Your Christmas Tree Wants to Live

In search of some eco-friendly holiday spirit? Try fostering a fruitless olive tree, magnolia, or fern pine.


Though the tradition of chopping down a tree in the forest for the Christmas holidays went out of style in the 19th century, the problem of what to do, post-yuletide, with the ones we buy off lots or at tree farms persists. We tug their dried-out carcasses to the curb, but then what happens? Do they really get recycled? And when it comes to trees, what does that even mean? Wood chips?

To avoid this waste of natural resources, many people opt for a fake tree. According to the National Christmas Tree Association, 27.4 million Americans purchased real Christmas trees in 2017, while 21.1 million chose an artificial alternative. However, studies show that a tree made of steel or PVC is far from environmentally friendly.

So San Francisco’s Friends of the Urban Forest offers residents a third option. For the past 17 years, the organization has been inviting patrons to foster a living, potted tree for the month of December. Spawned by FUF and the San Francisco Department of the Environment, the Green Christmas Tree program lent out almost 200 trees in 2018.

And the supply of living Christmas trees isn’t limited to the Bay Area. In Los Angeles, the Living Christmas Company offers a similar service, while Portland and Eugene, Oregon, have the Original Potted Christmas Tree Company at their disposal.

While a promising idea, the practice of fostering trees doesn’t present much of a threat to the established order yet. “I don’t think buying a tree in a pot is as much of a concern as artificial Christmas trees, which take a large chunk out of the Christmas tree market from live-tree producers,” says Lynn Wunderlich, a farm adviser with the University of California Cooperative Extension.

Fostering a tree from FUF doesn’t mean that a Douglas fir sapling will be delivered to your door. As former deputy executive director Doug Wildman explains, the program relies on evergreen trees that are likely to thrive when planted on the sidewalks of San Francisco. FUF’s foster families can select from hearty options like fruitless olive trees, magnolias, and fern pines.

“We’re simply choosing trees that are bulletproof,” Wildman says, “both for us to grow and to be able to move inside someone’s house for a month. Some species don’t do so well, so the list becomes quite narrow. They also have to be popular trees, because we’re going to need to plant them [outside].”

Those who participate in the program are expected to care for their tree by providing it with regular outdoor exposure, ensuring that it has adequate sunlight and water, and returning it to the organization by the deadline. There’s also a $95 tax-deductible fee.

According to Wildman, dedicated patrons of the program occasionally grow quite attached to their foster tree. Many give it a name. There have even been instances of customers asking to keep their little ones. “We ask them to return it,” Wildman says matter-of-factly.

Other fosterers have inquired about the possibility of visiting their tree once it’s planted. Though FUF doesn’t offer patrons a way to track their trees, it has devised a charming alternative to satisfy its most die-hard foster families.

“We let all of our green Christmas tree purchasers know when we do our planting of the trees they fostered,” Wildman explains. “They’re invited to come out and plant them with us. We’ve gotten volunteers who know that it won’t necessarily be their tree that they’ll be planting, but it might be the same species.”

As the gospel of green continues to spread, wrapped gifts nestled around the base of a small tree in a five-gallon bucket may become more common. There might even be room for a few decorations on its young branches.

“If the tree is tiered in structure,” Wildman says, “you can maybe get six or eight ornaments and one strand of lights on it. Honestly, they’re pretty darn cute.”

Zack Ruskin wrote about urban explorers in Alta, Issue 6. He remains hopeful that one day menorah ornaments may become a thing.

Zack Ruskin is a freelance reporter living in San Francisco.
Advertisement - Continue Reading Below
More From Dispatches