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Living Christmas Trees

Living Christmas trees are container-grown or balled and burlapped Christmas trees that can be planted as landscape trees after the holiday season. This way of enjoying a Christmas tree is practical in South Carolina, where the mild winter weather is ideal for tree planting. With care and planning, your Christmas tree can provide many benefits and serve as a living memory for years to come (Fig. 1).

Eastern White Pie (Pinus strobus)

Eastern white pine (Pinus strobus)
Molly Darr, ©2021, Clemson Extension

Norway spruce, (Picea abies)

Norway spruce (Picea abies)
Molly Darr, ©2021, Clemson Extension

These mature living Christmas trees were planted as a road blind 25 years ago and now absorb traffic noise and provide privacy for the landowner. Chickens for scale.

Planning Ahead

There are several aspects to consider when preparing to use a living Christmas tree indoors.

  • When purchasing your live tree, be sure to pick a variety that is well suited for the region and landscape. Consider the mature height and width of the tree and predetermine an appropriate planting location prior to purchase (Table 1).
  • Living trees are very heavy. Make arrangements to safely transport the tree in and out of your house to avoid tree damage or personal injury.
  • Living trees can stay in the house for only a brief period of time; longer than 7 to 10 days can lead to tree death. Select a designated protected area outside the home where the tree can be stored until a few days before the holidays.

Types of Living Christmas Trees

Some evergreens that will thrive throughout the state are Virginia pine, Eastern red cedar and other junipers, Leyland cypress, Murray cypress (a hardier Leyland cypress cultivar), and varieties of Arizona cypress such as ‘Clemson Greenspire’ and ‘Carolina Sapphire’ (Figs. 2 and 3). Some unusual choices that will grow throughout the state include the Japanese cedar (Cryptomeria japonica) and deodar cedar. White pine and spruces will grow in the upper Piedmont and mountains.

Table 1. Types of Living Christmas Trees for South Carolina

Common name (Botanical name) Mature size Description Growing conditions
Eastern red cedar

(Juniperus virginiana)

  • 20-50 ft. tall
  • 8-15 ft. wide
Narrow, dense, and compact with scale-like needles. The foliage color varies from dark green to gray-green to bronze, depending on cultivar. The wood and foliage are very aromatic. Well-drained soil in full sun. Tolerates drought and poor soil. Grows throughout South

Carolina.

Southern red cedar

(Juniperus silicicola)

  • 20-50 ft. tall
  • 8-20 ft. wide
Similar to Eastern red cedar, but often wider at maturity. Salt tolerant and excellent for coastal regions.
‘Carolina Sapphire’ cypress

(Cupressus arizonica)

  • 20-30 ft. tall
  • 8 ft. wide
  • Rapid growth rate while young
Dense, finely textured, steel blue,

scale-like foliage.

Full sun; well-drained soil. Thrives in hot and dry conditions. Will grow throughout South Carolina.
‘Clemson Greenspire’ cypress

(Cupressus arizonica)

As above Dense, finely textured, grass green scale-like foliage. As above
Virginia pine

(Pinus virginiana)

  • 60-65 ft. tall
  • 10-30 ft. wide
Short-needle pine with dense, spiraling growth. Foliage is yellow-green to dark green. Full sun. Tolerates poor, dry, heavy clay soils where other pines will not grow.
Eastern white pine

(Pinus strobus)

  • 50-100 ft. tall
  • 20-40 feet wide
  • Rapid growth rate, often > 2 ft./year
Delicate, soft, light blue-green needles. Needles are in clusters of 5. Full sun with fertile, moist, well-drained soil. Will tolerate partial shade. White pine can be grown in the upper Piedmont and mountains of South Carolina.
Leyland cypress

(x Cupressocyparis leylandii)

  • 60-70 ft. tall
  • 12-20 ft. wide
  • Grows rapidly when young
Pyramid-shaped, with dense branches and fine, feathery foliage that varies in color from dark green to grayish blue-green. Full sun to partial shade with well-drained, fertile soil. Will grow throughout South Carolina.
Murray cypress

(x Cuypressocyparis leylandii ‘Murray’)

  • Up to 50 ft. tall
  • 10-12 ft. wide
Cultivar of Leyland cypress with improved disease resistance, faster growth, stronger branching, and root system with a higher tolerance for moist soil. Full sun to partial shade with well-drained fertile soil. Will grow throughout South Carolina.
Norway spruce

(Picea abies)

  • 40-60 ft. tall
  • 25-30 ft. wide
  • Medium to fast growth rate
Pyramidal form with deep green foliage. Branches droop at the ends with age. Full sun. Rich, moist, well-drained soil. Upper Piedmont and mountains of South Carolina only.
Colorado blue spruce

