There was a reason artificial Christmas trees looked like toilet brushes decades ago. One of the first companies to make artificial trees actually made toilet brushes first.
The Addis Brush Company used the same machinery it used for its brushes to create one of the first artificial-brush Christmas trees. Addis got a patent for its silver pine tree in 1950.
My family had a “toilet brush” tree in the late 1970s and 1980s. Every December, we’d form an assembly line from the attic to the living room, hoisting garbage bags filled with toilet brush-shaped branches from our attic. The branches were coded at the end by color and like a puzzle, we’d assemble our tree branch by branch into a wood pole with holes carved in it.
Luckily, artificial trees have changed dramatically in the last 60 years. They’ve changed so much, in fact, don’t call them “artificial” in a garden center or nursery. The preferred terminology is “lifelike.”
Now, dozens, if not hundreds, of options exist when it comes to lifelike trees, from full 71/2 trees to slim ones. There are spruce, fir and pine trees. There are LED lights built right in and mini lights are growing in popularity. And flocked trees — ones decked out in a faux snow — are growing in popularity again.
Artificial, or lifelike, trees “have come a long, long way,” said Dean Darin, merchandise manager at English Gardens, which sells 130 styles of lifelike trees at its stores. “It’s extended the Christmas season for everyone.”
But with so many choices, how do you pick the right one? Before you head off to your local garden center to buy a lifelike tree, do your homework. First and foremost: pick the spot where your tree will go and measure the space.
“The No. 1 thing you need to do is measure your space and know your ceiling height,” says Chris McDonald, the Christmas buyer at Ray Wiegand’s Nursery on Romeo Plank in Macomb Township, which sells approximately 1,500 lifelike trees every season and has more than 100 options.
McDonald says display trees can look deceivingly small given the large spaces they are shown in.
“I can’t tell you how many trees people come in and buy, then they get them (home), half set them up, just to realize they’re too big,” he said. “That’s just disappointing for them and a lot of work.”
Ninety percent of the homes in Metro Detroit have 8-foot ceilings, so a 71/2-foot tree — which is measured in a stand — would be the proper height, said Darin of English Gardens.
“It’s measured in the stand and goes from the floor to the tip of the tip so you’d have plenty of room for an angel or bow,” said Darin. “You want to have the tree not touching the walls or touching furniture but you don’t have to have much clearance at all — a couple inches — as long as you’re not trying to walk past it.”
Let there be light
Christmas wouldn’t be Christmas without stories about strands of holiday lights gone awry.
Darin and McDonald say one of the biggest ways lifelike trees have evolved is with lights. The vast majority of artificial trees these days are sold with lights already installed on the branches, all of which is done by hand in the factories in China where lifelike trees are made.
And the days of one bad light bulb dooming an entire strand are gone.
Lights “last a lot longer (now) because you’re not handling them,” said Darin.
One burned out LED light be can be replaced and should be because if it isn’t, it sends more energy to the rest of the lights on that strand, burning them out faster, say Darin and McDonald. English Gardens offers a three-year warranty for pre-installed lights on its lifelike trees. But the tree itself should last 10 years.
Darin says a long-life incandescent light set on a lifelike tree should last up to 3,000 hours; LED sets should last 20,000 hours. But be conscious of how much you use it, said Darin. Don’t have it on if you aren’t using it, he says. An average LED-lit lifelike tree is usually used for about 200 hours a year.
“If you maintain your light set, replace burnout bulbs, the tree should last year 10 years without a problem,” says Darin.
And while those who love the warm, homey look of incandescent lights over LED, LED lights are getting better, McDonald says. Wiegand’s offers a couple lifelike tree with LED lights, one of which can be customized in 51 ways, including a range of colors. Talk about decorating possibilities.
“Everything is switching to LED,” says McDonald, who says the average 71/2-foot lifelike tree has about 100 lights per foot. “The benefit of LED is there is a lot of variance in how long they’ll last.”
Another big change to how artificial trees look these days is the use of a material called polyethylene. Bottle brush trees gave way to PVC, but now higher-end lifelike trees use polyethylene, a common type of plastic, to mold tips that look just like the real deal.
“It’s very realistic looking,” says Darin.
And an indexed tree — meaning it has notches for ornaments — is a better fit for ornaments, meaning they’ll blend right into the tree rather than laying on top of it.
But what one person’s vision of a real tree differs from another’s. And don’t be fooled by a tree’s name. A lifelike fir may not be the same as a real Frasier or Douglas fir. At Wiegand’s, McDonald comes up with many of their tree names.
“We rename a lot of things here because of Amazon and the online presence,” said McDonald. “People are comparing you to them, but it’s not apples to apples. Just because it has the same name doesn’t mean it’s the same tree.”
Beyond LED or incandescent lights, slim or full, molded tips or PVC, go with what makes you feel good, says McDonald. It’s as simple as that.
“If the tree speaks to you and you like it, that’s the most important thing above all else,” says McDonald.
Options abound when it comes to lifelike trees. Keep these tips in mind:
Location, location, location: Pick where your tree will go and measure the space. The majority of homes in Metro Detroit have 8-foot ceilings, so a 71/2-foot tree is the proper height with room for an angel or bow. Don’t pick a full tree if you only have room for a slim.
Don’t be fooled by the name: A real Frasier fir and a lifelike Frasier fir are not the same. They may be similar, but not the same. Talk your nursery or garden center about what would be comparable.
Incandescent or LED lights? Europeans use only LED lights on their Christmas trees but Americans aren’t ready to give up their incandescent lights which have a warmer glow. LED lights last longer though and offer more options for color or twinkling.
Polyethylene or PVC: Polyethylene is a type of plastic used to create Christmas tree branches that are molded to look much more like a real Christmas tree. A tree made from PVC may be cheaper but will look and feel differently. PVC is often still used in trees with polyethylene tips but towards the back of the branches.
Indexing: You may love the look of a full tree, but the same tree may not look as good once it is decorated. An indexed tree actually has notches for ornaments so it fills out the tree nicely.
Price range: Expect to spend $300-700 on a higher-end lifelike tree depending on the size.
Storage is important: Don’t stuff your tree back into the box in which it came. Consider keeping the tree up in another space and cover it with a tree bag so it doesn’t get mangled.
Win ‘A White House Christmas’
You’ve picked the perfect tree. Now come the trimmings. Get some tips from former White House chief floral designer Laura Dowling, author of “A White House Christmas” (Stichting Kunstboek, $45). For six years during the Obama administration, Dowling oversaw the White House’s Christmas decorations. Email firstname.lastname@example.org for a chance to win.
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