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The search for a longer-lasting Christmas tree, and other stories

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'Tis the season, when many of us have Christmas trees in our homes. But not for much longer as they'll either be boxed up for next year, or hauled out to the curb or compost lot.

Interesting tree fact: Only 19 percent of the Christmas trees displayed in American households are real – the rest are artificial, according to the American Christmas Tree Association.

Breeding a better tree

The main reason people decide to buy an artificial tree is that they get sick of the mess left behind by real ones, according to the Associated Press.

But one scientist who is sometimes called "Mr. Christmas Tree" has been working for years to breed genetically superior trees that will hold on to their needles much longer, the Associated Press reports.

Gary Chastagner of Washington State University is painstakingly experimenting with various species of evergreens – branch by branch – to see which ones are least prone to dropping their needles early. Once they're identified, tree growers can plant seeds from the heartiest ones to produce better trees down the road, the Seattle Times reports.

Eventually Chastagner hopes to identify the genetic markers that can more quickly single out the trees that hold onto their needles the longest, and experiment with breeding them on a larger scale.

In general, most Christmas tree varieties should hold on to their needles for the three weeks or so that they're displayed indoors, as long as they're watered regularly.

A 40-year Christmas tree?

A man in Wausau, Wis. has had the same spruce tree up in his living room for four decades now, still decorated, and still hanging on to its needles.

Neil Olson, 89, told the Wausau Daily Herald he put the tree up at Christmas time in 1974, when two of his six sons went overseas to serve in the Vietnam War. He planned to take it down when all six of them were back home for Christmas at the same time.

But after all these years, that reunion hasn't happened yet.

Five of his sons live close by in Wausau. But the oldest, Barry, lives in Washington State. He is disabled after being wounded in Vietnam and hasn't been able to get back to Wisconsin for Christmas.

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Olson said he thinks the tree is supernatural somehow, and that the needles have stayed on for a reason.

"I bet you if my sixth boy comes home, the needles will drop right off," Olson told the Daily Herald.

He still holds onto the hope that Barry will join his father and brothers for Christmas one of these years.

How to dispose of your tree

As you get ready to put away your holiday decorations and take down the tree, a reminder that it is illegal to throw out real Christmas trees in the trash.

Many communities have compost lots which will take trees and wreaths, according to MPR News. And in some cities, it will be picked up if you put it on the curb along with your trash. You can visit rethinkrecycling.com to find out more about tree disposal in Twin Cities area communities.

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