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Mail-order Christmas trees? They still have that fresh aroma

When David Larsen finally hit on a way to box his trees, he knew he could bring something unique to the live Christmas-tree industry: mail-order marketing. Before that time, almost everything else connected with Christmas came in a box, with one exception - the fresh-from-the-forest tree.

At the time, five years ago, turning an additional profit with mail-order marketing was only part of the reason Larsen spent so many hours on the package and the system that gently winched the trees into boxes.

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Like all enthusiastic entrepreneurs, the owner of Brookfield Nursery and Tree Plantation in Blacksburg, Va., was keen to serve the market better. In particular, he wanted his product to arrive in the freshest-possible state.

It takes eight to nine years of pruning, shearing, and general watchful care to bring northern white pines - a premier Christmas-tree variety - to the compact, dense, near-perfect shape demanded by tree decorators these days. There's a lot of dedicated work behind each tree. Responsible growers don't like to think any of it will go to waste through mishandling and delays down the line , even if their own profits are still assured.

Mail-order delivery and United Parcel Service's ability to deliver anywhere in the United States in two to five days promises to eliminate this sort of waste.

Just as fresh fruit - apples, citrus, or strawberries - sent through the mail is frequently fresher and better tasting than store-bought fruit, mail-order trees also arrive in a fresher, no-needle-drop state and ''with a more Christmasy aroma to them,'' to quote a Larsen customer.

When he began shipping his trees direct to the buyer, he aimed his product at the Southern states, principally Florida, where quality Christmas trees are often difficult to come by. The response delighted him so much that last year he went national.

Now, for $24.95, the nursery will ship a 68-inch tree to your door anywhere east of the Missisippi; west of the Missisippi, the cost is $29.95. Yes, he does ship to Hawaii as well, but airfreight pushes the cost up to around $60.

Meanwhile, the rush has only just begun for Larsen and all other American Christmas-tree growers. Between now and a few days before Christmas, they will cut and ship some 30 million trees to cities and towns across the land. You will see them - sometimes thousands at a time - in trucks and railroad cars headed for garden centers, department stores, supermarkets, and special Christmas-tree centers that spring up overnight in suburban parking lots.

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The vast majority of Christmas-tree sales will take place at these centers (Larsen also sells the bulk of his production in this conventional way), but door-to-door service now is an appealing option to many.

However you buy your tree, there's one thing you should do immediately after you get it home. Saw about an inch off the bottom of the stem just before putting it in water. This way you reopen the capillary tubes (blocked when the cut trunk dries over), and the tree can take up fresh water.

You wouldn't think of leaving fresh-cut flowers out of water, and you should treat your living tree no differently. Depending on its size and the temperature of your home, it will take up between a quart and a gallon of water a day.

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