Ever noticed those little red cedars dotting the ditches and pastures? Ever daydreamed, around Christmas time, of just getting out of the car with a hacksaw and saving yourself the price of a tree?
But you were always too chicken, right? Well, hold that larcenous thought. Kansas City WildLands has a deal for you. And when you’re done, you’ll not only have your tree but the satisfaction of knowing you’ve helped the environment.
The trees will be free Dec. 8 at Shawnee Mission Park’s Theatre in the Park area, but the conservation group suggests a $15 donation per tree to fund restoration efforts in the area. The land — about 18 acres — is slated to be turned into prairie through work including the cedar cutting and later controlled burns.
There will be pre-cut trees at the event. But those who want to have more of a country Christmas experience can walk a ways into the park, choose their tree and cut it themselves. Volunteers will point out trees that can be cut, and Kansas City WildLands will have trucks to haul the trees back up to the road. There will even be a campfire and hot cider to make things festive, said Linda Lehrbaum, program manager of the group.
People who want to cut their own trees should bring their own rope and saws (no axes or chainsaws permitted).
This is the twelfth year Kansas City WildLands has harnessed the power of Christmas for what would be a back-breaking slog for volunteers at any other time of the year. The festive atmosphere and draw of fresh-cut trees has made it popular, said Lehrbaum. The group usually gives out around 200 trees — many to families who like the experience and the chance to save some money.
Quincy Morris, of Bonner Springs, for example. Morris, his wife and two children under 6 have made the trek to various locations the past two years. Last year they ended up with three trees — two 7-footers for upstairs and downstairs and a smaller one for the font porch.
In previous years, Morris said, he’d bought trees from a lot. But for the suggested donation, “there’s no way I could’ve purchased three trees,” he said.
The Morrises like the outdoorsy experience of choosing their favorite tree. “The trees are natural, so they’ve got their own character,” he said. “And there are so many to choose from.”
The eastern red cedar is not by definition a bad plant, Lehrbaum said. In fact it is about the only conifer native to this area. But it can be problematic for groups like hers that are working to preserve the native grassland. The trees proliferate so well that without the regular fires that were once part of the natural cycle, they soon choke out prairie grasses and flowers, she said.
Kansas City WildLands, an affiliate of the non-profit Bridging the Gap, preserves native habitat remnants that have been identified on public lands, Lehrbaum said. “A remnant is an ecosystem that shows signs of having been there forever, like it was in the time of Lewis and Clark,” she said.
Biologists can tell whether the land has been largely untouched by the types of plant species present, she said. Certain plants will not survive continued plowing or overgrazing. If the area also has many diverse species, her group gets involved, she said. That includes not only tree harvesting but occasional controlled burns, she said.
Such will be the case with the area around this year’s tree harvest. The land isn’t considered a “remnant,” but even so, the Johnson County Parks officials are trying to return it to a more natural state.
Kansas City WildLands currently works on 15 sites of varying acreage, Lehrbaum said. Some of their projects are well-known to the public, some not. The group usually doesn’t put up signs. But nevertheless, people will know that such areas as the Rocky Point Glades in Kansas City’s Swope Park, the Jerry Smith Prairie in Jackson County and the Ernie Miller Prairie in Olathe are special, Lehrbaum said.
“For the most part, people just get out there and realize it’s different,” she said. Invasive shrub honeysuckle and other destructive plants are cleared out and the area feels open and back to health, she said.
“People can see through the forest as opposed to seeing just a wall of green. They just know if feels better out there.”
As for the cedars, people who take them home for the holidays should expect a few differences from the typical Scotch or white pines sold as Christmas trees. They have a slightly reddish or darker green hue, and they have short “awns” which are technically not needles, said Matt Bunch, horticulturalist at Powell Gardens. Their natural shape is conical, although they may need a little more pruning because they’ve been growing in the wild, he said.
Bunch, who has used the WildLands trees in his home for around seven years, said the tips of the branches are a bit narrower, so heavier decorations usually go further up the branch. The biggest difference he noticed is that it’s sometimes hard to get a star on top. “The tip is typically very flimsy. That’s where a little bit of pruning comes in handy.”
Female trees may have bluish berries as an extra plus, and Bunch said these are edible, but have a bitter aftertaste. (Juniper berries of another type are used to flavor gin.)
Mostly, though, Bunch and his daughter, Juniper, 5, and son Isaac, 3, just like the whole experience. “There’s something special about going out and doing that,” he said.
Morris would agree. Although he first got interested in the event as a way to save a little money, he has since become hooked on the experience. “It’s fun. I’m not the greenest person, but I do feel like we’re doing something we’ve been asked to do that would help the area,” Morris said.