Ani Sirois, a respiratory nurse, has spent months caring for coronavirus patients at a Portland, Oregon hospital and she’s only getting busier as cases — and hospitalizations — surge before the holidays.

But on a recent sunny day, COVID-19 seemed far away as she and her husband and their 2-year-old daughter roamed around a Christmas tree farm searching for the perfect evergreen for a holiday season like no other. The family was tree shopping nearly a week before Thanksgiving and, for the first time, they were cutting down their own tree instead of buying a pre-cut one.

“It’s nice to have home be a separate safe space away from the hospital and whether we can have a gathering with family or not, I know we’ll have our own little tree with the purple lights and that’ll be something small to look forward to,” she said.

The real Christmas tree industry, which has been battling an increased interest in artificial trees, is overjoyed to see that more Americans appear to be flocking to fresh-cut evergreens this season as the nation staggers under the toll of the coronavirus.

It’s early in the season, but wholesale tree farmers and small, family U-cut lots alike are seeing strong demand, with many lots opening well before Thanksgiving. Those in the business say they are seeing more people and seeing them come earlier than ever.

In some U-pick lots, for example, customers were sneaking in well before Thanksgiving to tag the perfect tree to cut down once the lot opened. Wal-Mart is offering free home delivery of a fresh-cut tree for the first time this year as more customers demand the real deal amid coronavirus fears and big box stores are demanding trees up to a week earlier than last year as interest surges.

“Fresh-cut Christmas trees are in great demand,” said Mckenzie Cook, who ships between 1.8 million and 2 million trees a year combined from Mckenzie Farms in Oregon and Happy Holiday Christmas Trees in North Carolina.

A constellation of reasons are driving the uptick in interest. More Americans are staying home for the holidays amid pandemic lockdowns and are realizing that for the first time in years — or maybe the first time, ever — they will be home to water a fresh-cut tree. And with normal Christmas parades and holiday festivals canceled, stir-crazy families are also looking for a safe way to create special memories to mark the end of a year fraught with fear and worry.

It also feels safe. At big box stores and small family lots alike, fresh-cut Christmas trees are displayed outside, where there’s a lower risk of viral spread — another factor driving interest, said Marsha Gray, executive director of the Christmas Tree Promotion Board.

The national industry organization says more than 20% of consumers who put up an artificial tree last year plan to buy a real tree this year, and most cited the pandemic as their reason.

The growing interest in real trees is the silver lining of the pandemic for an industry that’s struggled to attract new, younger customers in recent years as more and more Americans buy artificial trees.

Between 75 and 80% of Americans who have a Christmas tree now have an artificial one, and the $1 billion market for fake trees is growing at about 4 percent a year — even though they can be reused again and again.

No one tracks annual sales of real trees because independent tree lots are so scattered, but those in the business estimate about 20 million trees or more are sold each year, most of them at big box stores such as Costco and Home Depot.

Oregon, the nation’s No. 1 supplier of fresh-cut trees, expects to ship nearly 6 million evergreens this season to places as far away as Japan and China. Other top tree exporters are Washington state, North Carolina and Pennsylvania.

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