Tag Archives: Christmas trees

The bakelite Holy Family for an antipodean Christmas

I love Christmas. I love even more the lifetime of memories that come out once a year with the Christmas bric a brac stored in the Harry Potter cupboard beneath the stairs. Our little nativity scene may even pre-date Mark’s birth. It certainly pre-dates mass plastic because it is made from its precursor  – bakelite which was not much used after the 1940s. I have to admit that Joseph used to have a teeny tiny lantern that hung from his hand and I can still recall my dismay as I vacuumed it up many years ago and then failed to find it in the cleaner bag.

I enjoyed the wreath I made last Christmas in order to display the bakelite holy family. I know you can buy wreathes at shops like Spotlight but we live in the country so I improvise. In this case I retrieved a few grape vine prunings from where they had been thrown to decompose under a hedge. Because I use fresh flowers, my seasonal wreathes are but temporary affairs when compared to the tinsel numbers I see elsewhere, but their carbon footprint is minimal.

In this example, I just gathered an assortment of flowers in red, yellow and white from around the garden and wove them in to the vine circle. The cup shaped blooms in yellow and red are abutilons and the red berries are from Nandina domestica ‘Richmond’ (often referred to as the heavenly or sacred bamboo though it is neither sacred nor a bamboo). The nandina berries hang on for much of the year and it is worth having a plant if you like some for picking. The white flowers are star jasmine for fragrance (Trachelospermum jasminoides), a variation on a climbing hydrangea (Schizophragma hydrangeoides), our native Jovellana sinclairii and the green and white bells of one of the ornithogalum family. Or they may be an albuca.

Abies procera in our garden at Tikorangi

Ours is a household that tries hard to bypass plastic and other non-biodegradable options that tend to flood our lives every day but even more so at Christmas. I have always shunned the idea of a fake tree though at least the tinsel option is commonly stored away for future reuse. I also have a few ethical issues with the felling of trees to die indoors for twelve days at Christmas. Though not so much the Pinus radiata that is the common Christmas tree in New Zealand; they are quick growing and generally seen as disposable. It only takes three and a half years from seed to get your average sized tree. But the northern hemisphere uses a variety of slow growing conifers. In London one early December, I was somewhat aghast at the severed offerings in all the markets of beautiful Abies of Nordmanniana and Abies procera. Neither are rapid growers and even if they are plantation grown (mostly in Scotland and Norway to serve the London market, if my memory serves me right) it seems a bit, well, a bit like an act of consumer-driven vandalism to sever such slow-growing and potentially handsome long-term specimens merely to hold the Christmas fairy aloft in the front lounge.

These days we mostly reuse our version of the everlasting tree but the grapevines that I wove around the metal frame are due for replacement and this is a job that I need to do in winter when the vines are pruned. I have failed to get my timing right the last few winters so I am not sure what we will do this year as it really is too tatty now.

A flat pack designer tree and an Australian version of the outdoor tree

Over the years I have collected photos of various trees ranging from the ingenious to designer style for upmarket apartments. These last options usually fold flat for easy packing away after the event and there really is no place for a lifetime of memorabilia such as are contained in the family Christmas decoration box. But they are at least reusable and if you have a designer style of Christmas, maybe the designer tree is a good fit.

The tinsel adorned tree stump I photographed in Vincentia, a lesser known beach area south of Sydney. Of course it is wonderfully tacky and no substitute at all for the indoor tree that is the traditional centrepiece of the orgy of gift giving. But it made passers-by smile. It seemed a wonderfully Australian take on a time of year that we still celebrate in a southern hemisphere early summer season with traditions straight from a northern hemisphere winter.

First published in the December issue of NZ Gardener – my final column for that publication. Such are the demands of advance deadlines that I had already submitted this copy before I resigned towards the end of September over this column

December in the garden

Kevin and Sharon - the reindeer - at the base of the toetoe Christmas tree

Kevin and Sharon – the reindeer – at the base of the toetoe Christmas tree

December is the month of rituals for us. It is all about countdown and preparation. Will there be new potatoes, fresh peas, strawberries and raspberries ready for Christmas Day? I think we have only ever missed one set of homegrown new potatoes. If my memory serves me right, it was an advanced season and we had eaten all the first crops and hit a lull.

