How to keep your live Christmas tree fresh through the new year

Christmas tree season is in full swing, and local sellers and arborists are reminding shoppers how best to choose and care for a live tree to keep it fresh through December.

"A tree that is not cared for can dry out and become a fire hazard," said Spencer Campbell, the plant clinic manager at The Morton Arboretum in Lisle. "A well cared-for tree, with a constant water supply, should remain green and fragrant for several weeks, well through the holidays."

Just like flowers in a vase, a cut evergreen tree needs water. Tree stands should hold at least a gallon of water, and watering is especially important the first week a tree is brought home.

"Once you put the tree in the house in the stand, you add water to it right away. Keep a good look on the tree stand every day because it will take quite a bit of water the first three or four days," said John Veraghen, owner of John's Evergreens. "I've heard of many different recipes, anywhere from maple syrup or Karo syrup to aspirin, but I just recommend good water."

Veraghen, whose family has been growing trees in upper Michigan for more than 50 years, offers a selection of Fraser firs, balsam firs, garlands and wreaths at Huntington Plaza in Hoffman Estates.

He said the tree trunk should be newly cut before placing it in the stand to make sure it is able to take in water. That's because when an evergreen is cut, sap quickly dries and seals the surface. To prevent sap from sealing the trunk again, put the tree in water within an hour or so of being cut and never allow the water level to fall below the bottom of the trunk.

When thinking about watering, it's also important to choose a tree that will fit in the stand to avoid damaging the bark.

"Never try to whittle down the trunk to fit a too-small stand. Doing so will destroy the water vessels under the bark so the tree can't take up water, and it will quickly dry out," Campbell said. "Bring the stand to the tree lot to ensure the chosen tree fits."

A fresh tree will last the longest. While the freshest option is one cut at the time of purchase from a choose-and-cut tree farm, trees from small local lots like Veraghen's are likely to have been harvested within a few days or weeks.

To check the freshness of a tree, Veraghen recommends bending the branches a bit. If they spring back, that's a good sign. Shoppers can also gently brush a branch, and if a lot of needles fall off or if the needles feel stiff, the tree is likely dry and should not be bought.

Needles on a fresh tree are plumped with water, and they should be firmly attached, pliable and fragrant, Campbell said. While it's normal for an evergreen in autumn to lose some yellow or brown needles, dropping a large number of green needles is a sign the tree is drying out.

"Don't buy a tree if the seller won't let the customer unwrap it to examine its freshness," Campbell added.

To prevent the tree from drying out too quickly, keep it away from heat sources such as radiators, fireplaces or heating vents. Christmas trees also can be decorated with lights that are at a cool temperature, such as LED lights rather than incandescent lights.

The arboretum's plant clinic offers free advice over phone or email for anyone with questions about how to care for trees and plants, including Christmas trees. The clinic can be reached at (630) 719-2424 or

• Jenny Whidden is a climate change and environment writer working with the Daily Herald through a partnership with Report For America supported by The Nature Conservancy. To help support her work with a tax-deductible donation, see

  Larry Johnson of John's Evergreens in Powers, Mich., wraps a tree Thursday at the Huntington Plaza on Algonquin Road in Hoffman Estates. Paul Valade/
  Troy Veraghen of John's Evergreens in Powers, Mich., unwraps a Christmas tree at his Huntington Plaza stand on Algonquin Road in Hoffman Estates. Paul Valade/
  Troy Veraghen of John's Evergreens in Powers, Mich., sells trees in Huntington Plaza on Algonquin Road in Hoffman Estates. Paul Valade/
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