Bob Westerfield is the Consumer Horticulturist for the University of Georgia.

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Christmas Tree Alternatives
by Bob Westerfield       #Holiday: Christmas   #Decorating   #Trees

Golden foliage on this ‘Golden Mop’ false cypress (Chamaecyparis pisifera ‘Golden Mop’) can deck any hall for Christmas.  Photo by Betty Adelman

With the Christmas season upon us, many folks have already spent $50 to $100 dollars for a dead, cut Christmas tree, or perhaps dragged their plastic version out of storage. While there is something to be said about having a traditional cut tree such as a blue spruce or Douglas fir, it is hard for me to fathom spending that much money on a dead tree you will only enjoy a few weeks. If you are one of those folks that have procrastinated and not gotten the tree up yet, you might want to think about some alternatives that will work for Christmas morning, but also give you lasting enjoyment in your landscape for years to come.     

There are many conical shaped landscape evergreens that can be purchased as live plants, decorated for Christmas and then planted into the yard. The common Leyland cypress, which is widely grown as a Christmas tree, can be purchased as a live tree in a container. After the Christmas holidays, the Leyland can then be transplanted into the landscape and should survive for years to come. Keep in mind the Leyland cypress, although small as a Christmas tree, can easily grow 75 to 100 feet tall in the landscape, so be sure to give it plenty of space. 

Leyland cypress hedge

If you don’t mind straying a bit from popular tradition, there are many other ornamental plants that can make wonderful Christmas trees. Several of the evergreen hollies can be purchased as live container-grown plants and be kept alive with proper watering until after the Christmas season. Some possibilities would be using a holly such as Ilex ‘Fosteri’, Ilex ‘Nellie Stevens’ or Ilex latifolia (lusterleaf holly). These hollies have attractive green foliage, while often displaying clusters of red berries at this time of year. While naturally cone shaped, a little light pruning could form them into the perfect Christmas tree shape. Some other hollies to consider would be trying one of the holly varieties such as Ilex opaca ‘Greenleaf’, Ilex attenuata ‘Savannah’ or one of the Chinese hollies such as ‘Blue Angel’, ‘China Boy’ or ‘Dragon Lady’. Hollies in general are tough plants that are very forgiving in the landscape. After they serve as your Christmas tree, any of these varieties can be planted in an area that either receives full sun or light shade. However, the China hollies are a little more sensitive to heat and should receive some shade. At maturity, sizes can vary but realize none of these selections will stay small and you should plan accordingly.    

Magnolia ‘Little Gem’

Slow it down! Rather than reaching the 25-foot mature height of its golden cousin the Chamaecyparis obtusa 'Crippsii', Hinoki false cypress ‘Sunspray’ (Chamaecyparis obtusa ‘Sunspray’) achieves maturity at 10 feet tall. The beautiful sculptural qualities of its fans make the Hinoki false cypress a must-have in my garden. Behind it is the Chinese juniper ‘Robusta Green’ (Juniperus chinensis ‘Robusta Green’) and in the foreground is a dwarf sport of the Japanese false cypress ‘Snow’ (Chamaecyparis pisifera 'Snow') named ‘White Pygmy’, which grows to 3 feet or less.

If you really want to try something different for a Christmas tree this year consider perhaps a tree such as the Magnolia ‘Little Gem’. This tree has large dense leaves that are 4 inches long, a lustrous dark green and covered with a bronzy brown felt-like underneath. When planted, it flowers much earlier than the larger Magnolia grandiflora displaying 3 to 4 inch fragrant white blooms. This tree can handle full sun or partial shade, and reaches a height at maturity of 15 to 20 feet.

If you truly want something different and don’t mind a Dr. Seuss look you could go with one of the Juniperus. Varieties like ‘Robusta Green’, ‘Skyrocket’, ‘Montana green’, ‘Moonglow’ or ‘Pathfinder’ may give you the uniqueness you are looking for. These are upright somewhat pure middle formed Juniperus that can even take on a crazier appearance if you prefer with a little pruning. Even false cypress (Chamaecyparis obtusa) could make a unique Christmas tree when you select one of the golden upright forms. After Christmas, false cypress does best when planted in well-drained soil with full sun exposure.

While there is not enough room in the article to cover all the specifics of each variety, you can easily type these names in your computer to see what they look like and what their actual dimensions are. Regardless of which live tree you select, it should be given care similar to your traditional tree. You will need a large basin underneath the container so that you can water your tree every couple of days. Give it enough water to where you see it begin to flow out of the bottom of the drainage holes. Remember to keep these trees away from the heater vents, which may cause them to dry out more rapidly. After the holiday is over be sure to site them properly and plant them in a correct manner. Even though it may be cold, you will need to irrigate them the first few weeks to allow them to become established.      

Perhaps this Christmas not only will there be presents under your tree, but the tree itself will continue to give enjoyment for years to come.



Photos courtesy of Bob Westerfield unless otherwise noted.


Posted: 11/29/18   RSS | Print


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