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Peas are more problematic and require some precision of timing and management. I adore fresh peas though I lose interest when they are podded and boiled. Browsing from the plant is my preference, followed by raw in salads. Peas generally do better in cooler climates. I admit the ones in the photograph are English. Ours never crop that heavily. In fact they take up quite a bit of space for a meagre to moderate crop here. There are more productive options where space is limited, not the least being beans. But nothing can replace the taste delight of fresh peas. We never have a Christmas turkey here, but we do peas if we can.

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Some years, the raspberrries will ripen in time for Christmas Day. The week or two after Christmas they come on stream at an alarming rate, needing to be picked every day but whether those early ones make the deadline for dessert is entirely beyond our control. Even with our raspberry cage, it is an ongoing battle between humans and birds, mostly blackbirds. The pie seems a fairly good option for the birds, in my opinion. They will scout out the slightest weakness in the cage, squeezing through tiny gaps in their determination to help themselves. The wretches will also breach the cloche defences to take out the strawberries we guard for Christmas breakfast. It is a war out there as Christmas approaches.

Christmas trees, we’ve had a few. The DIY ethos rules unchallenged. We have never bought a tree and never had a tinsel one. Generally we have wildling pines harvested from the property. If we are lucky, Mark has preselected the wildling pine and actually given it a couple of trims to get the growth denser than usual. More often, he resorts to wiring in additional branches in a vain attempt to create something akin to the commercially trimmed pines, or the Northern European abies with their wonderful conical shapes. The thought is there even if the reality is a little different.

By far our most creative tree was the one our second daughter made out of toetoe a few years ago. Home from London, she was inspired by an illustration she had seen of one created from the plumes of pampas grass. No pampas here. It is on the absolutely banned list as a noxious weed. But toe toe (which used to be a cortaderia but has now been reclassified as an austroderia) is our native substitute.

Should you wish to try this at home, be warned. It takes many more toe toe plumes than you think. Many, many more. They will moult through your car boot, even more in the construction area and they will then gently shed in the house all Christmas. But then so do pine needles and they are a more difficult to vacuum up. The toe toe tree was a tour de force. It had a certain Pacifica vibe going, combined with European style. If you want to try it yourself, there are step by step instructions on my website. https://jury.co.nz/2010/12/24/construct-your-own-christmas-tree-with-abbie-camilla-jury/

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All this is entirely academic for us this year. After more than three decades of building our own family traditions and keeping them the same as assorted offspring migrated home for Christmas, this is the first time we will not be celebrating at home. We are heading over to join the Australian-domiciled daughters and their families this year. I guess it may even be prawns on the barbie. It will be different as the next generation build their traditions for the festive and family season.

First published in The New Zealand Gardener and reprinted here with their permission.

Saturday morning at the Christmas tree farm

A southern Christmas – the pine tree on the SUV roof against a background of blue summer skies and orange Mitre 10.

A southern Christmas – the pine tree on the SUV roof against a background of blue summer skies and orange Mitre 10.

A visit to a Christmas tree farm was a new experience for me. In fact, I was amazed when I called in on Saturday morning. The whole place was buzzing. Cars, trailers, families, staff, a tree wrapping machine – even a sausage sizzle. It was like a single focus gala day. This was a set-up where you chose your own tree and it was cut to order on the spot.

My interest had been whetted when I saw a vehicle outside the supermarket with a wrapped tree tied to the roof. Clearly this was not one purchased from a trailer beside the road. Christmas trees were already on my mind because there is something about the disposable nature of them that was nagging at me and I had been gently looking for alternative ideas. Ours is a household where we have a tree every year – but not a tinsel one in sight – but we have never paid money for one. I can remember our second daughter once wistfully suggesting that maybe we could buy a perfectly shaped specimen but the DIY ethos rules supreme and this was dismissed on the spot. Of course we live in the country with self-gathered options available. It is different for urban dwellers.

Choosing exactly the right tree was a family affair although the choice is Pinus radiata or Pinus radiata

Choosing exactly the right tree was a family affair although the choice is Pinus radiata or Pinus radiata

I was so impressed by this Christmas tree farm. Our main local one is Cedar Lodge Nursery. Outside this period, they continue to produce and sell a range of interesting conifers which are not widely available on the market. With a proud tradition over the decades, they are one of the few remaining tree nurseries in this country to still offer a mail order service. But come December, it is all about pine trees for Christmas.

