Issue: December 12, 1997

Cut Christmas trees safety


Each year there are tragic fires during the holidays. These fires often involve Christmas trees. Can you give us instructions for the proper and safe way to care for cut Christmas trees? I look forward to the year when there are no tragic fires during the holidays.


Thank you for this question. I, too, would rather hear news of happiness than of tragedy. Cut Christmas trees, as opposed to balled and burlapped or potted "living" Christmas trees, are not intended for planting following the holidays. In both types of trees, some of the same considerations apply. It is important to keep the needles from drying. Even though the cut tree is in the process of dying, the needles are still living, and it is important to keep them as full of water as possible. The living tree is hopefully not dying, so it is especially important to keep its roots moist and to keep the needles living. To keep the cut tree's needles as moist as possible takes some attention from you. When you purchase the tree, keep it in a cool, shady location until the tree is brought indoors. The base of the tree should be kept in water during this time. Since the base of the tree has spent some time out of water, and the water has drawn up into the stem leaving air gaps, called cavitation, behind, it is important to reconnect the water in the trunk with the water in a container at the base of the tree. To reconnect the water column in the trunk with the water in the container, it is necessary to cut several inches from the base of the trunk, then immediately place the base of the trunk into water and keep the container of water from drying. If you do not cut the base of the trunk, the water may not cross the cavitation gap and the leaves may dry, even though you keep the base of the tree in water. When you transfer the tree indoors, if you do not work rapidly and do not allow the free water at the base of the trunk to dry, you should not need to cut the base of the trunk again. The longer the tree is indoors, the cooler you should maintain the room in which it is displayed. Less water is lost from the needles in a cool room. The shorter the display time indoors, the less the danger for fire. Check the water in the container at the base of the tree daily or more often. Do not let it dry. Use small, cool, decorative lights on the tree and use only those made for use on indoor Christmas trees. Be certain the wiring is not frayed; do not overload electrical circuits and extension cords. These can be sources of heat and sparks that result in the tragedies we wish to avoid. Never place lighted candles on or near the Christmas tree. Keep the tree from hot air registers, baseboard heaters, and radiators. The hot, dry air from these sources will increase the drying of the tree and increase the danger of fire. As the needles dry out, the flammable resins in the leaves concentrate and the water which would help quench fire is lost. Electrical devices such as spotlights, coffee makers, or anything else that generates heat and potential sparks should be kept from the vicinity of the tree. As stated before with the on-tree lights, be sure any extension cords are in good condition and are not overloaded. Remove the Christmas tree from the home as soon as possible after the holidays. If the tree is in an office, remove it before leaving for the holidays. In many cities there are locations to which you may take your tree for safe disposal or where it may be chipped into mulch. These are good ideas. This is much safer than placing the tree outside the home where it can dry and be a fire hazard. Have a safe and joyous holiday season.

Marisa Y. Thompson, PhD, is the Extension Horticulture Specialist, in the Department of Extension Plant Sciences at the New Mexico State University Los Lunas Agricultural Science Center, email:, office: 505-865-7340, ext. 113.


For more gardening information, visit the NMSU Extension Horticulture page at Desert Blooms and the NMSU Horticulture Publications page.

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