Three les­sons about na­ture from your old Christ­mas tree

Prairie Post (West Edition) - - Alberta - BY DAN KRAUS

Peo­ple liv­ing in the north­ern hemi­sphere have brought trees and boughs into their homes dur­ing the win­ter for thou­sands of years. The ever­greens that we dec­o­rate with dur­ing Christ­mas can rep­re­sent a cel­e­bra­tion of hol­i­days and a re­minder that spring will come again.

I’m a Christ­mas tree tra­di­tion­al­ist, and will never give up the an­cient rit­ual of bring­ing a fresh tree into our home. Each year, Canada’s 1,872 Christ­mas tree farms pro­duce over three mil­lion pine, spruce and fir trees. In ad­di­tion to sup­port­ing Cana­dian farm­ers, Christ­mas tree plan­ta­tions pro­vide habi­tat for song­birds, in­clud­ing chip­ping spar­row and Amer­i­can robin.

But what hap­pens to your Christ­mas tree after the hol­i­days?

We’ve come a long way since the days when Christ­mas trees were dumped into land­fills. Most mu­nic­i­pal­i­ties now have pro­grams that chip and com­post old trees. Some con­ser­va­tion groups even col­lect trees to cre­ate fish habi­tat or stop ero­sion along streams.

These are great ways to re­cy­cle your Christ­mas tree, but you can also let na­ture re­cy­cle your tree in your own back­yard. It takes a lit­tle longer than haul­ing it to the curb, but you can give your tree a sec­ond life by giv­ing it as a gift to wildlife. This small act of na­ture con­ser­va­tion can also help your fam­ily learn three les­sons about how, even in death, trees are an im­por­tant part of life and re­newal in our Cana­dian forests.

Les­son 1: Gimme shel­ter

The first step in re­cy­cling your tree is easy. Just put it any­where in your back­yard un­til spring. Many of us do this any­way when we miss the pick-up for mu­nic­i­pal tree re­cy­cling.

Your Christ­mas tree will en­rich your back­yard ecosys­tem right away. Ever­greens pro­vide im­por­tant shel­ter for birds on cold nights and dur­ing storms and as a safe place to rest while they visit your feeder.

You can even use your old tree as a bird (and prob­a­bly squir­rel) feeder by re­dec­o­rat­ing it with pine cones filled with peanut but­ter, strings of peanuts and suet.

Les­son 2: Downed woody de­bris

Come spring, your tree will prob­a­bly have lost most of its nee­dles and be look­ing like, well, a dead tree. It’s time to put your tree to rest and help out your flow­ers by mim­ick­ing what hap­pens with dead trees in forests.

Sci­en­tists call trees and branches on the for­est floor “downed woody de­bris” (the cool sci­en­tists just say DWD). This de­bris is not trash. It is an im­por­tant in­di­ca­tor of healthy forests by pro­vid­ing habi­tat, shel­ter­ing wild­flow­ers, hold­ing mois­ture and help­ing build the soil.

You can recre­ate DWD in your gar­dens. Cut off the tree’s branches and lay them where spring flow­ers are start­ing to emerge. Lay the trunk on soil and it will pro­vide a home for many back­yard an­i­mals. Toads will find shel­ter un­der the log, and in­sects, in­clud­ing pol­li­na­tors such as car­pen­ter bees, will bur­row into the wood.

Les­son 3: Spruce to soil

By fall, you’ll start to wit­ness the fi­nal stage in the life of your Christ­mas tree, as the branches and trunk be­gin to de­com­pose and turn into soil. Many of our Christ­mas trees, par­tic­u­larly spruce and bal­sam fir, have very low rot re­sis­tance and break down quickly when ex­posed to the el­e­ments. The more con­tact the cut branches and trunk have with the ground, the faster it will start to be re­cy­cled by fungi, in­sects and bac­te­ria.

After a few years, not much will re­main of your tree. The nee­dles and branches will have re­turned to soil, and the trunk will be soft with rot. It will just be a mem­ory of your new tra­di­tion of back­yard Christ­mas tree re­cy­cling.

(Dan Kraus is Se­nior Con­ser­va­tion Bi­ol­o­gist with the Na­ture Con­ser­vancy of Canada. He is an ex­pert on Cana­dian species and land­scape ecol­ogy, and a mem­ber of the In­ter­na­tional Union for the Con­ser­va­tion of Na­ture Species Sur­vival Com­mis­sion)

Photo con­trib­uted

Todd Kraus speaks at a func­tion.

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