The use of Pinus radiata as the main Christmas tree is largely a New Zealand tradition. The Europeans and North Americans lean more to members of the abies and picea families – the spruces and the firs. These are much slower growing, even more so when you factor in naturally slower growth rates in less hospitable climates than we have here.

Max the Dalmatian posed amongst the pine trees destined to the 2015 crop for harvesting. These have yet to be trimmed to get the denser habit which is desirable.

Max the Dalmatian posed amongst the pine trees destined to the 2015 crop for harvesting. These have yet to be trimmed to get the denser habit which is desirable.

The clipped and shaped Pinus radiata that I was looking at last Saturday were three and a half years old. That will be from the time they were sown as seed and they had made handsome trees around the two metre mark. It will take longer than that to get the Northern hemisphere abies and picea Christmas trees to saleable size. In the hierarchy of splendid, long term trees, the abies and piceas rank much higher than the utility pine.

I hesitated over severing probably hundreds of thousands of them in their youth to hold the tinsel and a Christmas fairy for a few short weeks when in London in early December a decade ago. There were hundreds of Nordman firs (Abies of Nordmanniana) being sold cheaply in the Portobello Road street markets. Mark allayed my fears by pointing out that many of these will be thinnings from forestry plantings and the ability to sell them as Christmas trees is no doubt a welcome addition to income.

It was a hive of cheerful activity at the Christmas tree farm

It was a hive of cheerful activity at the Christmas tree farm

Our pine trees are grown as a crop, as are many other plants. Yes they are a disposable, consumer commodity. So are poinsettia and most pot chyrsanthemums. The trees are starting to die the moment they are cut off to your request but so are all cut flowers. It is not as if we are stripping out our forests. If you are worried about environmental issues, I am sure you can forgo the synthetic wrapping to hold the tree in a more compact form until you get it home.

Some suppliers offer a recycling service where you can return the poor dried out thing to be mulched. Or if you can find a suitable spot to hide it, it will break down naturally over time and feed the soils – saving on the fuel to run the powerful mulcher.

The advice on care for cut Christmas trees is that the critical issue is to re-cut the main stem of the tree when you get it home and plunge it immediately into a bucket of cold water. This fresh cut enables the plant to keep sucking up water which is what extends its life. Keep topping up the level every few days but the advice to seal the cut with boiling water, or to add sugar or aspirins is unnecessary and unlikely to add to the longevity of your tree. A tablespoon of bleach should stop the water from going stagnant.

Enjoy your pine Christmas tree with a clear conscience. Our quick turn-around Christmas trees will have made more contribution to the environment in their short lives than any more permanent tinsel tree.

Last year’s leftover trees, kept trimmed, now 4 ½ years old for those who want a super duper grade of tree and have wide enough doors to fit one inside

Last year’s leftover trees, kept trimmed, now 4 ½ years old for those who want a super duper grade of tree and have wide enough doors to fit one inside

First published in the Waikato Times and reprinted here with their permission.

Oh Christmas tree, oh Christmas tree…

The pohutukawa - often called the NZ Christmas tree

The pohutukawa - often called the NZ Christmas tree

Ah, the Christmas tree. I was a little amused by a comment on Twitter from somebody that their potted pohutukawa had arrived but was considerably smaller than they had expected so their decorations were now placed beside it. Somebody else posted a photo of their potted karaka tree festooned in gold tinsel, Christmas balls and lights. It looked odd, but logic says it is no odder than adorning a pine tree in similar fashion.

Some brand the pohutukawa as the New Zealand Christmas tree. Living near the coast as I do, pohutukawa feature very strongly in the landscape. They obligingly flower at Christmas, lighting up the landscape. But of course there are large parts of New Zealand where they don’t grow or aren’t needed and residents there may well question the seasonal accolades bestowed upon it. When I say they don’t grow, the problem is that this special tree is not overly hardy. Indeed it is distinctly frost tender when juvenile. If you look at the distribution, it is largely coastal because disturbed air flows from the sea prevent frosts. Head just five or more kilometres inland and it can be too cold for them.

