Cut Christmas trees are nearly synonymous with the holiday season. Fraser fir, white pine, Douglas fir, and other needled conifer trees are common species used for cut trees in Iowa.
When a cut tree isn’t feasible, rather than resorting to an artificial tree, there are several living Christmas tree alternatives. These not-so-common tree options are sometimes better sized, require less care, or live longer than the standard cut tree. More information about these living alternatives to the classic cut tree can be found below.
Utilizing a small potted evergreen tree indoors and then planting it outdoors is an alternative to a cut tree, but it requires much more planning and care to be successful. Iowa's harsh, winter weather (extreme cold, rapidly fluctuating temperatures, and dry winds) make successfully planting a live tree in January very difficult.
Start by selecting the final planting location outdoors in the fall and pre-dig a hole before the ground freezes. Save the soil and some mulch for backfill in a warm location to prevent it from freezing. Select a small container-grown or balled and burlapped plant from the garden center. Smaller trees transplant easier and are easier to lift and move indoors. Store the tree in a cool, protected location until brought indoors. Make sure the soil is kept moist but does not freeze.
Any winter hardy evergreen tree could be used. Dwarf Alberta spruce (Picea glauca 'Conica') is a popular option because of its tidy, compact growth habit. Other possible species include, Chinese juniper (Juniperus chinensis), Lawson’s cypress (Chamaecyparis lawsoniana), and any species of tree commonly grow as a cut tree, such as white pine (Pinus strobus) or balsam fir (Abies balsamea).
The tree should be kept indoors for only a short period. The shorter the tree’s stay inside, the better its chances of survival when planted outside. The maximum stay indoors should be 7 to 10 days. If the tree is kept indoors for a longer period, the tree’s buds may break dormancy and the succulent new growth will be killed by cold temperatures when planted outdoors. Protect floors with a large saucer and place the tree in a cool location indoors away from heat sources. Water when the soil is dry. Carefully decorate the tree with ornaments, garland, and lights (preferably the LED or types that don't produce a lot of heat). Don't apply flocking or artificial snow to the tree.
Shortly after Christmas, remove the tree from the house and place it in a cool location. Don’t place the tree directly outdoors. The much colder temperatures outdoors will likely injure the tree. A short stay (several days) in a cool garage or porch allows the tree to become gradually acclimated to cooler temperatures. The soil in the container should not be allowed to freeze during this period. On a mild winter day, plant the tree outdoors in the pre-dug hole. Water well and mulch the area heavily to prevent the soil from freezing immediately.
These slow-growing tropical evergreen trees are popular houseplants that are easily turned into living Christmas trees. The Norfolk Island pine (Araucaria heterophylla) thrives indoors when given good, consistent care. Place the tree in a brightly lit location near an east, west, or south window. Rotate the plant weekly to prevent the plant from growing toward the light and becoming lopsided. Thoroughly water the Norfolk Island pine when the soil surface becomes dry to the touch. Discard the excess water that drains from the bottom of the pot.
This indoor plant appreciates high humidity levels, which can be difficult to have indoors during the winter months. Utilize a humidifier or pebble tray to raise humidity. Low relative humidity levels, insufficient light, or infrequent watering may induce browning of branch tips and lead to the loss of the lower branches. Thankfully, plants rarely drop individual needles but instead shed entire branches making them less messy. Over time plants can become very large, although that often takes many years so this plant can be enjoyed as a Christmas tree each year until it outgrows its space.
This aromatic herb is often seen pruned into small topiary trees during the holiday season. Rosemary (Salvia rosmarinus syn. Rosmarinus officinalis) makes an excellent table-top Christmas tree and will double as a culinary treat! Provide abundant light indoors, giving plants at least six hours of direct sunlight, and thoroughly water when the soil is dry to the touch. Never allow water to sit in sleeves or trays. Scout often for insect pests as rosemary is prone to spider mites and other common indoor pests when grown indoors.
While not winter hardy in Iowa, rosemary can be overwintered indoors and grown outside in a container during the warm summer months. Over time plants will grow out of the clipped cone shape. If you wish to keep the topiary shape from year to year, prune plants in late spring and again in mid-summer. Prune as often as needed throughout the growing season to maintain the desired shape.
Bay laurel (Laurus nobilis) is another herb that is occasionally found pruned into a topiary form that can double as a Christmas tree. Care for this herb indoors looks similar to Rosemary.
