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Neither Sprite nor Viagra boost drooping Christmas trees

Dec. 18, 2013 at 1:17 PM ET

Christmas tree
Allen Breed / AP
In this Nov. 16, 2013 photo, tree farmer Jeff Pollard examines the needles of a Turkish fir on one of his farms in Bakersville, N.C.

Urban myths for keeping Christmas trees fuller, longer, are as plentiful during the holidays as bell ringers on street corners. 

Some folks have even taken to tossing a Viagra in the tree stand, thinking the $25 pill might have the same effect on trees as it does for men. Others swear by Sprite or aspirin, or take to surgically attaching water tubes or other contraptions, all to extend the life of a big holiday buy that can run anywhere from $8-$25 per foot.

But experts say that when it comes to Christmas trees, the good old fashioned ways work best, and less is more.

Jeff Owen is a Christmas tree extension specialist at the North Carolina State University Department of Forestry and Environmental Resources. He laughs when asked whether the little blue pill can benefit the big green tree.

"The additives I tested either made no difference in terms of needle retention, or made it worse," he said. Fertilizer-based products, for instance, even made the trees fall apart.

"Any additive you put in water functions as a salt. Salts aggravate needle loss," said Owen. 

That includes anything with a sugar or alcohol component, such as Sprite, or, as one remedy suggests, vodka. 

For the best look in the long run, "the most important thing is clean water," said Owen, "and a fresh cut on the tree."

That water needn't be distilled or bottled, but if your tap water is highly chlorinated you can let it stand for a while. Also, the amount you cut off from the stump doesn't have to be longer than half an inch to encourage the tree to take up water. And unless the stand is totally flat, there's no need to make an angled cut either, another popular approach.

So why do some folks swear by their little helpers when it comes to perking up their conifers?

"Because they're adding preservatives, they're more focused on adding water," theorizes Owen. Instead of gimmicks, just water regularly, never let the stand dry out, and you'll get the best results.

Other tips include:

  • Get a stand that holds at least a gallon of water
  • Wash off the stump at the bottom to remove sap and bacteria
  • Don't worry about screws going into the tree trunk, they don't affect uptake
  • Households with humidifiers may find they need to water their trees less

A properly maintained tree can be expected to maintain its needles and color for two to three weeks after it goes up. But, ultimately, any kind of Christmas tree trick or tip is a race against the inevitable. 

"With a cut Christmas tree, it's already dead," said Owen. "It's already got a life sentence."

Contact Ben Popken via ben.popken@nbcuni.com, @bpopken, or benpopkenwrites.com

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