The other aspect of pohutukawa is that they are a wonderfully obliging and resilient coastal tree, putting up with salt laden wind and making enormous buttress roots to hold back the ravages of coastal erosion. They will grow where most other trees struggle badly, defoliate and die. Our coastal areas would be barren wastelands without them. Once you move to more sheltered areas inland, you have a much larger palette of trees to choose from so the tough pohutukawa might not be the tree of first choice. So for those of us who live in coastal areas from about the lower middle of the North Island upwards, the pohutukawa is our New Zealand Christmas tree but there will be New Zealanders who have never seen one in flower.

Did some not make the grade in years past? A commercial grower's roadside field. Spot the two that have never been clipped

Did some not make the grade in years past? A commercial grower's roadside field. Spot the two that have never been clipped

For others, it has to be said the common old pine tree is more likely to deserve the award. Many people do not realise it is in fact native to California – it grows wild in a limited area of the Monterey Peninsula. But I think we could probably crown this country as the Pinus radiata capital of the world and certainly other countries don’t tend to use the humble pine as a Christmas tree. The handsome abies family are the favoured tree in Europe, particularly A. procera and A. nordmanniana, and these are so much slower growing that there are good grounds for raising eyebrows at the environmental vandalism of severing them to become temporary frames for Christmas lights. At least Pinus radiata grows so quickly in this country that it is more or less disposable. It also clips very well and if you buy a cut tree from a commercial grower, you should get a well shaped specimen with shorter needles. We were always into gathering wildlings, though the children would have liked better shaped specimens when they were young. They used to bewail the unbalanced shapes, the scruffy branches and the extra bits tied in to pad out particularly sparse areas.

Should you contemplate a growing Christmas tree in a pot as a last minute green alternative, you need to factor in three aspects. A large tree has a correspondingly large root system and is damned heavy. Don’t expect a living tree of two metres plus unless you have a small fork lift. It then takes a fair amount of skill to keep large plants healthy for an entire year so thinking you can keep your living Christmas tree and reuse it in future years may not be entirely practical. You are far more likely to have a moth eaten looking specimen with dead patches, badly root bound and hungry come next December. Thirdly, should you have purchased a living tree with a view to planting it out in the New Year, make sure you harden it off slowly to the bright sunlight when you bring it outdoors, saturate the root ball before planting and keep watering the poor thing all summer. But above all, choose the site carefully. Most living Christmas trees are forest giants in their infancy. They are not generally suitable candidates for suburban gardens, even less so if you are planting one a year.

The grapevine version

The grapevine version

If you are still determined to try a live option for the future, take a look at our native matai and start clipping and training it early.

If the live Christmas tree is an ethical option based on concerns about the abject waste of severing a tree in its prime to adorn your house for two short weeks, it would probably be kinder to the environment to stick to the disposable pine tree or go for the reusable option. As a family which shuns the horrors of the tinsel Christmas tree, I am hoping my efforts with the woven grapevine pyramid will be greeted by the returning adult children today as an acceptable alternative.

Merry Christmas everyone and best wishes for a safe and happy festive season.

First published in the Waikato Times and reproduced here with their permission.

Tales of the Christmas Tree

Fortunately this handsome Abies procera beside our house was not cut off in its infancy fifty years ago to act as a Christmas tree for two short weeks

The need for the Christmas tree is starting to weigh upon me. The deadline is December 17, the day when our first returnees arrive home for the traditional family Christmas. We could of course join the throngs who have sacrificed authenticity for convenience and bought an artificial tree. I was listening to a panelist on National Radio last week who mentioned his tree. A man’s tree, he called it. It comes complete with all decorations glued on to the branches so all he has to do is fold it out each year. It just would not do here. I would be pilloried and derided by the returning children who would take such a purchase as a cop-out on every front. They would probably assume that it indicated their mother was entering premature old age.

