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Living Christmas Tree Alternatives

Updated December 18, 2018

David Graper

SDSU Extension Horticulture Specialist & Master Gardener Program Coordinator

The holidays are nearly here and many folks have been decorating for some time now. Many people have their artificial Christmas tree already up while some people, that prefer the real thing, are still waiting a little longer to make sure their tree is still fresh for the big day. While real trees are a renewable resource and harvestable crop that we do grow in this area, some people might want another living alternative.

Living Christmas trees are not a new concept. Often this means buying a potted or balled and burlaped, normally hardy tree, from a local nursery, then bringing it into the home, right before Christmas to enjoy for a week or so before planting it out in the landscape. Of course there is usually a problem with that game plan because usually by the end of December the ground has already frozen here in the northern Great Plains. Yes, you can pre-dig the hole and keep it and the removed soil heavily mulched to keep it from freezing, but still it becomes a challenge to be out in the cold trying to plant a tree at that time of year. The tree’s chances of surviving the winter and getting reestablished might be fairly slim. Consequently a living Christmas tree like this is probably a better option for locations quite a bit farther south than we are.

Trees to Consider

A tall norfolk island pine tree

Norfolk Island Pine

Norfolk Island Pines (Auraucaria heterophylla) offer another alternative that can provide a pretty tree for the holidays and the rest of the year as well. Like poinsettias, these are available at most of the big box stores as well as area floral shops all over the place right now. You can get them in sizes from a small 3” pot containing a few small plants about 5” tall all the way up to a 5-gallon pot size with a few large plants that might be 4 to 6’ tall.The smallest ones are not really big enough to decorate but once you get a plant in a 6” pot or larger, it can handle some small ornaments or maybe some very light-weight LED lights. They have very soft foliage and make great houseplants, provided you put them in a bright location, preferably one that will get a little sun. Water them regularly when the soil feels dry and fertilize every couple months or so. But, these are not winter hardy trees in our area so keep them inside and away from cold drafts. While you might want to move them outside for the summer, I think it is probably better to keep them inside the home all the time.

three small european cypress trees in pots
Courtesy: ProFlowers [CC BY 2.0] via Flickr

European Cypress

Another potted little evergreen that you might find in some stores at this time of year is the European Cypress (Chamaecyparis lawsoniana). These are usually sold in 6 to 8” pots and are about 12 to 16” tall. They have very finely textured needles, sort of like a juniper, but they are not as picky as most junipers are. They are generally sheered to help them to form a very dense little plant and often sprayed with a green dye to make sure they are bright green. Once again, these are not going to be hardy here in our area, rated as hardy to about Zone 6. But they certainly are cute and can hold some tiny ornaments and other decorations.

a potted rosemary tree

Rosemary Tree

Another Christmas tree alternative is a sheered rosemary tree (Rosmarinus officinalis). Like the European Cypress, these are usually sold in 6 to 8” pots and are sheered to give them that typical Christmas tree shape. This might be the best choice if you want a small tree, some additional fragrance in the home and like to cook too. The leaves look a little bit like those of a blue spruce but have a pungent aroma when brushed or bruised. Keep them in a sunny window to allow them to continue growing for months after the holiday season.

a small potted palm tree in a greenhouse

Small Palm Tree

One last alternative that I would like to mention is to consider a potted palm tree. This might be the best choice if you are getting to the point where you are thinking about transitioning to the snowbird life where you travel south for the winter. This might be a way to get a feel for it while putting off buying that condo in Florida for a few more years. Many of the big box stores will have various species of palms available for sale and you can decorate them for the holidays too. I would suggest you bring along some large garbage bags though, so that you can bundle it up to get it out of the store and into your car or it might freeze before you get it home.

However you decide to decorate for the holidays I hope that you will also be able to enjoy them with friends and family that really make the holidays a special time to share.

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