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Holiday Wreath Greens

The tips of balsam fir trees are used to make Christmas wreaths.
The tips of balsam fir trees are used to make Christmas wreaths.

With the holidays come evergreen wreaths on people’s doors and windows — which got host Nalini Nadkarni asking: Where does all of this holiday greenery come from?

Most of our wreath greens are harvested from Pacific Northwest forests, whose climate is ideal for growing fir, cedar and holly.

Wreath materials are a "non-timber forest product,” meaning that they are harvested without cutting down trees — like nuts, berries, mushrooms and medicinal plants. Nationwide, these products generate about $5 billion a year, with roughly half coming from the evergreen boughs and pine cones collected for the winter holidays.

Although wreaths are small in size, the business of harvesting, shaping and shipping them is huge. Each year, harvesters gather more than 10,000 tons — that's 20 million pounds! — of evergreen boughs, and nearly 14,000 bushels of pine cones to create the 5 million wreaths and garlands that are sent around the world.

Most harvesters obtain state or federal permits to gather greens from public land, or from land owned by private timber companies. And many greenery companies proudly emphasize their sustainable practices of trimming boughs, not cutting whole trees or using old growth forests.

As with agricultural crops, wild greenery is subject to the weather. Evergreen trees require cold temperatures to trigger dormancy as harvesting limbs while trees are still actively growing can stress the parent tree, causing them to shed their foliage more quickly. In 2015, trees in the Northwest experienced a "Godzilla El Niño" year, with record high winter temperatures. That delayed the harvest, and created large economic losses for the whole industry.

Some companies are now experimenting with “bough orchards.” In Denmark, for example, trees are managed for greenery production by leaving a skirt of branches on the lower part. As the tree grows taller, limbs are harvested from the skirt, a practice that can be repeated for 30 years.

So, when you deck your halls with boughs of holly — or other tree species — give a holiday cheer to the forests of the Pacific Northwest for the beauty they provide.

Dr. Nalini Nadkarni is an emeritus professor of both The Evergreen State College and the University of Utah, one of the world’s leading ecologists and a popular science communicator. Dr. Nadkarni’s research and public engagement work is supported by the National Geographic Society and the National Science Foundation. Any opinions, findings, and conclusions or recommendations expressed in this material are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of the National Science Foundation. @nalininadkarni
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