Alternatively, we could join the throngs who go out and buy a tree. Wash my mouth out with soap. How could I suggest such an action? No, our tree must be harvested at home.
Mind you, if you head out and buy a tree, you will generally buy a nice, dense tree of the correct, prescribed pyramidal shape. In New Zealand this tends to mean a choice of a pine tree, another pine tree, the common pine or pinus radiata. We have made the pine tree (a native of Monterey in California) our own in this country, for Christmas trees as well as timber. In the past Mark has been stung by criticism of his selection of wildling pines and has even resorted to wiring in additional branches to increase the volume in sparse areas. Last year he selected a particular tree which he then trimmed a couple of times to encourage shorter, bushy growth. Alas, in the ten days between checking it for the final time to make sure that there were no feathered friends of the ornithological persuasion resident in the tree and when he went out with the pruning saw to harvest it, a family of chaffinches had moved in. He could not cut it down and we had to make do with an emergency installation of four clipped matai trees in pots.

Over the years we have had a variety of different trees. One year I despaired of the pine needles with which my vacuum cleaner struggled to cope and I tried a tree skeleton, spray painted white. It was not a hit with the children. These days it might be seen as more environmentally friendly because when you think about it, entire forests of conifers are felled each year to furnish the homes of the western world for a few short weeks. I was in London in early December one year when the markets were full of Christmas trees which had been shipped in from Norway and Scotland. These were beautiful, dense trees, mostly Abies nordmanniana or Abies procera (the Noble Fir), and, being horticulturally inclined, I knew that such plants are initially very slow growing. The trees had to be at least eight years old and probably more. My oh my, eight or more years of growth to furnish the front rooms of Londoners for two weeks. Second Daughter was equally struck by these and I recall a blog she posted soon after her first Christmas away from home. Wandering around Maida Vale where she was staying, she took photos of the discarded trees out the front of all the residences where they were awaiting the green collection. Christmas Is Over in London, she entitled this on-line photographic essay.

An American friend is a little scathing about our New Zealand habit of using pinus radiata. The needles, she points out, are too long to allow the decorations to stay on easily. If you look at synthetic Christmas trees, they are certainly not modeled on the pine tree. Most are abies (fir trees) which have tufted growths that are much shorter and easier to work with. But the ideal tree needs a certain amount of horizontal branching from which to hang individual Christmas baubles. If the cone shape is too tight, all you can do is to wreathe it in tinsel and lights. In the US, my friend points out, you have a choice of several different varieties of tree. Internationally, abies are favoured because they don’t shed needles, picea or spruce are common but are less happy about surviving cut off in their prime and show it by shedding needles and there are many different pines to the common radiata which are used overseas. The Norfolk Island pine (Araucaria heterophylla) and its smaller cousin Araucaria columnaris make perfectly shaped trees. If you want to be indigenous, matais and miros could be suitable candidates (totara are a little too prickly, as are rimu). But the bottom line is, which trees are you willing to cut off for a mere two weeks Christmas gratification? Call me a snob, but I worry less about sacrificing the common pine whereas it is distinctly sacrilegious to sever the nobler conifers from their roots. My conscience is soothed even further when we recycle trees or branches that are for the chop anyway, even if this means some rather odd installations. This year it involves the extension ladder and cutting the top out of a mature golden chamaecyparis because its top knot has reverted to a much more open growth. The difficulty for Mark may be getting it down intact from ten metres up but my challenge is greater. See, it is a green and gold variegation and they are devilishly difficult to decorate with any aesthetics at all because they just make tinsel look even tackier than usual.

The final word on the topic has to rest with our dentist who regaled us with the charming story of heading out to buy a Christmas tree one year from the foremost supplier locally and finding that he had managed to bring home a specimen with a nest containing a fledgling thrush. The mother had presumably scarpered at the first sign of disturbance (and we won’t dwell on the mental image of bereft Mother Thrush left behind). Said dentist and wife then spent the two weeks leading up to Christmas hand rearing the thrush with worms dug fresh each morning. After all, how could you have a Christmas tree in the house knowing that you had consigned its now homeless inhabitant to an early death? As the thrush gained in size, they set about teaching it to fly with regular lessons outdoors, tossing it in the air until it caught on to the process. It would be a sentimental lie to say that it flew to freedom on Christmas Day. In fact it spent some time sitting around perched on the washing line (and no doubt pooing indiscriminately on the washing) but let that not detract from what is a charming home grown Christmas story.