Time for the tree

Published 12:15 am Sunday, December 4, 2011

ERIC SHELTON | THE NATCHEZ DEMOCRAT At top, Mr. Whiskers employee Jack Brown helps a customer load a Christmas tree Thursday. Above, Rudy Kruger looks for the right Christmas tree at Mr. Whiskers on U.S. 61 South in Natchez Thursday afternoon.

NATCHEZ — Where else to stock all of those hard-fought Black Friday purchases than under a fragrant, bushy Christmas tree?

Selecting the perfect tree might be a big decision, but several Miss-Lou businesses are ready and willing to help customers narrow down their options.

One Christmas tree was not enough for Ed Ater, who was busy selecting two Frazier firs from Mr. Whiskers on U.S. 61 South Wednesday. Ater said he will use one at his house and one at his office at Ater Warehouse in Ridgecrest.

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“They have the prettiest trees,” Ater said, who has been buying from Mr. Whiskers for 23 years. “I guess you could call this a tradition. Another reason we like to buy here is because the trees come in a stand.”

Liesel Devening, a Natchez resident, said she has been buying her Christmas trees at Mr. Whiskers since they opened.

“These trees have a great fragrance, and are so much prettier than fake trees,” Devening said.

Mr. Whiskers, also known by his real name — Winston May — said prices range from $29 to $400 depending on size. And by the end of season, nothing is left.

“We sell every needle,” May said. “And not only in the Miss-Lou, but to people in Baton Rogue, St. Joseph and McComb. We have a lot of loyal customers, and I like to think of us as a Miss-Lou tradition.”

May said he sells Frazier firs because of their unmatched needle retention and longevity.

“They don’t shed, and they stay good until February,” May said. “Just keep them in (fresh) water.”

Mr. Whiskers is one of many Miss-Lou businesses that offers full service to customers.

“We will deliver them and set them up for you,” May said. “We want to make Christmas easy and enjoyable for people.”

Brendy Zerby, owner of Moreton’s Floweland on Franklin Street, said customers have been ordering all kinds of Christmas trees — real and artificial.

“People want to avoid the hassle of a real tree — putting it up, taking it down and picking up needles,” Zerby said. “And sometimes it’s hard to find the right tree. Because there is so many varieties of artificial trees, it’s easy to find the perfect tree.”

Zerby added that real trees also tend to dry out, especially if they are erected at Thanksgiving. But there are downsides to the fake trees too, she said.

“You really miss the fragrance and aroma,” Zerby said.

For owners of artificial trees, Zerby suggested using scented oil with wooden wicks to enhance the Christmas atmosphere.

“They will fill your room or house with spruce and balsam fragrance,” Zerby said.

The price is a little higher for artificial trees as well.

“It’s an investment,” Zerby said. “Artificial trees cost more at the onset, but the longevity is there.”

This week is probably the biggest for Christmas tree sales at the store, Zerby said, and they try to accommodate orders ranging from small Christmas tree centerpieces to green giants. Trees can also be ordered pre-strung with lights. Zerby said one customer came in and bought a fully-trimmed artificial tree off the sales floor.

“We sold the whole tree with everything on it,” Zerby said. “And it was overloaded (with ornaments). That’s what is so nice about local stores — you get service you don’t get from big, box stores.”

Zerby added that customers can schedule appointments for tree installation and custom decorating.

Besides booming sales, Christmas tree business owners have a lot to smile about.

May’s wife, Cindy, said seeing familiar faces like Ater and Devening is the most rewarding aspect of tree sales.

“That’s what makes our Christmas,” Cindy said. “And I know it’s that time of year when I see their faces.”

The business has gone green in more ways than one. Leftover trimmings from trees are fashioned into fresh, full Christmas wreaths.

“We deliver them as fast as we can make them,” Cindy said.

In Ferriday, Marie Potts, owner of Marie’s Trees, said her opening day last Friday was better than she expected, with approximately 60 people stopping to select and buy a fresh tree at her farm on Louisiana 903.

Potts said she thinks people continue to buy real trees because of the smell and tradition, but the artificial ones serve a purpose too.

“I asked people, who said they did the fake trees, why,” Potts said. “Some don’t want a live tree because their small children have allergies to it. But when their babies are old enough, they come get a real tree.”

Potts said besides the trees grown on her property, she also sells Frazier firs out of North Carolina.

“People just love them,” Potts said. “They have wonderful smell. I only have a few of those left. I brought in 45, and have about 10 left. That surprised me.”

Potts shared a few live-tree tips to get the best life from them.

“If you get a live tree, get it in water immediately,” Potts said. “Some folks come in from Monroe, and I tell them, cut a tiny bit off the bottom of the tree and it will drink water.”

Potts said to be careful of heat sources.

“Don’t have them close to heat source or under a vent, because they will dry out,” Potts said. “And don’t put sugar in the water — I heard people did that. Here in Louisiana, sometimes it gets warm, and the water will go sour, which is not a pleasant smell.”

Dan Wells of Wells Produce on Homochitto Street in Natchez, said he also sells the Frazier firs.

“They are the No. 1 tree in the U.S.,” Wells said. “It lasts longer than any other tree, and the needles don’t fall off as bad.”

Wells said he sells trees between 4 to 14 feet, in a $29 to $169 price range. Wells said he sells approximately 400 trees a year.

“The customer picks out the tree, and we deliver and loan them the Christmas tree stand,” Wells said. “After Christmas, we pick them up and throw them away for you. We do everything except decorate.”

For those who might wander what to do with an old tree, Ater said he sends them to a watery grave for a second life.

“Some people recycle them by putting them in lakes for fish beds,” Ater said.