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Forest and Environmental Science: What is an environmentally friendly Christmas tree?

Is there such a thing as an environmentally-friendly Christmas tree? For Prof. Dr. Jürgen Bauhus of the Institute of Silviculture at the University of Freiburg the answer is “yes”. However, such a tree is not necessarily easy to find and it does not always meet our ideal of a perfect Christmas tree.


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(© Alexander Hoffmann / fotolia.com)

 

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Adorned with Christmas lights, candles, glass balls, or lametta: Every year, around 28 million Christmas trees illuminate living rooms across Germany. In an age where climate and environmental protection and sustainability have become publicly discussed issues we are wondering if there is such a thing as an ecofriendly Christmas tree. According to a Freiburg forestry scientist there is: It is a tree that is grown regionally and that, ideally, would have had to have been cut down anyway. In the Black Forest this would normally be a spruce.
 
  • Most Christmas trees are imported from Denmark
The majority of German Christmas trees do not come from local forests but from special plantations. There,the trees are given copious amounts of fertilizer to ensure that they grow perfectly and that their needles develop a luscious green color. The most popular, the beloved Nordmann Fir, is primarily imported from Denmark.
 
The energy used for the transportation alone makes fir trees imported from Denmark less environmentally friendly than those that are grown locally,” explains Jürgen Bauhus, professor at the Institute of Silviculture at the University of Freiburg. The Institute carries out research into the management of forested eco-systems to economic, ecological, and social management ends. The Institute’s research and teaching takes into account
the control of the trees’ growth and the development of forests, as well as the effects of silvicultural measures on the vegetation, location, and mass balance.
 
  • Regional differences: which Christmas tree is ecologically sustainable?

Regional differences are great, which is why Bauhus focuses his research on his home region of the Black Forest. Fir trees are native to the Black Forest and are endemic only in the south of Germany. However, these
days, the most common tree in the forests of south-western Germany is the spruce. In the federal state of Baden-Württemberg, the spruce accounts for 38% of the forested area, while fir trees only represent 8%. As Bauhus describes, the Norway spruce is the dominant tree species of forest plantations: “The wood of the fast-growing spruce is favored for its diversity of use. This is why the species was extensively cultivated in the past.”
But the spruce is increasingly being affected by climate change. It has trouble coping with higher temperatures and is consequently at a higher risk of insect infestations. Fir trees, on the other hand are more resilient, which is why the Black Forest should be gradually re-populated with fir rather than spruce trees. According to Bauhus, this rebalance would mean that the sale of spruce trees as Christmas trees would be acceptable from an ecological point of view. “In any case, the spruce tree has to give way to other tree species and will therefore have to be removed from young plantations. However, there has since been such an abundant regeneration of fir trees in many areas that these can also be cut and used as Christmas trees. This trend will surely increase in the future.

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The spruce is very common in the Black forest, the fir has a comeback.From an ecological perspective the spruce is a good choice as a christmas tree.  (Foto: © LianeM / fotolia.com)
  • Differences in growth

“There is one aspect that everyone must take into account,” says Bauhus. “Christmas trees that grow naturally in the forest are rarely as even and their branching is rarely as dense as those that are grown in plantations.” But the more space there is between the tree’s branches, the more room there will be to hang the Christmas decorations.


Christmas trees from organic cultivations or plantations that do not use mineral fertilizers or pesticides are a viable alternative to fir and spruce trees from local forests. These can be identified by an environmental label or certification. The old adage also applies to organic Christmas trees: The entire family should chose the tree together so that, whether it is straight or crooked, it will not give cause for family quarrels during the holiday season.
 

 

 

 

Portrait of the research

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Prof. Dr. Jürgen Bauhus

Prof. Dr. Jürgen Bauhus
Jürgen Bauhus serves as professor for silviculture and is dean of the Faculty of Forest and Environmental Sciences of the University of Freiburg. He studied in Freiburg, Vienna, and Göttingen. He completed his diplom in forest science in 1989 and his doctorate five years later. As a postdoc, Bauhus had a two year stint at the Department of Biology, Chemistry, and Geography of the University of Quebec in Canada. Between 1996 and 2003 he worked at the Australian National University as a senior lecturer in the areas of silviculture and tree physiology. In 2003 he accepted the Chair for Silviculture in Freiburg and developed a research program on the relationships between the structure, composition, and function of forest ecosystems and strategies for controlling them. He also advises the Federal Ministry of Food, Agriculture, and Consumer Protection on agricultural policy.

 

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