Environmentally Friendly Christmas Tree Tradition

It is time for a new Christmas tree tradition for the 21st century.

Regardless of whether you are a real Christmas tree aficionado or an artificial tree enthusiast, you can make your Christmas tree tradition more eco-friendly.

Celebrating the holidays with a decorated Christmas tree in your home is a well-established custom in the United States dating back to the late 19th century. Our family is one of the 95 million American families who will be displaying a Christmas tree in their home this year.

Christmas trees have been a highlight of the holiday season for me ever since I was a little kid, but after living in a Monterey pine forest for a few years I began worrying about the environmental impact of Christmas trees, both real and artificial.

In 2014, I decided to conduct some research to try to determine if a real or artificial tree was a better choice from an environmental perspective. If you are interested you can read about my findings in the post, Which is Greener a Real or Artificial Christmas Tree? Nothing I learned induced me to switch from a real tree to an artificial tree or to give up Christmas trees altogether, but I committed myself to making our Christmas tree tradition more environmentally friendly.

You, too, can green your Christmas tree tradition. Below are some eco-friendly tips for real and artificial trees and a suggestion for a new tradition.

Green Tips for Artificial Christmas Trees

  • If you are serious about greening your Christmas tree tradition, avoid buying a trendy tree that you will be sick of in a few years and will want to replace. Buy a tree that you can see yourself enjoying for at least ten years and hopefully more.
  • It is hard to judge looks or quality online so go to a store with artificial Christmas trees on display.
  • Select a tree that looks well built and resilient enough to survive putting up and taking down year after year.
  • If you are buying a tree with lights already installed, opt for energy-efficient LED Christmas lights. If not, recycle your incandescent lights (even minis) and replace them with LED lights.
  • After the holidays, carefully pack up your tree and put it in a safe storage space. Artificial trees cannot be recycled so your goal should be to keep it out of a landfill as long as possible.

Green Tips for Real Christmas Trees

One non-environmental factor that makes real Christmas trees attractive to me is that they grow on farms in the United States providing jobs for Americans, while most artificial tree manufacturing occurs overseas.

  • Buy a sturdy tree stand built to last for decades and store it in a place where you can find it next year.
  • Organic Christmas trees are still rare in many areas, but if you can find one buy it.
  • Do not have your tree flocked. First, why buy a real tree if you are just going to cover it with synthetic material and second, flocked trees cannot be recycled.
  • If you still have incandescent Christmas tree lights, recycle them and purchase LED lights.
  • After the holidays, make sure you recycle your tree. Many towns offer curbside pick up or places where you can drop off your tree. The trees are chipped to create mulch and you may be able to pick up free mulch for your own yard or garden. Another option is to cut up the tree to fit in your green recycling bin if you have one.

Start a New Christmas Tree Tradition – Buy One, Plant Two

In 2014, after looking into the environmental impact of real and artificial Christmas trees, I decided to begin a new holiday tradition, a tree for a tree and encouraged readers to join me. I proposed that each year we buy a real or artificial Christmas tree or put up an existing artificial tree, we plant a new tree or get someone to plant one on our behalf in our yard, a park, or a forest.

That year, we planted a tiny cypress tree seedling that we had rescued from a street median. Three years later, the cypress tree is about 9 feet tall and flourishing.

Last year, I raised the ante on my tree planting to buy one, plant two. We selected two Big Sur Coast Redwood tree seedlings at the local nursery and planted them in our yard.

The redwood trees are still alive but they only grew about an inch. In hindsight, it seems like perhaps they needed more shade, water, and fog. Nevertheless, the trees have made it to the one-year mark so I am hopeful that they are established enough to live here for a couple hundred years.

This year I decided to obtain some expert advice about what type of trees to plant. At the December meeting of the California Native Plant Society in San Luis Obispo, CA, I cornered two botanists (in a nice way) and asked them for recommendations.

As a non-botanist, I was grateful that they did not start bandying about scientific names and took my question seriously. They both mentioned Toyon as one of their first two suggestions.

Interestingly, to me at least, the Saturday before the meeting, my spouse and I had gone on a native plant walk (it was a grueling uphill hike) and Toyon was the first plant pointed out on the trail.

Decorated Real Christmas Tree December 2017My spouse and I conferred about the botanists’ suggestions and determined that Toyon was the right choice for this year.

