Festive trees: Natural vs artificial

The only thing sadder than seeing dried-out Christmas trees dumped on sidewalks after the holidays is planting them in the garden and watching them shrivel into a spiky skeleton of their former festive selves. Well-meaning people who buy fir trees in pots in the interests of conservation, with the intention of planting them, either in the garden or on a mountainside after Christmas, will need to go pretty high up into the hills if they want them to survive. Greece’s endemic fir tree, Abies cephalonia, only grows at altitudes of 600-2,000 meters, so it’s not much use planting one in your suburban backyard. It grows up to 30 meters high in extensive forests throughout the mountains from the Agrafa range in the north to Taygetos in the Peloponnese. Most of the trees sold in street markets at Christmas time are in fact another species of conifer, the Norwegian spruce. Much debate has surrounded the question of whether one should buy «real» Christmas trees, but as many environmentalists point out, these trees are grown as a crop on tree farms for the Christmas market and do not come from the natural forest. A tree is harvested only after 7-12 years; to obtain a tree of around two meters and to ensure future harvests, 90 percent of the farm must remain covered in trees all the time. According to the Christmas Tree Farmers of Ontario, Canada, just one acre of Christmas trees produces enough oxygen to support 18 people. In the process, carbon dioxide is sucked out of the atmosphere and the trees act as filters, removing up to 13 tons of airborne pollutants per acre per year. Christmas trees are also a haven for a wide variety of bird and mammal species. Another source says that in comparison to the artificial variety, natural Christmas trees use less energy from fossil fuels than artificial trees, which have to be reused for many years to reduce their environmental costs to compare with those of natural trees. When Christmas is over, natural trees needn’t be dumped in the street. Chopping them up for the compost heap or mulch, or for use as firewood are more environmentally friendly alternatives. Evergreen trees and branches were used to brighten midwinter in many cultures long before Christianity. Some people believed evergreens would ward off evil spirits and disease, or used them as a symbol of nature during the dormant season, or to celebrate the winter solstice. As part of the Christmas celebration, the use of a decorated conifer is thought to have begun in Germany about 400 years ago and has spread around the world, still symbolizing a renewed belief in life and hope at the darkest time of the year. Conifers in the Greek landscape: Pines, cypresses, junipers and spruces A number of conifers are suitable for the garden and many lend themselves equally well to decoration for the holiday season. The most frequently seen conifer in Attica is the Aleppo pine (Pinus halepensis), a source of resin (used to make retsina wine) and turpentine. It is also very common in southern Greece and on the islands at altitudes of up to 1,000 meters, surviving in arid, limey soils and withstanding long, dry summers. Pine trees such as those at Schinias beach, however, are umbrella or stone pines (Pinus pinea). The wood at Schinias is among the most magnificent stands of these trees in Greece and the subject of concern since excavation began on a controversial Olympic rowing center in the area. It was the pine tree of the ancient Greeks, its large cones the source of the edible white pine kernels. They grow in sandy soil at low altitudes in parts of the Peloponnese, eastern mainland, Aegean islands and Halkidiki. Pine trees grow to a maximum of about 20 meters. For small gardens, the dwarf mountain pine (Pinus mugo) might be more practical. The black pine (Pinus nigra), is found at higher altitudes (500-1,900 meters) but has almost disappeared on the mainland, where it is often found in mixed forests in the Agrafa, Pindos and Macedonian mountains. A hardy species, it is often used in the reforestation of eroded slopes, although it is one of the most flammable of trees. Some villagers head into the hills at Christmas time to cut down young cypress trees (Cupressus sempervirens), decimating the population of younger, smaller specimens. Another species that was sacred to the ancient Greeks, it was thought of as a funerary tree and is still associated with cemeteries. The cypress is valued for its hardness and is still used to make roof beams in houses. On certain islands, a cypress tree was planted at the birth of daughter and cut down when she married to form the mast of a boat for the couple. Junipers are happiest in dry, well-drained soil. Juniperus communis can be either a tree or an evergreen shrub or anything in between, reaching a height of up to five meters. Juniperus phoenicea, which grows to 3-5 meters, also does well in the Mediterranean climate, particularly in coastal gardens. Picea excelsa (common or Norwegian spruce) is the only species of crimson-barked spruce in Europe, often growing to over 50 meters. In Greece it occurs naturally only in the Rhodope mountains, near the Greek-Bulgarian border. Victims of forest fires Most of Greece’s timber-producing forests, which comprise less than half of Greece’s 2.5 million hectares of forest (19.8 percent of the country’s surface area) are conifer. The destruction of forests began in ancient times, particularly near densely populated areas such as Athens, chiefly through clearing land for agriculture, cutting trees for shipbuilding, housing, fuel and grazing, coupled with repeated fires over the centuries. Overgrazing remains one of the main causes of fires – shepherds burn off old vegetation to stimulate new growth which is in turn overgrazed, leading to erosion and finally desertification, often making reforestation all but impossible. The collection of resin in the past helped preserve pine forests, as forest trails were maintained, older trees removed to help regeneration, and fires quickly suppressed. The practice of resin-collection had begun to decline by the end of the 1970s as demand dropped, leaving forests unmanaged and often impenetrable, and making fire fighting far more difficult. The first major forest fire on record in recent times was in 1916 at Tatoi, north of Athens, when 3,000 hectares of Pinus halepensis and shrub undergrowth went up in flames, killing three people, injuring 300 and destroying the royal summer palace, among other buildings. Since that time, not only has the number of forest fires increased rapidly, but they have become more difficult to fight due to the changing condition of forests, encroaching urban settlements and demand for more land.