7.6 million of the 17.4 million Christmas trees grown in the U.S., according to the most recent data from the National Christmas Tree Association.
Sales of real Christmas trees have decreased per capita over the years, as more consumers have turned to plastic trees, researchers say. At Washington State University, researchers are participating in a nationwide project, funded by a $1.3 million grant from the U.S. Department of Agriculture, exploring methods to make and market a better Christmas tree.
“The reality is, the criteria that are being used today (to judge trees) are almost the same criteria that were being used 40, 50 years ago,” said Gary Chastagner, a WSU plant pathologist in Puyallup and one of the project’s lead researchers. “And things have changed a lot.”
Chastagner has studied diseases and needle shedding in Christmas tree species for decades. That’s a critical component for holiday shoppers who many want to display their real trees for much longer than they did in the past.
“When I was a young kid growing up in the ‘50s, we also only displayed the tree for maybe a week,” he said. “We’d get it a couple of days before Christmas, and we’d generally take it down before New Year’s.”
One of his current projects is in Washington, D.C. The Capitol Christmas Tree, which was taken from the Colville National Forest, carried sensors on it during its cross-country journey to record moisture data. Shipping a tree is a logistical challenge, Chastagner said, and many Christmas trees travel from the Pacific Northwest to homes across the country. As part of his work Chastagner studies how well trees last after being harvested.
Chastagner said there’s more pressure on growers and shippers to deliver a fresh product, but also for consumers to properly maintain the tree. Trees that don’t have enough moisture tend to shed needles, which is one of the major concerns people have about real Christmas trees. There’s also not much of a chance of the tree catching fire if it’s kept moist, Chastagner said.
But genes play a role, too. Chastagner and some of the other project researchers, in North Carolina and at the University of California-Davis, are identifying gene markers that produce ideal trees.
But what is an ideal Christmas tree? Joireman, a WSU marketing professor, is working on answering that question.
“Do (customers) want a real full tree? Some people do. Or do they want more of a ‘Charlie Brown’ Christmas tree? Some people really like that, but you don’t see that on the lots,” he said.
Joireman and his junior-level marketing research class in Pullman examined what affects people’s decision to buy a real or artificial tree.
“Tradition is a really strong predictor of whether people choose a real or an artificial tree,” Joireman said. “If somebody, a young college student, gets their first job, moves into their first home, comes up on their first Christmas, and they decide, ‘I’m just going to buy an artificial tree,’ they’re going to have that artificial tree for eight, 10 years.”
Another major factor in the decision is convenience, he said. But if a consumer decides to purchase a real tree, there are a few things they can do to make sure it lasts, Chastagner said.
“You can examine the tree and see if there happens to be any green needles falling off the tree. If there are, I would select another tree,” he said. Brown needles that have fallen aren’t a problem, he said, because they probably died from a lack of light during growth or shipping.
Once the tree is home, Chastagner said it’s important to realize how much water it needs. Trees should have at least a quart of water per inch of diameter at the tree’s base. Additives to preserve the tree aren’t necessary, he said.
Joireman said real trees have more to offer than artificial ones.
“People like tradition and young people are looking at ways of establishing their own traditions, I think, and this is a great opportunity,” he said. “There are obviously a lot of opportunities for tradition and bonding when you have a real tree, because maybe you can go out and cut it or whatever. There are a lot of things that would be fun to do as a family or a couple, in terms of a real tree.”