Our local nursery in Cambria only had two Toyons in stock. One was short and bushy and the other was several feet tall with a scattering of leaves. We opted to purchase both of them and then selected a Christmas tree, which is now beautifying our living room.

In the interest of giving the Toyons the best possible start on life in our yard, I decided to do a little research before we planted them. I learned that scientific name for Toyon is Heteromeles arbutifolia (I dare you to try saying that aloud) and it is called Christmas Berry and California Holly, which apparently inspired the name for the city of Hollywood. I read that Toyons are shrubs which can grow up to 30 feet tall and are supposedly easy to grow and deer resistant.

After mulling over several locations, we selected a spot that gets a little shade from a nearby Monterey pine tree. We planted the Toyons near each other, spread some mulch, and gave them some water. The deer that visit our yard do not strictly adhere to deer resistant plant guidelines so as a safety precaution we encircled our Toyons with fencing, which we will remove once the Toyons get big enough to hold their own with the deer.

Readers, I hope you will join me and expand your Christmas tree tradition to include planting two trees. If you do not have a yard to plant trees in, then consider making a donation (cash or labor) to a local tree planting program. Type “tree planting program” and the name of your town into your Internet search window to find local and regional opportunities for tree planting at parks, open spaces, nature preserves, schools, and nearby state or national parks.

Imagine if every one of the 95 million families displaying a Christmas tree this year each planted two trees. Soon, 190 million trees would be providing shade, filtering water, generating oxygen, furnishing wildlife habitat, and just being beautiful. Now, that is what I call a green gift.

Merry Christmas!

Featured Image at Top: Red Christmas Ornament with White Snowflakes Hanging on a Christmas Tree Branch – Photo Credit iStock/JurgaR

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Thanksgiving – We are All Connected

On Thanksgiving step outside and share your gratitude.

This Thanksgiving I am mindful that people are part of nature not separate from it. Everything on Earth is worthy of our reverence and gratitude.

A few weeks ago, after an inspirational morning at the San Luis Obispo Botanical Garden in California, I knew that I wanted to write about the interconnectedness of nature (yes that includes people) for my Thanksgiving post this year.

It all began with a bowl of oatmeal.

But, before we get to the oatmeal, a bit of background may be useful.

My home is on the California Central Coast in the midst of one of the few remaining swaths of Monterey pine forest. Before we bought our home, the mostly wild yard had been untended for years so invasive plants had been encroaching unimpeded and some plants that had been purposefully planted had gotten out of control. Somehow, I got the possibly ridiculous and crazy idea in my head that we could restore our tiny piece of land and then it could encourage the neighboring land to go native.

With limited knowledge, a shovel and some clippers I set about removing the few invasive plants that I could identify. The flip side of invasive plants is native plants, which I am trying to learn about so we can encourage natives growing in our yard and plant others.

So, when I read about an upcoming event called the Chumash Kitchen at the botanical garden, I signed up my spouse and me. We were excited to have an opportunity to learn about native plants from two Chumash women (Jeanette and Violet) who are descendants of the people who have been living on the California Central Coast for thousands of years and we were looking forward to tasting some dishes made from locally foraged and harvested foods.

The Chumash Kitchen

The day was warm with just a slight chill and the skies were cloudy and gray.

We arrived just in time for breakfast. I was somewhat dismayed to find that breakfast was oatmeal (I think it had ground acorns, too) because I seriously dislike oatmeal and have since I was a little kid. Not to be deterred from fully participating, I ladled a small portion into my bowl and topped it with several heaping spoonfuls of cut up local apple pieces. I was thankful to see there was coffee and poured myself a mug.

Group Photo Beneath Ancient Oak Tree in El Chorro Regional Park, San Luis Obispo, CA
Group Photo Beneath an Ancient Oak Tree in El Chorro Regional Park, San Luis Obispo, CA – Photo Courtesy of San Luis Obispo Botanical Garden

After breakfast, the group headed out for a hike up to a sacred Chumash site. Along the way, one of the young participants introduced us to an oak tree that she and others had gathered acorns under two days before. At a magnificent and ancient oak tree, we stopped to admire its beauty and sense of history and to pose for a group photo.

Sacred Grinding Stones

A short uphill hike brought us to a small open area with huge boulders embedded in the ground. Scattered across the boulders were round indentations that had been created by the Chumash people who had been grinding acorns here for thousands of years. This is a sacred site for the Chumash people who live here now and we were asked not to take photos of the stones.

