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Area Newspaper and Travel Guide for Reeves County, Ward County, Trans-Pecos, Big Bend of West Texas


Dec. 23, 1997

Behind the Christmas tree

Staff Writer

Evergreen trees have been used throughout history as a
ritual tree for the very fact to which their name attests:
they are green year round (hence, "ever" green). It is
because of this attribute that the trees are widely
considered a universal symbol of eternal life.

The Romans hung small metal bits on their branches during
winter festivals, and the Teutons, Celts, and Gauls of
Northern Europe used evergreen trees in their rituals during
the winter solstice, offering gifts of fruit and cloth to
the spirit of the evergreen in the hopes of securing
renewel, fertility, and abundance.

In ancient Egypt, evergreens were brought indoors in
celebration of of the winter solstice. And many Native
American tribes included evergreen trees and branches in
their rituals.

How did this pagan ritual come to be incorporated in
Christian tradition? There are no sure answers, but it is
said that in the 16th Century, Martin Luther, awed by an
experience walking in a pine forest with brilliant stars
overhead, brought a tree into his family's house and hung it
with candles in an attempt to reproduce the effect. Other
tellings attribute the action to an anonymous German monk.

And there is also the colorful German myth of Saint Winifred
that demonstrates how the evergreen tree was recreated -
or, transformed - from a strictly pagan item into what we
refer to today as a "Christmas" tree.

Saint Winifred, out to show up the old gods, chopped down
the Druid's sacred oak and out from the stump of the oak a
young fir tree sprang forth with shining lights on the
branches and the face of the Christ child glowing above it.

The zealous saint Winifred then gave the fir to his
followers - the young tree symbolizing the child Christ, and
the lights on its limbs symbolizing the everlasting life in
the soul of men and women.

It wasn't until the past 100 years or so that Christmas
trees became widely adopted by people in this country. Once
considered a "quaint" European tradition, the Christmas tree
industry is now firmly grounded in American business and

First introduced by Hessian troops during the Revolutionary
War, the European Christmas tree was usually only a
"table-top" tree - it would take the timber-rich United
States to transform the practice into the grander custom we
know today.

Andrew Jackson was the first U.S. president to use a pine
tree in his holiday celebration. Franklin Pierce brought the
first tree into the White House in 1856. But it wasn't until
1923 that the White House tree-lighting ceremony saw its
genesis on the White House lawn under the instruction of one
Calvin Coolidge.

Today, trees are grown in all fifty states for the annual
event. There are about 15,000 growers in the U.S., and over
1 million acres of woodland that are worked in producing the
trees. Every acre provides enough oxygen each day for the
needs of 18 people.

The Christmas tree industry employs over 100,000 full- and
part-time workers in this country and continues to grow.
There are approximately 5,000 choose and cut farms in the

Some of the most popular trees for Christmas are the Douglas
fir, Fraser fir, and Balsam fir.

The Douglas Fir (pseudotsuga menziesii) may grow as high as
250 feet and is not related to the "true" firs. They grow in
central California, western Oregon and Washington, pockets
of the Rockies and north into Alaska. It is capable of
growth in a variety of climates, from extremely dry, low
elevation sites to very moist areas.

Largely because of their extremely thick bark that enables
them to survive moderate fires, the Douglas Firs are able to
live for thousands of years.

This popular Christmas tree is exported as far away as the
Hawaiian Islands, Guam and some Asian markets.

The Fraser Fir (abies fraseri) was named for Scot botanist
John Fraser (1750-1811), who explored the southern
Appalachian mountain range in the late 18th century.

Also known as "southern balsam" and "southern balsam fir,"
this pyramid-shaped tree may reach a maximum height of 80
feet and only grows above 4,500 feet. The boughs of Frazer
Firs are often used to stuff pine pillows and bed stuffing.

The Balsam Fir (abies balsamea) is a medium-sized tree,
reaching between 40 and 60 feet in height. It is very
familiar to the Fraser Fir. The bark of the Balsam is gray,
thin and smooth on the older trees. Younger trees have many
resinous blisters, giving it the nick-name "Blister Pine."

These trees grow chiefly in cooler climates with abundant
moisture and live from 150-200 years.

Farming the trees is not easy. Not only do Christmas tree
growers suffer from a terrifically short selling season, but
all left-overs must be thrown away. Farmers guard their
trees against needle cast, wooly aphids, weevils, fungus,
pine-shoot mouth, and balsam twig.

