The Technological Battle for a Better Christmas Tree

Real and artificial Christmas trees have been duking it out on the tech front for centuries.

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Dec 24 2014, 4:00pm

​Image: ​anthony_goto/Flickr

The first Christmas trees arrived on North American shores from Germany with the Hessian soldiers fighting in the Revolutionary War, and it wasn't long until enterprising business people got the idea in their heads to design a better, artificial tree.

Ever since then, the manufacturers of fake trees and the growers of real ones have engaged in a pitched battle to leverage design and technology to make a more appealing Christmas tree.

The demand for artificial trees in America was likely due to several factors, some of which are still around. One can imagine a hapless person in the 1800s watching the needles fall from their old-timey tree and being all, "The hell? I have to clean this shit up? Fuck it, I'm sticking some goose feathers to a log."

The most famous example of more modern forays into designing an artificial Christmas tree with realistic needles is perhaps the Addis Brush Company's contribution from the 1930s. According to the National Christmas Tree Association (NCTA)—a national body that promotes the purchasing of traditional trees during the holidays—it was made with the same equipment they used to manufacture their chief market offering: toilet brushes.

Glade jul by Viggo Johansen (1891). Image: ​Wikipedia

The convenience of an artificial tree is still a much-vaunted point of appeal today, especially by organizations that promote artificial trees, like the American Christmas Tree Association (ACTA).

And then there's the environmental angle. As Linton Weeks reported over at NPR, early advocates of artificial trees used the depletion of local forests as a selling point for their own creations. Artificial trees would result in fewer real ones being harvested for the holiday season, and were more environmental friendly, they argued at the time.

We've come a long way since then. While the genome the kind of trees used as Christmas decorations, conifers, has remained largely the same for over 100 million years, artificial trees have evolved in some spectacular ways.

Take, for example, the aluminum tree of the 1950s and 60s. A carnivalesque statue celebrating American consumption and industrial progress, aluminum trees were often accompanied by a rotating colour wheel that washed them in vibrant coloured lights. They exuded a certain technological optimism unique to the age of the Moon landing.

In the last few decades we've seen 3D holographic trees, and even fiber optic trees with needle tips that glow with a soft, white light. 3D-printed trees could also be on the horizon, and just this year, Simon Fraser University scientist Richard Zhang developed an algorithm that can print perfectly shaped mini-Christmas trees.

In sum, artificial trees were a technological solution to the problems, real or perceived, posed by the real thing centuries ago.

By no means have the supporters of real trees been sitting on their hands as artificial trees have grown more advanced and, frankly, bonkers, however. Significant amounts of research and high technology have gone into creating "real" trees that can compete with artificial ones.

The convenience problem—specifically, having to clean up all of those fallen brown needles— is being tackled at research labs across the continent.

In 2010, researchers from Laval University reported in the journal Trees that needle loss is caused by ethylene, a plant hormone. By spraying conifers with chemical compounds that interfere with the hormones, the researchers were able to double the time it took for the trees' needles to brown and fall.

John Frampton, a professor in the Forestry and Natural Resources Department at North Carolina University, is taking a cross-breeding approach to making a Christmas tree that can compete with the longevity of artificial PVC needles. Rebecca Doyle of Popular Mechanics reported back in 2012 that Frampton was busy splicing Fraser firs with Japanese Momi firs, which are more robust but don't look great in a living room.

Image: ​Bill Abbot/Flickr

Frampton's work can be considered part of the field of phytopathology, which studies plant diseases. Year-round, plant pathologists are working to ensure that Christmas trees are healthy and robust in sufficient numbers to meet consumer demand. Without leveraging scientific research and cutting edge breeding practices, more of our trees might look like Charlie Brown's.

As for the environmental argument, real trees come out on top, without any scientific help. A 2009 study by Montreal-based sustainability consulting firm Ellipsos found that artificial trees contribute three times more to climate change than natural ones, assuming that you're chucking out your artificial tree every six years. If you keep your artificial tree for over 20 years, however, you're probably okay.

Moreover, environmental concerns over the non-biodegradable polyvinyl chloride (PVC) plastic used in modern tree designs have become a key issue as of late. Real trees can be turned back into mulch and used for fertilizer, as well, whereas PVC trees usually end up languishing in a landfill. The National Institute of Health recommends against exposure to PVC due to the presence of cancer-causing dioxins that are released mainly during production and landfilling processes.

Nobody knows where tree technology will go next, if we'll even need them in the future—we might just enjoy the holidays from inside a virtual reality helmet.​