Putting the green back in ChristmasKorean Christmas trees are stunners. They're festooned with silver bells, golden wreaths and glittering lights. Everything is perfect -- except they're fake.
Seoul florists and markets rarely sell live Christmas trees. Just a handful of nurseries carry them. The only Christmas tree farm in the area is near Mount Cheonggye, south of Seoul.
Between Mount Cheonggye and Seongnam city is a quiet, hilly, fertile ground that is thick with trees and bushes.
Nearby is a large protected area and the Daewang Reserve where wild ducks frolic in the water. Close by is a newly constructed arboretum and botanical garden and the entrance to the Shingu College Field Practice Nursery.
This is Christmas tree heaven.
The 82.5-hectare plot was purchased 35 years ago by the late Lee Jong-ik, founder of Shingu College. Mr. Lee had hoped to build a school on the site, but because the area had been designated a greenbelt by the government, he and his son turned it into an arboretum where students and researchers could study.
During the day, the arboretum's trails are open to hikers. On the grounds are designated areas for people looking for Christmas trees to bring home.
The entire area is enveloped with the sweet scent of evergreens. Deep in the woods, the only sounds are the chirp of birds, the snap of twigs and the rustle of leaves underfoot.
Lee Hak-sung manages the area with two other men. He invites me to see the areas where trees of different ages are planted. The trail is unpaved and bumpy. It winds up a hill and down a road lined with towering firs.
"See the stub there?" he says, pointing to a spot where the tallest tree had just been cut down. "One by one, the beautiful trees are disappearing from here."
When Mr. Lee joined the nursery 18 years ago, that tree was already growing. He believes it was 25 years old when it was felled.
It now stands front of the Lotte Hotel in downtown Seoul and, at 15 meters, is the tallest live evergreen in the city this Christmas.
It took four men to cut down the tree, trim and bind the branches with rope and load it onto a 5-ton truck.
The Lotte Hotel paid more than 500,000 won ($410) for the tree. (The exact amount is a secret.) Handling doubles the price. If the tree had been extracted for replanting, the labor cost would be at least 1 million won.
Because the Lotte's fir wasn't symmetrical, a few tree branches were added after the tree was delivered to the hotel. It took seven workers a total of four days to erect and decorate the tree, a hotel spokesperson said.
The Shingu College Nursery sells its firs, yews, junipers and zelkovas to individuals, as well as botanists, hotels and parks.
Trees for home use are about 1-1.5 meters in height and take about 10 years to grow, Mr. Lee says. They cost 50,000 to 100,000 won. The two most popular varieties in Korea are the yew (jumok in Korean) and Korean fir (gusangnamu).
Mr. Lee warns that the occasional evergreen trees found in local flower shops often have been stolen from greenbelts and private property.
His trees are grown from seeds in individual pots, in a greenhouse on the other side of the hill. When they are 3 to 5 years old, they are planted on the nursery's grounds, where they grow until harvesting.
Looking at his Christmas trees, planted in symmetrical rows, Mr. Lee laments that live trees have never been popular among Koreans. "We've never had any Korean families looking for real Christmas trees," he says, "or florists in Seoul ordering real trees for the Christmas season."
Then, again, it hurts him to lose each and every tree.
Shingu College Field Practice Nursery
Telephone: (031) 723-9770
Location: 14-1 Sangjeok-dong, Sujeong district, Seongnam City, Gyeonggi province
Driving instructions: From Yangjae subway station in southern Seoul, turn right at the intersection in front of the Nonghyeop Hanaro Club and the KOTRA Building. Drive four kilometers toward Mount Cheonggye. Look for the Daewang Mart or the newly constructed Shingu College Arboretum site in front of Daewang Reserve in Sangjeok-dong village.
Hours: Open 8:30 a.m.-5 p.m. Monday through Saturday
The care and feeding of holiday pines
Tree varieties: Three varieties of trees are generally available. A fir is called jeonnamu in Korean, a Korean fir is a gusangnamu and yew is a jumok.
Prices: Trees that stand about 1-1.5 meters cost 100,000 won and up. Trees that stand less than 80 centimeters cost about 50,000 won.
With advance notice, a terra cotta pot can be prepared for growing the tree. Digging out a tree and potting it costs about 30,000 won, including the 10,000 won for the pot.
Arrange upon purchase or with advance notice.
* The base of cut trees should be kept in water so the needles don't dry out. A cut tree lasts about 20 days.
* Potted trees that are kept indoors should be watered three times a week.
* Keep potted trees free from excessive dust accumulation.
* If the tree is planted outdoors, you can usually leave it to nature after the initial watering. Rain should be sufficient.
Buying a live Christmas tree
One of the stores inside the Yangjae Flower Market, Gukje Wonye Jongmyosa (Gukje Gardening & Nursery, 02-571-6891-5), specializes in garden trees, including live Christmas trees.
Flower Market in Yangjae-dong (www.yfmc.co.kr)
Hours: 9 a.m.-8 p.m. daily
Telephone: (02) 579-8100
Location: About four kilometers southeast from Yangjae subway station on Line No. 3, Exit No. 7
Driving Instruction: Heading south from the Hannam Bridge, take the Gyeongbu highway. Exit at the Yangjae Interchange and drive along Maeheon-ro. The Flower Market is on Gangnam-daero.
Prices: A medium-size Korean fir costs between 40,000 and 70,000 won, a yew about 150,000 won.
Delivery to Seoul starts at 30,000 won.
From sapling to towering evergreen
1. Evergreens are initially tended inside a greenhouse at the Shingu College Field Practice Nursery.
2. When they are 3 to 5 years old, they are planted in a field, and trimmed and cared for on a regular basis. The Korean fir, in the left foreground, has long, spiky branches. The yew has a darker color and a triangular shape.
3. Trees older than 15 years have been grown in a separate area that resembles a natural woods.
4. A truck prepares to transport one of the tallest firs in the woods to the Lotte Hotel in downtown Seoul.
5. Workers decorate the tree over a four-day period after it was delivered to the hotel.
Keeping Christmas on track
Gerald McElligott has worked as a Christmas display artist for so long that he's beginning to look the part.
With graying hair, round metal eyeglass frames resting on apple-red cheeks and large, plump figure, Mr. McElligott could be Saint Nick in disguise.
For the past 16 years, the Dublin native has been building toy trains for Christmas displays. His designs are novel enough to have taken him to Hong Kong, China, Japan, Korea, the Middle East and the United States.
This year, he has set up shop in the Seoul Hilton Hotel. His 15 locomotives pull 125 cars through tunnels, over bridges and up hills.
It took Mr. McElligott, 56, three weeks to design and build the display, working under a tent with an American assistant, Greg Nelson, and five local art students.
So do his landscapes actually exist? "They're usually alpine regions, like something you'd see in Germany, Switzerland and Austria," Mr. McElligott says. "But sometimes I do the American Wild West for a change."
He notes that every year is different, partly because of his imagination and partly because of the dictates of the space he is filling. "I have different assistants helping me each year, and they incorporate their ideas into the setting," he says. This year's Hilton toy train site features a lake and fishermen.
"Everybody enjoys seeing what they used see when they were growing up," Mr. McElligott says. "Toy trains can trigger childhood memories. That's why you want to see toy trains."
But getting that nostalgic feeling doesn't come cheap. The Hilton Hotel paid about $15,000 for the track, trains and setting, mostly imported from Germany.
Will there be Asian scenery some day? "I've been asked that a few times, but the materials aren't available," Mr. McElligott says. "The HO scale, used in Japan, is too small for public displays."
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