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The dos and don'ts of buying a Christmas tree

Despite the plethora of prelit, fake Christmas trees vying for a cozy corner in our living rooms this year, real Christmas trees are still the choice for many consumers.

About 30-million to 35-million real trees are sold in the United States each year, according to the National Christmas Tree Association, based in St. Louis. About 175,000 are sold online or by catalog.

"More than 3-1/2 times as many real trees are purchased as fake trees," said Rick Dungey, a spokesman for the association, which represents Christmas tree growers and retailers and also promotes the use of real trees.

"Most people say they want the tradition, memories and family experience of a real tree, that it's more important to have a family outing than to pull a dusty box out of the attic."

True, true, true.

There's nothing like a whiff of fragrant evergreen in the morning from a real Christmas tree. But those of us who have lived in the North know that picking out a real tree from a lot in Florida takes a little bit of knowledge.

A warmer climate means a live tree can dry out faster, meaning less time for you and your family to enjoy it.

Dungey says it's best to start with a reputable retail lot "that knows what they're doing." Look to see how the lot stores its trees, he suggests. Are they under a shade cloth or baled and stacked and away from direct sunlight?

"Retailers typically have a staging process and will only open up and display their trees a little bit at a time," he explained.

The ground around the trees should be watered or misted at night to keep humidity levels up and to keep the trees moist in order to slow down the drying-out process.

If the trees are being stored on asphalt, the lot operator should have spread straw, mulch or an organic compound around them that can be kept moist.

To check for optimal freshness, you'll want to ask whether the retailer has multiple delivery dates. "Most do because they don't want to store the trees that long," Dungey said.

Once you get your tree home, it's important to keep it away from a south-facing window and away from places that expose it to hot, dry air. This is especially important in Florida.

Avoid placing it near a heater vent or fireplace, and look for lights that are low-heat. Lowering the room temperature also helps keep a tree fresh by slowing the drying process, and if you plan to place your tree in front of a sliding glass door, make sure it doesn't get a lot of sun.

Displaying your tree in a traditional reservoir-type stand - one that fits your tree properly - is best for keeping it fresh and minimizing needle loss, according to the National Christmas Tree Association.

The association offers these tips for buying a tree:

- Be sure you know what size (height and width) you need before heading to the retail lot.

If you want a species that you are familiar with or have always used, great. If you want to try a different species, browse the association's Web site at to become familiar with the species popular in your area.

- Go to a retail lot that is well-lit and that stores trees in a shaded area.

Often, a tree obtained soon after its arrival on a retail lot will be very fresh because it was cut recently. Consumers should ask the retailer when he or she gets the trees. Are they delivered once at the beginning of the season? Or does he or she obtain several shipments during the season?

- Do a freshness test on the trees. Green needles on fresh trees break crisply when bent sharply with the fingers.

Pines have different indicators because of the fibrous nature of their needles compared with firs'. The needles on fresh pines do not break, unless they are very dry.

- Look for other indicators of dryness or deterioration: excessive needle loss, discolored foliage, a musty odor and a wrinkled bark. A good rule of thumb is, when in doubt about the freshness of a tree, select another one. If none of the trees on the lot look fresh, go to another lot.

Some species last longer and remain fresh longer than others in different climates. Ask your retailer which tree performs best in your climate.

Ask the retailer about recycling Christmas trees in your community.

Involve the whole family in the selection, and plan fun things for everyone to do during the trip.

Fast facts

Tree tips

The National Christmas Tree Association recommends that you take these steps when purchasing a real Christmas tree:

- Know what size you need before heading to the tree lot.

- Go to a lot that is well lit and that stores trees in shade.

- Check the trees' freshness.

- Look for signs of dryness or deterioration.