Ask the Master Gardener: What to consider when picking out your Christmas tree

A real tree requires more work and attention than does an artificial one.

Photo illustration courtesy Metro Newspaper Service

Dear Master Gardener: The artificial Christmas tree we have used for the past ten years is looking pretty ratty. We miss the fragrance of a real tree but have forgotten how to choose a good one. Can you help us?

Answer: Most tree lots will carry fresh pine, spruce, and fir trees. As you can imagine, each variety has its advantages and disadvantages. You will want to consider not only fragrance but also color, ability to hold lights and heavy ornaments, and price.

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Scots pine (also known as Scotch pine) is probably the least expensive. Its needles are 2 to 3 inches long and its branches are sturdy enough to support fairly heavy ornaments. Pines have the best needle retention. White pine is a bluish-green Minnesota native with very fragrant and delicate, 3 to 4-inch long needles. It is best decorated with light-weight ornaments. Red pine, also known as Norway pine, another Minnesota native, has stiffer, shorter needles than the white pine and tends to have more space between branches. White spruce, yet another native, has the shortest needles of all, about one-half inch. It is denser than the pine and has an odor that some find mildly unpleasant. Balsam, Fraser, and Canaan firs have been among the most popular trees in recent years. They have a beautiful silvery cast and are the most fragrant of all the trees. The Fraser fir has the sturdiest branches and is also the most expensive.

Before you make your final decision, shake a tree or run a hand gently over a branch to test for freshness. If more than a few needles fall off, it is too dry and you need to choose a different tree. When you get the tree home, cut off a 1-inch piece and immediately submerge the tree in water in a sturdy stand. Make sure that the cut end of the tree is always submerged in water as long as the tree is in the house. You may be surprised to find that the tree will take up a quart of water a day at first, so check it several times a day and keep the stand filled. If the stand goes dry, the cut will seal over, water uptake will stop, and the tree will rapidly dry out. Contrary to folk wisdom, research shows that nothing, such as aspirin or sugar, added to the tree water will make the tree last longer or stay healthier. A real tree requires more work and attention than does an artificial one, but the color, fragrance, and knowledge that you are using a renewable resource bring great satisfaction.

Dear Master Gardener: Should I spray all my evergreens with Wilt Pruf to protect them this winter?


Answer: Antitranspirants (Wilt Pruf and other such products) are sometimes sprayed onto the leaves of evergreen trees and shrubs to prevent a plant from losing water through its foliage and preventing winter damage. The theory behind using it is to clog the stomata (pores) of the plant to prevent transpiration (water loss) thereby preventing winter injury. The University of Minnesota recommends watering trees and shrubs very well until the ground freezes and wrapping trees rather than using an antitranspirant.

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Jeff Gillman, Ph.D., is a former University of Minnesota horticulture professor who has spent years doing research about which garden remedies work, which ones don’t, and why. He has written a fascinating book called The Truth about Garden Remedies: What Works, What Doesn’t, and Why. He decided to find out why it would be a good idea to block a normal plant process. Since antiperspirants are the same concept, he tested two antiperspirants (unscented Right Guard and Secret) in different concentrations on dogwoods in his lab. He used a porometer to measure how effective those products were in shrinking pore size and discovered that in less than a week neither product was able to slow water movement out of the plants’ leaves.

According to Dr. Gillman, in the winter, desiccation (water loss) is a bigger problem than cold temperatures. When the ground is frozen trees cannot pull water from the soil. With the cold, dry winds of winter whipping through their branches, plants lose a lot of water without being able to replenish it. Based on his research and others, antitranspirants don’t last long enough to curb winter desiccation. Antitranspirants can be useful for keeping fresh evergreen wreaths and decorations looking their best.

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Dear Master Gardener: When my friend eats an apple, he eats the seeds too. Aren’t apple and pear seeds poisonous?

Answer: Yes, apple and pear seeds contain amygdalin and if you chew the seeds, the amygdalin could be released in the body and produce cyanide. Small amounts can be detoxified by enzymes in your body, but large amounts could be dangerous. Your friend would have to eat a lot of seeds to get cyanide poisoning. He would probably overdose on apple before ever getting poisoned from cyanide. The same holds true for pears.

You may get your garden questions answered by calling the new Master Gardener Help Line at 218-824-1068 and leaving a message. A Master Gardener will return your call. Or, emailing me at and I will answer you in the column if space allows.
University of Minnesota Extension Master Gardeners are trained and certified volunteers for the University of Minnesota Extension. Information given in this column is based on university research.
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