Several species of potted conifers that are not winter hardy in Iowa can be used indoors as a live Christmas tree. Leyland Cypress (Cupressocyparis leylandii), Arizona cypress (Cupressus arizonica), Monterey Cypress (Cupressus macrocarpa), and Italian Stone Pine (Pinus pinea) are a few examples. These plants will not survive the winter without protection. Many times its easiest to treat them much like cut trees; enjoying them in the home and discarding them once finished.
These non-hardy plants can also be saved from year to year if a protected over-wintering location can be found. Temperatures should remain below 45-50°F but stay above 20°F. This could include a cool garage, shed, or enclosed porch where temperatures can be carefully monitored and modified should conditions get too cold. Water trees when the soil is dry and move outdoors in spring when temperatures warm. Most gardeners do not have a suitable and reliable over-wintering location to be successful in keeping these non-winter hardy trees from year to year. So, treating them as temporary décor is often the best option.
These broadleaf evergreen plants can be found growing in small containers and pruned into conical shapes making them attractive Christmas trees. Some varieties of boxwood (Buxus) and holly (Ilex) are winter hardy in Iowa and can be used much like live, containerized evergreen trees; decorated and enjoyed indoors for about one week and then transitioned outdoors to be planted and grown in the garden.
Boxwood varieties hardy to Zone 5 include, ‘Glencoe’ (Chicagoland Green®), ‘Green Gem’, ‘Green Mound’, ‘Green Mountain’, ‘Green Velvet’, and Buxus sinica var. insularis ‘Winter Beauty’. Meserve holly (Ilex × meserveae) has the classic leathery, glossy, pointed holly leaf and is hardy to Zone 5. Inkberry (Ilex glabra) is another evergreen holly hardy to Zone 4 and has small rounded leaves similar to boxwood.
These evergreen shrubs can also be grown as temporary plants; enjoyed and decorated indoors, and then discarded after the holiday season. Non-hardy species, such as Japanese boxwood (Buxus microphylla var. japonica) and American holly (Ilex opaca) can be treated like non-winter hardy containerized evergreen trees and overwintered in a protected location or discarded after use.
These tropical houseplants are great non-traditional alternatives to the classic Christmas tree. The large size and open branching of weeping fig (Ficus benjamina) make decorating possible, although their small flexible branches require the use of lightweight ornaments. Grow plants in bright indirect light and water soil when it is dry to the touch. Leaf drop is common for this species, especially as the seasons change or when plants are moved indoors from outside. It is caused by changes in light, temperature, or humidity. New leaves typically replace those that are lost.
Other large, branched houseplants can also be used as alternative Christmas trees including, citrus (Citrus), fiddleleaf fig (Ficus lyrata), and some large palms.
Small succulent cuttings arranged on a cone-shaped topiary frame can make a unique and attractive Christmas tree alternative. Any small succulent can be used, although those with a rosette growth habit work best. These include echeveria (Echeveria), ghost plant (Graptopetalum), moonstones (Pachyphytum), stonecrop (Sedum), hens and chicks (Sempervivum), and desert rose (Aeonium).
To create your own, take 1.5” to 3” long cuttings of your succulents. If needed, remove leaves from the lower half of the stem. Let the cut end dry for one to three days. Find a topiary frame and line it with chicken wire. Stuff the inside of the frame with moist, coarse sphagnum moss or a mixture of moist sphagnum moss and moist potting soil. Anchor the frame in a container filled with gravel or sand to create a sturdy base. Arrange the cuttings into the topiary frame by using a metal rod or chopstick to poke a hole in the moss and insert the succulent stem into the hole. If needed, use small u-shaped florist pins to help hold cuttings in place. Moss or Spanish moss can be tucked in between the cuttings to fill any gaps.
Water the moss-filled topiary frame from the top when the moss is dry. Fertilizer is not needed as it promotes too much growth that will change the appearance of your topiary. Provide as much light indoors as possible, preferably more than six hours of direct sunlight, and rotate the topiary every week or two to ensure even growth. Over time the succulents will root into the moss. As plants grow and become leggy, they can be trimmed or replaced with new cuttings.
Temporary succulent topiary trees can be created using foam or floral foam shaped like a cone. Arrange the cuttings into these topiary forms much like you would with the moss-filled frame. The cuttings may root into floral foam, but this foam often stays too wet for succulents to thrive long-term. Enjoy it for several weeks and then discard. If foam, such as Styrofoam, is used, the cuttings will not root and survive and the topiary will have to be discarded or disassembled after several weeks.
- Guide to Selection and Care of Christmas Trees
- Christmas Tree Facts and Legends
- Growing Succulents Indoors
- Growing Herbs Indoors
- Commercial Christmas Tree Production in Iowa
- Caring for Holiday Plants