A Christmas tree you don't have to kill

The Small-Leaf Tristania, or Tristaniopsis Laurina, has a round form and a dense canopy. The Friends of the Urban Forest in San Francisco provide this and many other trees as replantable alternatives to the traditional Christmas fir.

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Scott Jagow: There's no law that says a Christmas tree has to be a fir tree, or a spruce or a pine. That tradition comes from 16th century Germany. Modern-day San Francisco is not 16th century Germany. Rachel Dornhelm introduces us to the city's unique, eco-savvy program.


Rachel Dornhelm: At a rowhouse in the hills of San Francisco, a volunteer lugs a potted tree up Michelle Waite's front steps.

Tree Volunteer: Hi!

Michelle Waite: Hi! It's my Christmas tree!

Tree Volunteer: It's your Christmas tree!

This is no triangle-shaped fir. In fact it's not a fir at all. It's a small-leaf Tristania. It looks like an olive tree, but eight feet tall and skinny.

This tree drop is part of a program by the San Francisco Department of the Environment and the nonprofit Friends of the Urban Forest. You give them 90 bucks, they bring you a living tree. After the holidays, they'll pick it up and plant it on a sidewalk somewhere in the city.

Waite says she was sold almost as soon as she heard about the program.

Waite: I asked my kids first if they'd be OK with that, and they loved the whole idea that it was going to be replanted. And I also . . . my mom is coming and she's a big Christmas person so I had to check with her, too.

Waite says her family did have one big question before signing up: Can you put a star on top?

Kelly Quirke: Yeah, the trees are strong enough to hold just about any kind of ornament that you have to hang on it, unless it's a 2X4 or something like that.

That's Kelly Quirke, director of Friends of the Urban Forest. He says the $90 covers the price of the tree and planting it in neighborhoods that don't have much greenery.

Quirke: There seems to be a real demand for people to have living Christmas trees. They don't like the idea of chopping down and killing a tree for the holidays. And then of course, after the holidays we find all these carcasses all over the sidewalks of San Francisco, waiting for a garbage truck to come by and pick them up. And people don't like that either.

Even in San Francisco, street trees aren't many people's idea of a Christmas tree. The program accounts for just 100 of the 38 million Christmas trees sold in the U.S.

Still, the three-year-old San Francisco program has doubled in size since last year, and orders are still coming in. This year, Friends of the Urban Forest even has a Christmas tree lot so that customers can select their own.

Quirke says his organization doesn't plan to set up shop in any other city, but hopes the idea will spread on its own. Then perhaps more people will get the chance to enjoy a very green Christmas.

In San Francisco, I'm Rachel Dornhelm for Marketplace.

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