Smelly Trees

This sign by Port Republic tennis courts at Harry Bowen Memorial Field warn would-be poachers that these trees emit an obnoxious odor if cut down and placed in a warm home. 

Brian Ianieri

If Port Republic’s evergreens could talk, they would warn any would-be Christmas tree poacher they reek of rotten eggs when they die.

Since they cannot, the tiny town of 1,115 in northeastern Atlantic County speaks for them.

“Warning,” reads a red sign planted alongside municipal tennis courts by Harry Bowen Memorial Field. “These trees have been sprayed with a chemical that when introduced to the heat of a home emits an obnoxious smell.”

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The sign has been the town’s answer for the past five years to misguided holiday revelers who cut down trees on public property to decorate their living rooms.

“We just got tired a couple weeks before Christmas seeing a stump there,” Mayor Gary Giberson said. “People have literally climbed 30-, 40-foot blue spruces just to cut the tops off. I’ve seen that in rural towns. It makes me sick.”

So the municipality took matters into its own nose when it planted about 25 evergreens as wind breaks for the tennis courts and Fireman’s Pond ice-skating area.

“We haven’t had one touched,” said Giberson, a tree aficionado who said he can tell which side of the Mullica River an Atlantic white cedar grew on based on its taste from the iron in the soil.

The mayor said he does not recall what chemical was used on the trees.

Christmas-tree theft used to be a problem along New Jersey roads in the 1990s. The state at one time sprayed chemicals sold as deer repellents to make dead trees stink.

“We haven’t had a problem with Christmas-tree poaching for many years, so there has been no need to spray,” New Jersey Turnpike Authority spokesman Thomas Feeney said.

Some products include Thiram, used in the forestry industry to keep deer from chewing trees, said Richard VanVranken, an agricultural agent with the Rutgers Cooperative Extension of Atlantic County.

Those products always had one major drawback: “If someone doesn’t read some sort of sign or have some indication the product will make the trees smell if they bring it indoors, the damage is done,” he said.

There are also commercial and homemade products created for the same purpose, some using putrefied meats, dried blood and chili peppers, said James Johnson, a Cumberland County agricultural agent.

“I had a call here at the office from a homeowner a number of years ago who was complaining their Christmas tree suddenly had this obnoxious smell,” he said. “I had to diplomatically tell them where they got it the person probably cut it down off a roadside.”

Giberson said Port Republic’s treated trees and warning signs have worked well enough that he would encourage other municipalities with similar problems to follow suit.

And the trees smell fine in the August heat, as long as they’re alive, he said.

“If the trees died in the summertime,” he said, “nobody would play tennis.”

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