By now, we were all warmed up and feeling fortunate that the cloudy sky was keeping the sun from beating down on our heads.

Jeanette began speaking of thankfulness and history and telling stories in a quiet and melodious voice. I remember her looking up at the cloudy sky, smiling, and saying, “The Mother is smiling on us this morning.” or something very close to that. What a delightful way of expressing gratitude for clouds.

View Looking Away from Sacred Chumash Grinding Stones near Eagle Rock Nature Trail in San Luis Obispo, CA
View Looking Away from the Sacred Chumash Grinding Stones near Eagle Rock Nature Trail in San Luis Obispo, CA – Photo Courtesy of San Luis Obispo Botanical Garden

While Jeanette was speaking, Violet circumnavigated the group carrying a smoldering bunch of white sage. She paused at each person and using her hand wafted the smoke over us. This simple act seemed to connect us all even though many of us did not know each other. I came away with the understanding that white sage is honored for its healing qualities and is used for blessing people.

Before making our way back down the hill, we were each given the opportunity to make an offering by placing a small pinch of tobacco leaves into one of the grinding holes and saying a prayer (out loud if we wanted to). My prayer (said silently) was that my children and everyone else’s children would have a habitable planet to live on in years to come.

Oak Trees and Acorns

Back at the garden event center, while Violet and a small contingent of volunteers were preparing lunch in the kitchen, we learned about the history of oak trees over thousands of years and Jeanette entertained us with stories.

Acorns were and still are an important food for Chumash people. We learned from Jeanette that some acorns are always left under the oak trees for those who do not speak. She referred to people, plants, trees, and animals as her kin. Hearing her speak with such respect and reverence for every living thing struck a chord in me. It feels right.

San Luis Obispo Botanical Garden Volunteers Preparing Acorns
Volunteers of All Ages Preparing Acorns for the Meals to be Served at the Chumash Kitchen Event – Photo Courtesy of San Luis Obispo Botanical Garden
A Locally Foraged and Harvested Lunch

Before the lunch meal was served, Violet described the locally foraged and harvested ingredients and how they were prepared. I admit that once the mouth-watering plate of food was placed in front of me, I could not remember everything that had gone into making it.

I do remember a few things like the silky feel of the acorn gravy that had been ladled over a stuffed and roasted acorn squash. The Manzanita vinaigrette was tart and fragrant. Who knew you could make salad dressing from a Manzanita plant? The sautéed greens looking suspiciously like kale were tasty with a sort of acidic twang. I think ancient Chumash people probably did not have ice cream, but it was delicious melting on top of an apple crumble made with local apples and garnished with acorn dust.

The gathering ended with a traveling song. Feeling replete and uplifted we headed home.

Thanksgiving Gratitude

The reverence and gratitude that Violet and Jeanette had expressed for, well, everything stayed with me. So did the way they had spoken of the non-human members of nature as their kin and neighbors.

I frequently talk to trees, houseplants, and the variety of animals wandering and flying through our yard. However, I do not think I was conversing with them as peers, neighbors, or potential allies.

During the week following the event, I knew that something had shifted in my relationship with nature when I found myself apologizing to the ice plant that I was removing from my yard because it was choking out everything else. Another day, when a big buck deer wandered into the yard while I was working, I politely asked him if he would come back later. As he sauntered away, I could almost hear him thinking, “I was just passing through anyway.” When I noticed that somebody was living beneath and chewing on the roots of our lion’s tail plant, I suggested to the unseen neighbor that we try to work things out (the jury is still out on that one).

Although I do not fully understand how the diversity of life on Earth makes Earth, well, Earth, I do believe that everything connects somehow. People do not have dominion over nature we are part of it.

This year, I propose that we enlarge our gratitude circle beyond the family and friends gathered around our Thanksgiving tables to the whole of nature.

On Thanksgiving, take the opportunity to step outside for a few minutes or a long time and give thanks to a tree, a bird, a spider, a flower, a lake, a plant, or a mountain. How do you give thanks to a tree? It is up to you. Perhaps with a gentle hug, a prayer, a gift of water, listening, or just saying thank you. You get the idea.

“I see a world in the future in which we understand that all life is related to us and we treat that life with great humility and respect.” – David Suzuki

Happy Thanksgiving!

Featured Image at Top: Give Thanks in Block Letters with Fall Leaves, Acorns, and Pine Cones – Photo Credit iStock/jenifoto

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