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Woman, care for that tree!

The New York Mirror published these words on January 17, 1837: “Woodman spare that tree! / Touch not a single bough; / In youth it sheltered me, / And I’ll protect it now; / ‘Twas my forefather’s hand / That placed it near the cot, / There, woodman, let it stand, / Thy axe shall harm it not!” These words, and those of three further verses, were written by the American writer, journalist and editor George Pope Morris (1802-1864); and the poem, set to music by Henry Russell and known as, “Woodman Spare That Tree!” has been described as one of the first environmental protest songs. It was very popular in its time as, indeed, was much of Morris’s work, to the point where Graham’s Magazine in Philadelphia promised Morris $50 for any work he wanted to publish in the periodical. And here endeth the history lesson.

And the second lesson … the lesson on tree care … begins now. It’s rather late in the day to appeal to the woodman to spare any of the trees that have been grown and already cut down for the Christmas market: but it’s not too late to offer some guidance on ways to care for a real cut Christmas tree during the festive season, to keep it looking fresh and fragrant. First of all, you should put the base of your tree in a bucket of water as soon as you get it home. Unless the tree was cut down while you were waiting, it will already have produced a seal … in the same way that our bodies react to cuts to close them up as quickly as possible … to inhibit loss of moisture: but even so, placing the cut trunk in water will help the tree recover some of the moisture that is has already lost. This seal does mean, however, that before you erect your tree in its Christmas position, you must cut between 25mm and 50mm … say, between one and two inches … off the base of the trunk to make it as easy as possible for the dying tree to suck up as much water as it can. And do bear in mind that a cut tree will take up a surprising amount of water during its last days of life. Depending on its size, it will need between half-a-litre and four-and-a-half litres of water every day … say, between half-a-pint and the better part of a gallon … in a bid to hold on to its needles and to keep its lovely green colour. This means, of course, that you must stand your tree in a suitably large, non-porous container; and it means that you should never buy a tree that has had a wooden base nailed to the bottom of the trunk “for your convenience.” And topping up the tree’s water container every day means just that … do it every day.

A surprising number of people remove the netting in which the tree is almost certainly wrapped before they try to erect it. It’s a lot easier to leave the netting on as long as possible; this will help you give the tree a good shake out-of-doors to remove already-dead needles or debris; and it will help you handle the tree indoors. Choose a place as far away from a radiator or a fire as is realistically possible, for you want to do what you can to reduce transpiration … the transfer of water from the tree to the air in your room … to keep the tree looking its best for as long as possible. Wrapped up in its netting, it can be difficult to guess how far the tree’s branches will spread but, as a rough guide, the tree will spread until it is something like as wide as it is high. This is not a sudden process, of course for, if the tree has been recently cut and still has plenty of sap, the branches will start off pointing upwards after you have removed the netting; and as the tree dries out despite your best efforts, they will gradually sag until they are horizontal or even sloping downward a tad.

And here endeth the second lesson. Sadly, perhaps, despite your best efforts, your cut tree is dying; but look after it in its dying days; give it a good end; and enjoy it over the Christmas and New Year period.

Sandy Simpson, Polmont Horticultural Society