Maria & Jeff with XmasTree 2021

Winthrop residents Maria Converse and Jeff Hardy are seen with two subalpine fir Christmas trees and their online permit from the U.S. Forest Service. Online permits can be purchased for one or two trees.

Trees, flowers, fruits and vegetables mark many of our seasonal celebrations, and nothing announces the Christmas season like the scent of fresh conifer needles.

Christmas trees have been used in the U.S. since the early 1800s. Commercial sales began about 1850, when enterprising forest workers would cut wild trees and bring them to town for sale during the holiday season. W.V. McGalliard of Mercer County, New Jersey, is credited with starting the first Christmas tree farm in the United States in 1901. He planted 25,000 Norway spruce seedlings, tended them for seven years, then sold them at his farm for $1 each.

About 26 million U.S. households will decorate with a live Christmas tree this year. Most of these trees will come from one of the 15,000 Christmas tree farms in the United States, and about 2 million will be imported from Canada. About two-thirds of the live trees purchased will come from Christmas tree stands or retail stores. The rest will be purchased at tree farms, where customers can either cut their own or select a tree and have it cut for them. Many people look forward to visiting a tree farm in early December, knowing they can bring home a fresh-cut tree just when they are ready to set it up.

If you enjoy the outdoors and live within driving distance of a national forest, the best deal in town is a $5 Christmas tree permit. Permits can be purchased online starting in mid-October, or from local vendors starting Nov. 1.

Early November is an excellent time to harvest a wild Christmas tree since forest roads may still be clear at elevations above 4,000 feet. At high elevations, tree photosynthesis — the production of nutrients from sunlight, water and carbon dioxide — is usually suspended by sometime in mid-October. Once that happens, the tree can be cut and stored in a cool, dark place for several weeks without losing its freshness.

In late autumn, variations of a few degrees below and above freezing cause conifer photosynthesis to slow down. Once the temperature drops below 24 degrees Fahrenheit, photosynthesis stops. After several nights of freezing temperatures, photosynthesis slows down during the day even if the temperature rises. After a freeze of 18 to 21 degrees, photosynthesis stops and will not recover until spring. The higher you go in elevation to harvest your tree, the more likely it is that your tree will have reached the point of winter suspension.

When you bring your tree home, store it in a sheltered place away from sun and wind until you are ready to bring it inside.

The care is the same once you bring the tree inside, whether you buy it at a retail outlet, harvest from a tree farm or from a national forest:

  • The tree stand must fit your tree. Do not whittle down the sides of the trunk to fit your stand. The outer layers of wood are the most efficient in taking up water and should not be removed.
  • Before you place your tree in the stand, cut about 1 inch from the stump. This is necessary because resin begins to block some of the pores as soon as the tree is harvested. A fresh cut will improve water uptake.
  • Your tree stand should hold at least one gallon of water. When you bring your tree indoors, it will detect spring-like conditions and photosynthesis will start again. The tree can easily take up a quart of water per day for the first week. Check the water level daily, and never let it fall below the bottom of the stump.

Enjoy your tree, and happy holidays!

A WSU Master Gardeners of Chelan County column appears weekly in The Wenatchee World. Connie Mehmel is one of four columnists featured. To learn more, visit or call (509) 667-6540.

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