Science

No, You Don’t Have to Give Your Christmas Tree Sprite or Viagra or Vodka to Keep It Fresh

Water and a fresh cut will do the trick. So why do these strange myths persist?

a Christmas tree with drinks and drugs
Photo illustration by Slate. Photos by Getty Images Plus, Absolut, Sprite, and Viagra.

Hot water, bleach, corn syrup, Epsom salt, borax, chelated iron. According to the United States Department of Agriculture’s Forest Service, these are the ingredients in a “magic mixture” for keeping a Christmas tree, “a beautiful shade of green.”

Urban legend also suggests Viagra, aspirin, or Sprite might work, according to NBC News. A tree expert quoted in USA Today felt the need to advise against giving a tree ketchup. None of these things are necessary tree-additives: The National Christmas Tree Association FAQ makes a point to tell people to skip even fertilizer.

Here’s what you actually need to give a tree: water. Just water! It’s already dead. Nothing is going to make it last that long, but water will help keep it fresh for a little while. The benefits of putting any of these concoctions in your tree stand will almost certainly be outweighed by the sticky mess they create. Plus, as the National Christmas Tree Association explains, “some commercial additives and home concoctions can actually be detrimental to a tree’s moisture retention and increase needle loss.”

One forestry expert thought giving water to Christmas trees residing in living rooms was pointless, too. So, he set up a small study himself, according to an interview with the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel. His findings: Water can keep needles moist especially if the tree is freshly cut. If your tree wasn’t severed from the Earth recently, taking a small slice off the bottom will better allow liquid to go up through the plant’s tissue. A fresh cut and water—that is about the most you can do for its “health.”

Why do these myths persist? Perhaps being focused on giving a tree intricate mixtures ends up increasing the amount of water you give it, making it seem, artificially, like the mixture is doing something when it’s really just regular watering working, one expert theorized to NBC News. Or maybe it’s just random chance that people giving their trees concoctions sometimes buy a variety of tree that retains its needles for longer naturally, and then they mistake correlation for causation.

It’s perfectly human to want to stave off the decline of a tree you have killed and brought inside for your personal enjoyment. (How to really care for a tree, after all? Leave it where it is.) It tracks with our tendency to anthropomorphize the natural world, and our trees along with it, foisting our own desires on them—if I like a cozy living room and a glass of soda, this tree probably does too!

But I have another theory about these stories about plant uppers. In searching for anecdotes of what other strange things people add to their trees, I found far more examples of people dismissing tree concoctions than advocating for them. I am sure there are people out there who do add glucose and drugs to their trees—the AP reported on a man in 2004 who swore by cheap vodka; an entry on the website FML reports that Sprite lead to ants (no kidding). But I am more sure that there is a reason why we love to debunk this specific myth: It feels good to do the correct thing (watering a tree); it is imminently more satisfying to do the correct thing if there is a wrong and ridiculous thing other people are doing (giving it a boner pill).

In the end though, we shouldn’t feel so superior. The tree is dead! Giving it Viagra, or Sprite, or corn syrup, or ketchup won’t make it any more dead. Let people do their weird holiday traditions in peace.