Growers often must rely on income from another source during
those summer months and require deep, well-drained sandy
loam high in organic matter. Each individual tree requires
7-15 year to reach a marketable height (closer to 5-7 years
in southern regions~), and for every harvested tree, 2-3 are
planted in its place ensuring many more green holidays to

Bryan tries hand at poinsettias

Buddy Bryan, owner of Bryan's Nursery, said that Christmas
tree sales are down this year, but his home-grown
poinsettias are good business. Bryan grew 780 poinsettias
this year. "I grew white, pink, red, `jingle-bells,' and one
called `peppermint,'" he said, "The peppermint looked funny,
but I sold them all in the first 3-4 days."

There were times when he could sell 450 Christmas trees in a
holiday season, this year he said he was down to about 100
sold. He brings in Nobel firs from Oregon and desert pines
which are grown in La Mesa, New Mexico. Bryan said that
fruitless mulberry trees were also big sellers during the

Pruning West Texas shade trees and shrubs


Pruning is one horticultural activity that is poorly understood. It seems confusing but need not be so. The natural growth characteristics of the plant determine how and to what extent we manipulate shape and size by stem and limb removal. Pruning and training of ornamental plants begins with their initial placement in the landscape and must be carried out periodically as the need arises. This may be on an annual basis with some shrubs (tea roses) or seldomly done on trees such as the live oak.

Shrubs are generally pruned to dwarf them; we want to control plant size in this case. Severe hedging and very formal training are seen less and less in today's more natural landscapes. This not only gives a more informal presence to the landscape, but also reduces maintenance requirements. Specimen shrubs and small trees (pittosporum, redbud, mimosa, desert willow, etc.) are mainly pruned to increase attractiveness. Lower limbs may be removed to expose interesting bark or the trunk. Corrective pruning may be done to encourage growth in a certain direction, hide flaws or invigorate growth at a certain point. Remember that removing the tip portion of a shoot often causes increased new growth or invigoration along the stem below the cut.

This point brings us to the two most important types of pruning - thinning out and heading back (often called dehorning or topworking). Thinning out is entire branch removal; no stumps, stubs or nubs remain. Heading back constitutes everything from stem tip pinching to removal of major limb structure. The latter practice often leaves a stump, stub or nub. In almost every case, severe heading back is a poor pruning practice for shade trees. Regardless of being improper, heading back is a common practice in West Texas.

The results of severe heading back are less than desirable in the landscape. Limb stubs usually die and leave an ideal entry for insect and disease entry. This is unhealthy for the tree. Overall tree appearance is ruined by numerous dead stubs and if the unhealthy tree eventually dies, the dollar worth of the landscape declines.

Less severe heading back causes extreme invigoration near the cut portion of the limb. Multiple new shoots may arise from this area and grow 3-4 feet in a single season. In subsequent growing years these shoots criss-cross and form dense canopies. The shade produced by this canopy is often dense enough to prohibit turf grass establishment below the tree.

Thinning out instead of heading back eliminates these problems, particularly with the mulberry. If limb length must be reduced because of power line interference, make a cut adjacent to an existing lateral limb that is acceptable in length.

Proper tree and shrub pruning requires proper tools. Investments in pruning shears, lopping shears, bow saws and pole saws should be based on frequency and degree of pruning necessary to maintain the landscape. Generally, a good set of shears and a bow saw are adequate for the average home landscape. Pruning cuts should be smooth; surrounding bark is left in tact. Make cuts flush with a lateral remaining branch to avoid leaving stubs.

The following list will help determine plant parts that need to be removed:

1. Dead, dying and unsightly limbs.
2. Sprouts near the base of the trunk.
3. Branches that cross and/or rub together.
4. V-shaped crotches that are weak and easily split in wind and ice storms.
5. Multiple trunks on traditional single-trunked specimens (pines, pecans, poplars). This must be done when the tree is young.
6. Nuisance growth that is a traffic hazard, interferes with power lines or excessively shades the grass.

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Pecos Enterprise
Mac McKinnon, Publisher
Peggy McCracken, Webmaster
Division of Buckner News Alliance, Inc.

324 S. Cedar St., Pecos, TX 79772
Phone 915-445-5475, FAX 915-445-4321

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