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Christmas tree's journey helps transform holiday

RIVERVIEW

The tree finally found its home.

After a journey of more than 1,350 miles and close to a decade of harsh winters spent in northern Michigan, the 7-foot black hills spruce stood nestled in the corner of a Brandon living room.

From seedling to adulthood, its entire existence called it toward this moment.

Wrapped in a white and red plaid tree skirt, the spruce awaited the presents soon to be huddled under its outstretched boughs.

About 350 million Christmas trees grow on Christmas tree farms across the United States, with the biggest business done in states such as Oregon, Michigan and North Carolina, according to the National Christmas Tree Association.

Together, these farms create a billion-dollar national industry, with much of the profits stemming from the powerhouse states exporting their Christmas cheer to less tree-inclined climates like Florida.

The trees lean patiently in lots as they're poked, prodded and turned by families searching for the perfect holiday centerpiece. But their time on display for customers is a short segment in lives that start in nurseries a thousand miles away and end in homes, covered in lights and tinsel and yuletide wonder.

• • •

The journey of a Christmas tree is as much about transformation as it is about transportation. It's about well-manicured branches holding treasured ornaments like baby's first Christmas and the sled made in a first-grade art class.

It's about reviving memories through all five senses. "Real tree" lovers cherish the familiar scent and the prick of the needles. They pass on to their children tips to keep the tree fresh. They know a house comes alive when the aroma of pine fills the air.

But before those branches can dutifully hold ornaments, they must first be deconed, pruned and bound for the two-day journey from Michigan to Florida.

All of the trees from Mike's Christmas Trees at 11349 Bloomingdale Ave. come from farms in Northern Michigan, including one run by the owner, Mike Roberts.

Roberts has been in the tree business for nearly 30 years, his wife, Cathy, said. He came to Brandon 13 years ago and now has four locations in addition to the one on Bloomingdale.

Christmas tree care is year-round. Each year, a new batch is selected to make the journey south. The selection isn't random, Cathy said. Starting in the summer, the cones are removed and the tree carefully pruned, getting the contour of a proper Christmas tree.

Mike then goes through his farm and two neighboring farms, hand selecting each tree that will be cut later in the year.

"The trees we bring down are only the premium trees," Cathy said. "On average, it takes four years in a nursery and 10 years on the farm to get a good, mature, beautiful tree."

Mike keeps meticulous data on what types of trees appeal to his customers, ranging from height and shape to color and type.

They've sold as many as 13 types of trees, but this year decided on seven types to bring down, Cathy said.

The shapes range from tall, strong, majestic trees to the Hershey Kiss-style round ones, Cathy said. Ornament lovers prefer strong branches with large openings and spaces between the layers to properly display their collection.

Some of the trees have to go through further preparation, such as painting the needles and trunk.

"This is their dormancy time," Cathy said. "They look really pretty in the spring when they have new growth, but no one wants Christmas trees in the spring."

• • •

When the air cools and winter approaches, the tagged trees enjoy their last few weeks in the Michigan soil.

From right before Thanksgiving through the beginning of December, the trees are cut down in groups targeted for each of the five lots the Robertses maintain.

The size of the shipments varies. As the weather gets colder, the branches harden and become less malleable, meaning the trees can't be bound as tightly and fewer fit in a truck.

They are pushed into semitrailer trucks that barrel down Interstate 75 through falling snow and over dangerous overpasses. They pass sleepy towns like Wapakoneta, Ohio, where white Christmas isn't just the title of a carol.

They arrive fresh in Tampa, snow still clinging to their needles despite the 82-degree weather, a sign of just how quick their journey was from the North.

They soak in ponds of water for three days, ensuring adequate hydration before they are displayed in regal rows alongside a nativity scene and a giant reindeer lovingly nicknamed "Stevie Wondeer" for its missing eyes.

A girl in shorts and a sweatshirt runs barefoot over pine needles as her mother runs her hands through the trees, checking that the branches are not too thick, the needles not too sharp. They leave with sap on their fingers and the smell of pine clinging to their clothes.

Families come to places like Mike's armed with tree knowledge but guided by love. Nostalgia steers them past perfectly good trees toward the ones that harken to Christmases past and family traditions. This one feels like the spindly one Dad brought home years ago tied to the roof of the truck. That one has the long branches Grandma loved to drape with tinsel and strings of popcorn.

The trees may arrive on a truck, but they end up transporting people to the magic of the past.

• • •

The journey of the Christmas tree ended 11 days before Christmas.

The couple picked the black hills spruce because of its symmetrical shape and unique shade of green.

"Green's my favorite color, so I'm really picky," Jennifer Rodgers said, standing outside Mike's Christmas Trees on a warm Saturday afternoon as her tree was shaken and bundled and prepared for transfer. "There's nothing like the feel and smell of a real Christmas tree."

Rodgers and Trent Davis expected to spend close to 45 minutes browsing and picking the perfect tree. After all, a tree is a living, breathing entity, an ambassador of Noel, greeting the season's guests with goodwill and pageantry. But the couple was in and out in less than 15 minutes, the spruce catching their eye almost instantly.

"We thought we'd know it when we saw it, and we did," Rodgers said.

Americans bought 25 million trees in 2012 and spent about $40 per tree, according to a survey from the National Christmas Tree Association.

They range from tiny ones glowing in windows to giants like the 28-foot Douglas fir greeting shoppers at the Winthrop Town Centre.

With the tree safely bundled in the back of the pickup truck, the couple went to Target for a fresh round of decorations. Rodgers usually dons her tree in patterned ornaments and white lights, whereas Davis trends toward candy canes and tinsel.

"It was so fun picking everything out together and learning each other's style and traditions," Rodgers said.

They trimmed the tree with a mix of their two styles: wrapped in colored lights, with ornaments and candy canes adorning its branches.

Caitlin Johnston can be reached at cjohnston@tampabay.com.

Christmas tree's journey helps transform holiday 12/18/13 [Last modified: Thursday, December 19, 2013 10:34am]

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