Proper Disposal of Christmas Greens

Wild Ones

Invasives can be spread through out-of-county decorations

Misfortune will befall those who keep holiday decorations up beyond the Twelfth Night – or so goes the superstition from England. 

Depending on how one counts, this would be Jan. 5 or 6, and though the people of Great Britain, Canada and many parts of the United States no longer worry about “tree-spirits” causing misfortune, the tradition of disposing of decorations on the Twelfth Night persists.

Those in the environmental community do worry about the disposal of holiday decorations because they believe, with good reason, that misfortune will befall the natural landscape if invasive species are introduced. And that is all too possible during the holidays.

My wake-up call occurred in 2018. A friend had given me a charming floral arrangement – red carnations with fillers of pine, boxwood and soft white baby’s breath, just the perfect size for my desk.

The arrangement was sitting by my computer when a post from the Wisconsin Department of Agriculture, Trade and Consumer Protection (DATCP) flashed across my screen: “Invasive pest found in wreaths, evergreen decorations sold in Wisconsin.”

The insect pest was elongated hemlock scale (EHS) which is a tiny invasive species that feeds on the sap of balsam and hemlock needles. The introduction of this insect into Door County would not be good.

“It’s fine to keep your decorations up for the holiday season, but when it’s time to dispose of them, don’t put them on the compost pile or set the greens out for brush collection,” said Brian Kuhn, director of the Plant Industry Bureau of DATCP, in the article. “Burn them if you can. If you can’t do that, bag them and send them to the landfill.” 

The best practice is to buy local. If you don’t know if the plant material is from the peninsula, Wild Ones-Door County advises that you assume it could be infested. The list of invasive insects, fungi and plant diseases that might be lurking in holiday decorations is daunting and includes hemlock woolly adelgid, the invasive species that has decimated the hemlock forests throughout the Eastern Seaboard.

Recently, a small infestation of hemlock woolly adelgid was found at the Sleeping Bear Dunes National Lakeshore right across the lake from us.

And speaking of Sleeping Bear Dunes, they don’t look like they once did. Researchers tell us that 5,300 acres of the sandy Lake Michigan shoreline near the Dune Climb and Cottonwood Trail have been invaded by baby’s breath.

Truth be told, I love baby’s breath. When I got married, rather than a veil, I tucked baby’s breath into my hair. And the delicate flowers at Sleeping Bear and Point Betsie really are pretty. But these non-natives have completely disrupted the dune ecosystem. It would be tragic if that happened in Door County.

Understand that a single baby’s breath plant can produce as many as 13,000 seeds which can blow in the wind and quickly colonize sunny, disturbed, sandy sites.

Other invasive plants, such as Oriental bittersweet, teasel and common reed, are commonly used in wreaths and arrangements.

For years, I had just taken my holiday decorations out in the woods where they could decompose. NO MORE! Holiday decorations should never be left in the woods,  put in compost piles or dumped in roadside ditches.

Burning is probably the best option – so mine go straight into the fireplace. But bagging plant material and sending it to a landfill is also recommended. And, if you find egg masses or insects on your greens, contact the Door County Invasive Species Team (DCIST).

Whether you follow the tradition of taking down your decorations on the Twelfth Night or if you leave them up for a while, know that you can help protect the Door Peninsula from misfortune by disposing of greens and invasive plants properly.

Coggin Heeringa is the president of Wild Ones-Door Peninsula Chapter.