Image: Rented Christmas tree.
Ben Margot  /  AP
Stacy Collins Johnson and her daughter, Eva, 6, decorate a rented primrose tree, in San Fransisco, on Thursday.
updated 12/16/2005 9:15:02 AM ET 2005-12-16T14:15:02

It might just take a Christmas miracle to deck out these spindly branches, and at $90 a tree they’re anything but cheap. But like Charlie Brown’s sad sapling, it’s the thought behind them that shines through.

The city is renting 100 young potted trees, from fruitless olives to Brisbane boxes, to homes for the holidays. Instead letting them get tossed to the curb when holiday is over, the city will pick them up in January and plant them in a neighborhood in need of greenery.

“We call it the guilt-free option,” said Mark Westlund, spokesman for the San Francisco Department of the Environment, which introduced the unusual tree rental program this year as an environmentally friendly alternative to harvested firs and artificial trees.

“You don’t have to worry about cutting down a living tree and you don’t have to worry about buying a tree with petroleum materials,” he said.

The trees, typically 6- to 12-feet high, are far from the full-bodied evergreens most Christmas revelers are accustomed to.

'Charlie Green'
But that’s fine with Stacy Collins Johnson, who rented a live primrose to help her children, ages 4 and 6, learn the importance of giving back to the environment.

“I wasn’t really sure how this would play out, having a nontraditional Christmas tree in our house,” said Johnson, 43. “I thought they’d be upset, and they love it. They named the tree Charlie Green.”

Environmentalists say growing real trees to chop down for a few weeks of pleasure is a waste of valuable resources, and discarding them often clogs local landfills. Artificial trees often contain lead and other harmful chemicals that eventually end up in landfills, too.

San Francisco launched the live rental program this year with the nonprofit group Friends of the Urban Forest, which plants trees along the city’s streets.

Within a week of the announcement, all 100 trees were claimed, Westlund said.

“I’m kind of an unrepentant tree hugger,” said George Slack, who rented three trees for his cabinet shop. “There’s something very nice about having a living piece of greenery in your living environment this time of year.”

The city’s inspiration for the program was John Fogel, whose Original Living Christmas Tree Company in Portland, Ore., has been renting live Christmas trees and later replanting them for 14 years. His customers aren’t all “granola-eating, sandal-wearing type people,” Fogel said.

“It’s a practical thing they do around the holidays,” he said.

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