The Right Tree

The Rockefeller Center Christmas tree has historically claimed the whole of December as far as tree media goes. Last year’s conifer drama wasn’t related to COVID but to a tiny saw-whet owl that came as the tree’s unintended plus-one. “Rocky” was described as being “rescued,” as “clinging to the branches,” as a “stowaway.” A Syracuse paper had the most Onion-esque headline: “Oneonta owl found in Rockefeller Christmas tree inspires a children’s book.”

Though there was no Oneonta owl this year, the 79-foot, 12-ton Norway spruce made its customary hyped appearance with the Daily News and the Post dutifully amplifying the fact sheet bullets: more than 50,000 multicolored lights! a 900-pound star with 70 spikes covered in 3 million crystals!

Not even a week after the lighting, however, Sprucie’s star was eclipsed by a fake tree going up in flames. On December 8, Fox News’ synthetic 50-footer on Sixth Avenue was set ablaze by a homeless man. Fox replaced the tree a day later but lamented the loss of this artificial beauty decorated with 10,000 ornaments and 100,000 lights. (Somehow, Fox is still operating on a Bush-based decimal system.)

For about a 48 hours, Fox got some mileage out of accusations that the libs were again stealing America’s Christmas. But when the replacement tree failed to get set on fire, everyone moved on to Omicron and the high price of Christmas trees in the city.

The Great Recession did a number on Christmas tree farming that we are still paying for with fewer trees that cost more. In my neighborhood last year, the nice, ruddy-cheeked tree people at the corner of Fort Washington and 181st sold out of everything and went home more than a week before Christmas.

On the Upper West Side, skinny fir trees on Broadway go for $20 per foot; down on Sixth Avenue near Houston, scraggly waist-high trees go for $95 and the three-branch Charlie Brown tabletop model can be had for $45 worth of pocket change. The Post recently went looking for shockingly expensive trees and found a 12.5-foot white fir for $1,100 at the corner of Jane Street and Eighth Avenue and a 14-foot Fraser fir for $1,200 on Tenth Avenue and 44th.

As an adult, I’ve come to regard bringing a killed tree inside as one the saddest things you can do every December. As a New Yorker, the tree I think about during this month is the ginkgo. With a warming climate, this tree’s stunning yellow plumage lasts up to the second week in December. Until last year’s lockdown, I never paid attention to which tree’s leaves were the last to go. I always assumed it was the Japanese maple, which seems to me the barrel-aged cabernet of everything deciduous. But I noticed that the ginkgo clusters of gold were still brightening many places in the city when other trees had checked out—still aglow when the poor conifers started leaning around street corners in their cement shoes.

Supposedly, ginkgo eaves fall within a short space of time (one to 15 days), but in Manhattan at least, they’ve managed to stick around. Around 10% of the borough’s trees are ginkgoes, with 21,330 on the city’s tree map. (I can vouch for the ones in Hudson Heights.) Ginkgoes flourish in urban environments because they are among Earth’s hardiest trees, with deep roots that make them more resistant to wind and snow damage. Ginkgoes have endured earthquakes, meteor strikes, and human inhumanity (Hiroshima).

There’s a lovely Eastern esthetic to the fan-shaped leaves and tall, slender form. But there’s also the unavoidable fact that the female trees stink to high heaven when shedding fruit—pulpy yellow pods that rot into a mushy paste on the ground. The male tree doesn’t do the fruit thing, but the females’ detritus emits an odor people have compared to vomit, rancid butter, an uncleaned locker room, or basically any city sidewalk substance early Sunday morning.

Which makes ginkgoes even more germane to this city of wonders and horrors. They are especially plentiful in Central Park and the reason for all those greeting cards and calendars where the glowing November foliage seems almost too manipulated for nature. Are their artful leaves gold or yellow? the color of wealth or the color of hope? I suppose the fact that they’re glowing into December adds to our worries over climate change. Still, their compact forms seem determined to hold onto the yellow as far into December as they can, to get us to Solstice, when the scale tips on the side of light, and we can think again about those things called beginnings. §