Image: Real tree
Steffen Schmidt  /  AP
Real trees can bring some real headaches. Even with proper watering, a pine purchased at Thanksgiving may be crispy by Christmas.
updated 12/4/2009 7:34:09 AM ET 2009-12-04T12:34:09

With images of spray-on snow and tacky plastic needles dancing in their heads — especially after the craze for renditions in red — many holiday purists dismiss fake Christmas trees.

Pragmatists tally the time and energy spent growing and buying a real tree and tending it indoors and see advantages in the artificial, however — like not having to clean up needles and sap or even string lights in some cases.

While environmental concerns weigh in favor of real trees and artificial trees cost less over time, it may be most helpful to think of your tree choice as a question of style.

Do you cherish braving the chill winter air — perhaps the whole family heading all the way to the tree farm — to choose a tree to bring home and decorate? Or is the natural aroma of pine, spruce or fir outweighed by the predictability of a perfectly triangular tree that's always the right height for your living room?

Here are some ways to compare.

Pricing the tree
A real tree can cost less than $10 but typically runs closer to $100 or more, depending on size and species. Artificial trees generally sell for $25 to about $400 but can hit $2,000, depending on size and features like lighting and stands and extras like storage bags. So a fake tree is likely to be cheaper once you spread the cost over the typical five- to 10-year lifespan.

The hassle factor
Real trees can bring some real headaches. Even with proper watering, a pine purchased at Thanksgiving may be crispy by Christmas, and the dropped needles can keep surfacing for months afterward. In contrast, an artificial tree — with no upkeep — will be just as pretty on Twelfth Night as it was the day you put it up.

Still, fake trees must be assembled before use and then dismantled and stored in the off season. The 17-cubic-foot storage bag for a six- to nine-foot-tall tree can pose a significant challenge to an apartment dweller.

The environmental argument
If you see the tragedy of unrealized potential in the brevity of a Christmas tree's moment in the spotlight, take heart. Most real Christmas trees are reused; close to 5,000 private and municipal programs across the country grind holiday trees into mulch or landscaping chips, according to Rick Dungey of the National Christmas Tree Association.

Most of the land used for tree farming is ill-suited to other crops, while farmed trees grow in roughly the same density as natural trees so they absorb similar amounts of carbon dioxide while they're growing. The NCTA says worries about chemicals that growers spray on trees is misplaced because the use of chemicals is regulated — and limited.

As for fake trees, those still in good condition can be donated or resold with minimal additional costs. A crafter may also try her hand at breaking down a fake tree with bolt cutters to make wreaths or garlands. But once a fake tree starts disintegrating, it's no longer safe or pleasing to use in any form. Few, if any, recycling programs accept them so they often end up in landfills.

And, despite the promise of recycled plastic, many fake trees sold in the U.S. are made abroad with no recycled content; others are made from recycled packaging material.

The stand, the skirt and lights
Here's where artificial trees come out way ahead. They require much less additional spending because they include a stand, often need no skirt and can be purchased with lights already attached.

Real trees, on the other hand, are used to having roots so require a stand ($15 to $90) to remain upright. Then you'll want a skirt to hide the stand (another $10 to $50). A real tree also requires three or four (or more) strings of lights at $2 to $20 each for incandescents, depending on color, shape and volume. LED — or light-emitting diode — lights cost more but can last five times longer.

Mike Mahler, who buys artificial trees for The Home Depot Inc., says sales of prelit trees are up this year.

Copyright 2009 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

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