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updated 12/13/2011 11:19:50 AM ET 2011-12-13T16:19:50

Real trees are the Earth and economy-friendly buy, compared to re-used artificials, say forestry officials. The benefits start on the farm.

"First of all, any conifer makes great cover in the winter, which is what ground birds like quail are looking for," Jill Sidebottom, Forestry Specialist at North Carolina State University, told Discovery News.

"Secondly, it's the ground covers that provide the seed, flowers, and habitat for insects that bring in the wildlife."

"The young trees are great because it provides an early successional forest -- habitat along the edges of woods. Talk to any wildlife person and they will tell you that this is what they try to maintain for wildlife, and that's exactly what a Christmas tree farm is," said Sidebottom.

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Tree farms use relatively small amounts of agricultural chemicals compared to other crops. Many farmers use herbicides at low concentrations to suppress grass, but allow cover-crops like nitrogen-fixing clover to survive. One study Sidebottom performed found that stream quality near Christmas tree farms was largely unaffected.

Even Christmas tree stumps continue to be giving trees.


"I've seen many flickers and woodpeckers feeding on insects in old decaying cut stumps," said Sidebottom.

The roots left in the ground lock away carbon the tree inhaled and used to build its tissues. The carbon sequestered by the roots helps to ease the carbon footprint of transporting trees.

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Sidebottom recommends against buying live trees to subsequently plant.

"I don't like live trees because you are digging up dirt and carting it around. Talk about fossil fuel use! You are carting away the soil from the field. And so few of these trees actually live," she said.

Cut trees can be used after drying out. The needles make for mulch. A tree sunk in a pond creates fish habitat. The non-profit Earth911 can help you find a tree recycler.

Fake trees are usually made out of PVC, other plastics and metals. Those materials don't break down readily in a landfill, and release harmful chemicals during manufacture, Rick Dungey, public relations manager for the National Christmas Tree Association (NCTA), told Discovery News.

Fake trees have a larger lifetime carbon footprint.

"You'd have to look at energy used by the factory and the carbon released in extraction of oil. The metal in the branches also has to be processed. Then they are shipped across the Pacific and used for a short period of time compared to Earth years," said Dungey.

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Dungey acknowledges fake trees can be used for years, but notes that eventually every tree ends up in a dump.

"The Earth's gonna be here a lot longer than the 20 years you have that tree," he said.

Christmas trees also pump green into the American farm economy.

"A real tree is grown by an American farm family," said Dungey.

Eighty percent of fake trees are produced in China, according to the NCTA.

"You can have a beautiful fully biodegradable plant grown on a farm versus one produced in a factory overseas," said Dungey.

America's nearly 15,000 Christmas tree farms employ over 100,000 workers, according to the NCTA.

© 2012 Discovery Channel

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