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Public Radio's Environmental News Magazine (follow us on Google News)

Christmas Wreaths

Air Date: Week of

Increasingly, Christmas wreaths come from boughs clipped off growing evergreens. Cut the right way, the trees will produce for years; but if it’s done the wrong way, the tree is ruined. Catherine Winter of Minnesota Public Radio reports on fears the demand for wreaths may be outstripping a safe supply.


CURWOOD: One of the nice things about this time of year in the cold part of the country is stepping into a warm vestibule and smelling the rich pine fragrance of a Christmas wreath up on the door. But did you ever wonder where those wreaths come from. Increasingly, they come from boughs clipped off of growing evergreen trees. Now, cut the right way, the trees can go on for years sprouting fresh boughs that could be pruned from time to time. But if it's done the wrong way the tree is ruined , and a blight is left behind. The Northern Minnesota woods supplies much of the nation's holiday greenery, and as Minnesota Public Radio's Catherine Winter reports, there's a growing concern that demand for wreaths may be outstripping the safe supply.

WINTER: For 2 months, some people in northern Minnesota have been working as many hours as they can, cutting evergreen boughs in the forest or making the boughs into wreaths. At Cohasset Evergreen, piles of boughs dusted with snow lie on the ground. Inside, half a dozen people stand at long tables clipping sprays of greenery down to size, or clamping them onto metal frames. The smell of evergreen mingled with cigarette smoke is overpowering. Gwen Pierce tucks painted pinecones into a wreath. She says the likes the work, even though she goes home covered with balsam needles.

PIERCE: We've been out one night some place and I went home and took a shower and cleaned all up. Put cologne on and I went out and he said oh, you smell like a Christmas tree.

WINTER: In northern Minnesota it's tough to find year-round full-time work, and a wreath maker who works long hours can earn $4,000 or $5,000 in a season. The state estimates that Minnesotans make $30 million worth of wreaths every year. Cohasset Evergreen ships wreaths all over the country 40,000 or 50,000 wreaths a year. Co-owner Shirley Hines says, to make that many she buys at least 100 tons of boughs.

HINES: We buy from everybody. We buy -- we buy a lot of boughs from my kids. Kids on weekends pick a lot of boughs. We have older people that pick boughs. And we have just regular people that want to make some Christmas money and go out and pick boughs, too.

WINTER: Most people pick boughs on public land, in national, state, or county forests. They go out after the first frost with clippers and snip off the ends of branches. They're supposed to get permits, but not everyone does. Forest Ranger Howard Zeman caught a guy cutting without a permit just the other day.

(A waterfall)

ZEMAN: These are balsam trees, and these are -- this is boughs that were cut last year.

WINTER: Zeman slogs through deep snow in a stand of balsam trees in the Chippewa National Forest. Wind sings in the treetops and snow collects in his hair. He points out several young balsam trees with stubs instead of lower branches. Zeman says the man who was cutting here without a permit clipped the branches too short.

ZEMAN: Normally, we ask them to leave the little branches coming out, and then cut the ends of those, the main branches, the offshoots from those main branches. So that in the future, like next year, the new growth will just extend beyond that, like this -- like what he cut, that's history.

WINTER: Zeman says no one will be able to cut boughs from that tree in the future. Balsam stands that are near main roads and easy to get at are showing similar signs of wear. Sometimes inexperienced bough cutters even saw down whole trees. Zeman says people who cut boughs wrong aren't just hurting a resource; they're destroying animal habitat.

ZEMAN: It's for cover, for security, for protection from hunters. From wolves. And also it's for, from the weather. They gather underneath the trees for warmth in the winter and coolness in the summer.

WINTER: Nobody knows how many people are cutting boughs or how many tons of boughs are hauled out of North American forests every year. In Minnesota, county, state, and Federal foresters began meeting this year, trying to figure out how much impact bough cutting has on forests. They've started circulating a brochure showing how to cut properly. People in the wreath industry helped put that brochure together. They want to make sure there are boughs in the future. At Cohasset Evergreen, Shirley Hines says when she buys boughs, she talks to the sellers about how to pick them.

(Shop noises)

HINES: My husband picked when he was a little tiny kid, and now my grandsons are out here, you know. And they can pick them and do it. It's just one generation after another can benefit off of it and it's all Mother Nature that's providing it for us. And if we just be responsible, then it will keep on coming back and coming back.

WINTER: Foresters say they don't think bough cutting is a serious problem in Northern Minnesota's forests yet. They're trying to prevent problems before they happen. They say if they can stay ahead of the curve, there will be enough evergreen boughs for animals and for Christmas wreaths for generations to come. For Living on Earth, I'm Catherine Winter in Grand Rapids, Minnesota.



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