Can you get a Christmas tree to put out roots?
Can you root a Christmas tree?
The question was put to me recently on my call-in radio show. They say there’s no such thing as a stupid question, but I must admit that this one struck me as ridiculous… at first. It was obvious to me that a Christmas tree sitting in a stand in someone’s living room won’t root, no matter how carefully he waters it… but then, I’ve been gardening all my life. For me, some elements of horticulture just seem so obvious that you simply don’t question them.
But newcomers to gardening don’t have all those years of experience. You can grow plants from cuttings. So why not a Christmas tree too?
All that ran quickly through my head as I responded. I didn’t laugh or giggle: it was a serious question and the guy really wanted to know. So I gave him his answer.
No, It Won’t Work
No, you can’t root a Christmas tree. Keeping an entire tree thoroughly humidified, bringing water to the very tip of its branches, takes roots, many, many roots, even if it is only a small tree like the average Christmas tree. When you cut a tree from its roots and plunge the base of its trunk into water, it can continue to drink its fill for a certain time, but at some point, without roots, it is condemned. Plus the thick bark that forms at the base of a tree blocks the formation of roots. So a Christmas tree simply will not produce roots, no matter how carefully you maintain it.
The proof is the above is that of the some 100 million cut coniferous Christmas trees sold throughout the world and placed in as many households, none, as far as I know, has ever rooted. Not one!
But You Can Root Cuttings from a Conifer
So, although rooting an entire Christmas tree is impossible, you can root smaller branches from a conifer. Do note that producing Christmas trees from cuttings is not necessarily the best way to go. The vast majority of Christmas tree farms, for example, start their plants from seed. But growing a new conifer from a cutting can be done. Just not one from the Christmas tree in your living room!
You see, to get a conifer branch to root, you shouldn’t start with a cut Christmas tree, already stressed by a lack of water. Its stems are unlikely to root well. Instead, you’ll want a healthy young specimen, probably growing outdoors, well-rooted and well-watered. Also, cuttings taken from young conifers root best, so look for one less than 10 years old – under 5 years is even better.
When should you take this cutting? That depends on the species, but usually late summer, fall, and early winter (December in the northern hemisphere) are the most favorable times.
In the case of whorl-branched conifers, such as firs (Abies spp.), spruce (Picea spp.), araucarias (Araucaria spp.), and most pines (Pinus spp.), that is, the ones with an extremely symmetrical pyramidal growth pattern, you’ll want to choose the central leader (terminal stem) as a source of your cutting. That’s because these conifers have such a very strong apical dominance that it carries on in the next generation. Only if you take a cutting from a leader will the young tree grow upright and take on its pyramidal shape. Any cutting from a secondary branch will give a low-growing, sideways-spreading shrub rather than the pyramidal shape you want.
If you grow a random-branched conifer, such as arborvitae (Thuja spp.), juniper (Juniperus spp.), false-cypress (Chamaecyparis spp.), yew (Taxus spp.), larch (Larix spp.), cypress (Cupressus spp.) or hemlock (Tsuga spp.), you can harvest and root a side branch and see the resulting tree produce a new leader and therefore upright, symmetrical growth.
Take a stem section about 4 to 5 inches (10 to 12 cm) long. Remove all the leaves or needles on the lower two-thirds of its height and dip the base of the cutting in a rooting hormone (a #2 hormone would be fine).
Insert the cut into a pot of moist potting soil. (No, don’t try rooting your cutting in the water! That almost never works!).
Cover the container with a transparent dome or plastic bag to maintain high humidity and place it in partial shade (outdoors) or under medium light, such as under a fluorescent lamp (indoors). Check the soil occasionally: when it starts to dry out, water lightly.
When new leaves appear on the cutting, or when it resists when you pull gently on it, it’s a sign that the cutting has rooted. Depending on the species and the season, it can take as little as 5 weeks to root or more than a year. As long as your cutting remains green, even after a year has gone by, there is still hope.
When you’re sure your cutting has rooted, remove the dome or bag gradually over a 4- or 5-day period, then acclimate the young plant bit by bit to outdoor conditions (if it’s to be an outdoor tree, that is): a few days in the shade, a few days in partial shade, and so on. Finally, when your baby conifer is well acclimated, plant it in the ground.
From then on, your little tree will grow with little help from your part. You only need to step in to water it if there is a drought and maybe fertilize it every few years. Slowly but surely your little cutting will turn into a superb Christmas tree!
So, maybe I was wrong. Maybe you can root a Christmas tree… just not the whole thing all at once!