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Festive trees are part of traditional American Christmas celebrations

Many different types of trees make great Christmas trees - and each one has its own recognizable quality.

Here are a few good choices from the fir, pine and spruce families.

Desirable qualities

Douglas firs have been used as Christmas trees since the 1920s because of their beautiful, soft, blue-green needles and symmetrical shape. The needles on these popular trees are short and well-preserved.

Dark green in appearance, balsam firs have an attractive form and produce long-lasting needles. In addition, balsams have a pleasant fragrance that lasts throughout the holiday season.

Fraser firs are one of the most common species used as Christmas trees in the United States. They have good needle retention, a nice form and an excellent fragrance. They produce flat, dark green to dark blue-green needles ½- to 1-inch long, with round tips.

One of the most beautiful evergreens around is the Colorado blue spruce. They have a cone shape and sport thick, prickly needles that grow anywhere from ¾ inch to 1 ¼ inches long.

White spruce trees make excellent Christmas trees because of their nice natural shape and beautiful foliage color. They also have short, stiff needles, which last longer on this spruce variety than on many of the other spruce species.

Because of their dark-colored foliage and stiff branches, which are great for hanging Christmas ornaments, Scotch pines are commonly used in the United States. They also are well-liked because they last throughout the holiday season if kept in a container filled with water. The needles on these trees are 1 ½ to 3 inches long and are dark green to blue-green.

Caring for cut trees

When you get your tree home, cut off about a half inch of the base of the trunk. Immediately place the trunk in a bucket of water and leave it there until you're ready to move it into the house. Since fresh-cut trees will 'drink' more than 2 gallons of water the first day, be sure to check the water in the bucket often.

Place the tree in a stand that holds a lot of water. Check the water level frequently throughout the duration of the tree's life, because a fresh-cut tree will sometimes consume several quarts of water daily. Proper watering will ensure a nice fragrance and moist needles. In addition, if you want to prolong the life of the tree, you can add a preservative to the water in the tree stand. Several preservatives are available at nurseries and garden centers, or you can make your own by mixing one can of citrus-flavored soda - such as 7UP, Squirt or Sprite - with each quart of water to be placed in the tree stand. If you purchase a preservative, follow the directions on the package.

To improve the freshness of the tree throughout the holiday season - and to lessen the risk of fire hazard - an anti-transpirant spray can be sprayed on the tree to slow down the drying out process, but be sure to spray all of the needles. A flame retardant spray can also be used to help the tree resist small flames and sparks from short circuits in electrical cords. Both sprays are available at nurseries and garden centers.

Place your Christmas tree in a cool place, making sure to keep it away from heat sources, including vents and fireplaces. Heat dries out the tree's needles and branches, so to keep the tree fresh longer, place it in a cool area.

When decorating your tree, remember not to overload the extension cords. It is recommended that no more than three standard sets of lights be plugged into any one extension cord. Also, be sure to check the lights for broken sockets, loose connections and frayed wires. If you find any light sets with the above problems, discard that set of lights.

Even with all these precautions, a tree can still be a fire hazard, so do not leave your lights on when you're not in the room, and especially when you're not home.

Also, be sure to watch children and pets around the tree, because they are usually curious and could possibly pull the tree over on themselves. And again, remember to keep the tree well-watered throughout the holiday season.

After the holidays

When the Christmas season is over and it's time to get rid of the tree, consider using it in your yard instead of discarding it.

The branches can be cut off and used as winter mulch over a strawberry patch or flower bed. They can also be shredded and used as mulch under shrubs and hedges. And the trunk can be cut up for firewood to be used in the fireplace or a wood-burning stove.

If you don't want to use the branches as mulch, try turning your used Christmas tree into a bird feeder. Simply take the tree outside and place the trunk in a bucket of damp sand. This will help the tree retain its color throughout the remaining winter months. String apple wedges, popcorn and peanuts (in the shells), and decorate the tree. You can also cut aluminum foil into strips, smear peanut butter on one end of each strip, and tie them to the tree branches. The birds will love it.