MACLEAN'S REPORTS

Who gets rich at Christmas turning nice green pines into nice green dollars? Hardly anybody, it says here

JON RUDDY December 1 1968
MACLEAN'S REPORTS

Who gets rich at Christmas turning nice green pines into nice green dollars? Hardly anybody, it says here

JON RUDDY December 1 1968

Who gets rich at Christmas turning nice green pines into nice green dollars? Hardly anybody, it says here

EVERYTHING Christmas touches turns to tinsel. Consider the lowly Scotch pine: a coarse tree, native to Europe and almost useless as lumber, with twisted needles that seem hard and sharp enough to sew suede. And yet

— fertilized, pruned, graded, tagged, trimmed and cosseted and, in some cases, sprayed with blue-green dye — this sow’s ear has been made into a silk purse stuffed with cash for most of the 500 major Ontario Christmas tree growers whose “plantations” supply much of Canada, parts of the U.S. and islands in the Caribbean and Pacific.

For all its faults, pinus sylvestris has an edge over prettier Canadian species as a Christmas tree: its needles don’t fall off. Scotch pines harvested as early as September look fresh-cut on Christmas morning and can be seen discarded in vacant lots in April, brown to be sure, but still bristly as porcupines.

Does this make the Christmas tree growers a seasonably jolly bunch? No. Like farmers everywhere, the growers

— who, in fact, tend to be middleaged city dwellers with rural holdings

— are fond of pointing out that theirs is not an easy buck. European pine sawflies and white pine weevils favor the Scotch, as do mice, rabbits, deer and a lovely bird named the pine grosbeak which nips off its terminal buds. Leaf rusts and fungus take their toll. All of which leaves the main destroyer of pinus sylvestris, Homo sapiens himself. By the tree and the truckload, Scotch pines are stolen from wood-lots virtually with impunity. “They tear off my labels,” says a grower. “Even if I know who did it, how can-1 go up to a guy and say, ‘That’s my tree’?”

Consumers have something to complain about, too. “It bugs me,” says a Toronto father of four, “to pay five dollars for a scrubby little Scotch pine when this whole country seems to be covered with nothing but trees.” Between $3.50 and $5 is the usual price this year, and, according to Reginald Williams, president of the Christmas Tree Growers’ Association of Ontario, prices could double by the early ’70s. “Fifteen years ago everybody got into the business,” Williams says. “In Ontario they were planting

16,000,000 trees a year — far too many. U.S. buyers were coming up and offering 50 cents a tree. The fastbuck boys went broke. Now the situation is reversed. Only about 2,000,000 trees are being planted annually and there’s going to be a shortage.”

Last year Canada exported more than 6,000.000 trees — Scotch pines from Ontario, balsam and white spruce from the Maritimes, and Douglas firs from BC.

The biggest Ontario grower is probably a Toronto oral surgeon named Dr. William Breslin. With half a million trees on 350 acres near Pontypool, his family-owned Pineywoods Plantations Ltd. ships Scotch pines as far away as Guam. Dr. Breslin’s bugbear is the artificial tree, which is getting more realistic-looking every year

and now accounts for more than 15 percent of the Canadian market. “The funny thing is, they don't want phony trees in places where the real thing won’t grow,” he says. “Texas buys hundreds of thousands of Scotch pines. We export trees to Venezuela by air, and they retail down there for $35 each.”

To the 5,000,000 Canadians who’ll spend about $20,000,000 on Christmas trees this year, Williams of the Growers’ Association passes along a little-known tip. “Add a half teaspoon of sugar to the water at the base of your tree,” he says. “There was a big spruce in a Hamilton bank that got pretty droopy. They added some sugar and darned if the tree didn’t grow an inch before they threw it out.”

JON RUDDY