(Picea pungens)

  • 30-60 ft. tall
  • 10-20 ft. wide.
  • Slow to medium growth rate
Growth is dense and even. Foliage color varies from tree to tree and can be dark green, blue-green, or silvery-blue. Full sun is essential. Rich, moist, well-drained soil. Upper Piedmont and mountains of South Carolina only.
Deodar cedar

(Cedrus deodara)

  • 40-70 ft. tall
  • 40-70 ft. wide
  • Slow growth rate
Very large, graceful trees with short blue-green needles on woody branches that droop at the tips. Sun, well-drained soil. Grows throughout South Carolina.
Japanese cedar

(Cryptomeria japonica)

  • 50-80 ft. tall
  • 20-30 ft. wide
Pyramidal when young. Drooping branches are covered with glossy, dark green needles in a spiraling growth pattern. The foliage of many types turns bronze in winter. ‘Yoshino’ has bright green winter color. Moist, acidic, well-drained soil. Prefers full sun, tolerates partial shade. Grows throughout South Carolina.

Selecting a Healthy Tree

  • Living Christmas trees can be purchased at many nurseries and garden centers and at some retail lots and choose-and-cut farms.
  • Inspect the tree for good color and needle retention and soft, flexible branching. Avoid those that show brown tips, are yellowing, or are shedding needles. Look for signs of pests and disease.
  • If the tree is container-grown, ensure the root system is kept moist and isn’t bound by the container. If the tree is balled and burlapped, check to see the root ball is firm. Trees with loose or pancaked root balls are unlikely to survive. After purchase, be especially careful to avoid injury to the tree’s root system. Do not carry the tree by its trunk or drop the tree on its root ball.
  • Store the tree in an unheated, sheltered area outside until ready to bring inside. Keep the root ball moist and covered with mulch.

Murray Cypress is one of the top-selling Christmas tree species in South Carolina.

Murray Cypress is one of the top-selling Christmas tree species in South Carolina.
Mark Arena, ©2021, Clemson Extension

Carolina Sapphire, a popular Christmas tree species in South Carolina.

Carolina Sapphire, a popular Christmas tree species in South Carolina.
Mark Arena, ©2021, Clemson Extension

Care of the Tree in the Home

High temperatures and low humidity levels in houses are stressful to trees. Follow these tips to give your tree the best care and help ensure success.

  • Position the tree indoors in as cool a location as possible. Keep it away from heating vents, fireplaces, and other heat sources. LED or small, low-temperature electric lights should be used for decoration because they generate less heat than the traditional larger bulbs.
  • Provide as much natural light as possible.
  • Place the root ball or container in a water-holding tub. Fill the bottom two inches of the tub with gravel and place the ball or container on the gravel. This will keep the roots moist while allowing them to drain.
  • Watering is critical. Keep the root ball constantly and evenly moist but not flooded. A handy technique for watering trees while indoors is to place crushed ice over the top of the root ball.
  • A piece of pipe inserted vertically at the side of the tub provides an easy way to check the water level in the tub. If there is water at the bottom of the pipe, you do not need to water the tree. You can check the water level by inserting a “dipstick” into the pipe.
  • Keep the tree in the house for no more than 7 to 10 days.

Planting & Care

  • After the holidays, readjust the tree to outdoor temperatures by placing it in the designated unheated, sheltered storage area outside for several days prior to planting. It is important to plant your tree as soon as possible after the holidays. Do not wait until spring.
  • Ensure the planting site has well-drained soil, full sun, and is appropriate for the mature tree’s size.
  • Dig a hole that is the same depth and at least twice as wide as the root ball. Do not plant the tree too deep, as this can cause bark deterioration and eventually death.
  • Remove containers from container-grown trees. Cut and loosen any encircling roots.
  • If the root ball is wrapped in synthetic burlap, remove it completely to prevent root girdling. Remove natural burlap from the top of the root ball, so that water can reach the root system without obstruction. Untreated burlap can be left along the sides of the root ball, as it will eventually decompose in South Carolina’s moist climate.
  • Fill the hole around the freshly set tree with the loosened soil from the planting hole. Backfill around the root ball in stages, gently firming in each layer of soil. Water well to settle the soil and eliminate air pockets. Apply 2 or 3 inches of mulch in an even layer on top of the root ball. It is not necessary to fertilize until spring.
  • For further information, see the fact sheet HGIC 1001, Planting Trees.

To locate a Christmas tree farm in South Carolina, visit the South Carolina Christmas Tree Association web page: www.scchristmastrees.org

If this document didn’t answer your questions, please contact HGIC at hgic@clemson.edu or 1-888-656-9988.

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