Most real Christmas trees sold in California are raised on farms, creating jobs and boosting the economies in rural areas.
That's just one reason UC Cooperative Extension advisor Lynn Wunderlich encourages the use of fresh-cut Christmas trees during the holiday season.
"This is an age-old debate," Wunderlich said. The American Christmas Tree Association says that PVC used in artificial trees is recyclable. If a household decorates with the same artificial tree for at least four years, the carbon footprint will be smaller than that of a household that purchases a real tree every year.
But the impact goes deeper. Wunderlich points out that artificial trees are mainly made in Asia. They have to travel a great distance to the U.S. compared to an American-farmed tree, eating up natural resources during transport. "Buy American," Wunderlich says.
Besides, there are the transcendent benefits of real Christmas trees. Farmed trees provide open space and wildlife habitat during the off-season, and fill the home with a natural pine scent during holidays.
Their role in sequestering carbon is aided by a production practice used by many farmers, called "stump culture."
"They use the same root system to regrow another tree, so the trees are regenerated," Wunderlich said. "Trees are replanted regularly in other farming culture. Christmas trees sequester carbon. Nearly a ton of carbon per acre of trees, depending on species and number of trees planted on the land."
While artificial trees end up landfills or energy-intense recycling plants, live trees are biodegradable. They can be naturally recycled by composting or shredded to use as mulch. Many communities offer curb-side pickup in the days after Christmas.
While farmed trees can be purchased on tree lots, home improvement stores, even grocery and drug stores, Wunderlich says a trip to a choose-and-cut tree farm is an enchanting family outing. Many Christmas tree farmers also provide food, crafts, activities and visits with Santa.
“Families can visit the farmer year after year as their children grow, so that's part of the experience,” Wunderlich said.
The California Christmas Tree Association maintains a directory of choose-and-cut Christmas tree farms around state.
Some National Forests allow Christmas tree cutting with a permit. Read more here.