That freshly cut or live Christmas tree standing in your living room provides a host of benefits and value beyond the sheer joy of the holidays -- in the form of environmental services such as cleaner air, reduced energy use and absorption of stormwater runoff.
What's even better, you can calculate the dollar value of a Christmas tree's environmental services and property-enhancement benefits, said Jim Chatfield, an Ohio State University Extension horticulture specialist.
The National Tree Benefit Calculator allows anyone to do a basic calculation of the benefits of most trees, including Christmas trees, as well as figure out the dollar value of such benefits. This calculator is based on the i-Tree software, which was developed by the U.S. Forest Service.
Compared to a large, 25-year-old tree at a park or in a residential backyard, "a Christmas tree provides modest environmental services, since its canopy size is limited due to its small size," Chatfield said. "Of course, thousands of Christmas trees can add up."
A blue spruce with a 2-inch-diameter trunk growing on a Christmas tree farm in, say, northeast Ohio provides overall services valued at $8 per year. This includes interception of 75 gallons of runoff and reduction of atmospheric carbon by 20 pounds.
Meanwhile, a Scotch pine at that same location generates $7 in yearly benefits, taking care of 76 gallons of runoff and freeing the air of 17 pounds of carbon.
Now let's look at the big picture: There are some 157 million Christmas trees growing throughout the U.S., according to 2009 data from the U.S. Department of Agriculture.
Even if only 10% of those trees have 2-inch-diameter trunks in any given year, their annual benefits would amount to at least $840,000 in Ohio and $110 million nationally (using $7 per tree as an average).
Most Christmas trees are sold when they are between seven and 10 years old, said Bill Cackler, owner of Cackler Farms in Delaware, Ohio, and president of the Ohio Christmas Tree Association. So even if you buy a cut Christmas tree, it has had a few years to provide important environmental benefits.
"Christmas tree farms also help stabilize soil, protect water supplies, provide refuge for wildlife and create scenic green areas, usually on soil that doesn't support other crops," said Cackler, whose farm has 23,000 actively growing trees. "Our operations are sustainable. For every tree cut, two more are planted."
Now, if you want to further increase your Christmas tree's benefits, you can become one of Cackler's roughly 5% of customers who choose to buy a balled-in-burlap live tree and plant it on their property after the holidays.
If that's the case, a 2-inch-diameter blue spruce planted in Columbus in front of a single-family home, for example, will provide $12 every year in benefits, including $6.75 in property-value enhancement, $2.02 in stormwater remediation (75 gallons of runoff), $2.53 in energy savings, and the elimination of 20 pounds of carbon dioxide emissions worth 15 cents.
If you take care of that tree and it grows to a 7-inch-diameter trunk size, the overall yearly benefits jump to $47: $18.58 in property-value enhancement, $14.46 in stormwater remediation (534 gallons of runoff), $11.31 in energy savings, and 80 cents worth of carbon dioxide capture (107 pounds).