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Trees of many colors: Flocking gives Christmas staple a different hue

| Friday, Dec. 21, 2012, 8:53 p.m.
Flocked Christmas trees at Joseph's Nursery and Garden Center in Monessen on December 14, 2012. Guy Wathen | Tribune-Review
Opal 'Catherine' Travis poses for a portrait in her living room on December 16, 2012 in Brownsville. Eric Schmadel | Tribune-Review
Detail of the flocking on the Christmas tree in Opal 'Catherine' Travis' living room on December 16, 2012 in Brownsville. Eric Schmadel | Tribune-Review
Opal 'Catherine' Travis poses for a portrait in her living room on December 16, 2012 in Brownsville. Eric Schmadel | Tribune-Review
Opal 'Catherine' Travis poses for a portrait in her living room on December 16, 2012 in Brownsville. Eric Schmadel | Tribune-Review
A Christmas tree is flocked by Stan Malarbi, of Monessen, at Joseph's Nursery and Garden Center in Monessen on December 14, 2012. Guy Wathen | Tribune-Review
A Christmas tree is flocked by Stan Malarbi, of Monessen, at Joseph's Nursery and Garden Center in Monessen on December 14, 2012. Guy Wathen | Tribune-Review
Kris Joseph (left) and Stan Malarbi add glitter to a flocked Christmas tree at Joseph's Nursery and Garden Center in Monessen on December 14, 2012. Guy Wathen | Tribune-Review
A Christmas tree is flocked by Stan Malarbi, of Monessen, at Joseph's Nursery and Garden Center in Monessen on December 14, 2012. Guy Wathen | Tribune-Review
A Christmas tree is flocked by Stan Malarbi, of Monessen, at Joseph's Nursery and Garden Center in Monessen on December 14, 2012. Guy Wathen | Tribune-Review

For Opal “Catherine” Travis, tinsel, stars and tree ornaments simply don't go far enough on Christmas.

Sometimes even the tree needs a dye job.

Tree flocking is popular in California, the Southwest and other warm, snowless locales, but is still trying to find its niche in Western Pennsylvania.

Still, the technology Kristen Joseph uses to make trees go from green to white, to purple — or whatever color you want — has gotten way better since the 1950s, when her grandfather and great-grandfather mixed their first batch of tree-flocking material in an old washing machine.

“You can't find this much any more,” says Joseph, who runs Joseph's Nursery and Garden Center in Monessen, one in a handful of local tree vendors that flock trees, wreaths and other adornments. “But we do what we can to keep this from becoming a lost art.”

In the Travis family home, nothing says “Merry Christmas” like a tall, bushy Christmas tree bathed in gold flocking.

Christmas trees are more than a festive symbol of Yuletide for Travis, 87, a retired Upward Bound worker in Brownsville, Fayette County.

She had very little as a child growing up in the Depression era. A Christmas tree was hard to come by, as were the presents underneath.

Travis remembers bundling up in her winter clothes every December to peer into neighbors' windows to catch a glimpse at their trees, wreaths and other decor.

“I used to tell myself, ‘If I ever get a home of my own, I'm gonna have a Christmas tree, period,' ” Travis recalls.

She ended up getting her own home and, at 19, she bought her first tree for $12. Travis got turned to flocking about 35 years ago by a guy who used to color and sell trees at a lot on High Street in Brownsville.

Travis has gotten gold trees each year since 2000 to match the red-and-gold wallpaper, curtains and couch set in her living room.

“It makes me smile,” she says. “Gold seems to brighten up the house.”

So, how do you make a tree go from green to something else?

First, you need a turntable — a big one.

Once there, the tree can be slowly spun while someone applies fireproof flocking material to it with a high-pressure sprayer.

The mixture is typically is made of cotton and rayon. Joseph says white with silver glitter is by far the most popular color, though it's not uncommon for some customers to request wilder ones.

Even pink was en vogue for at least one flocking fan.

“That was for a baby shower,” Joseph says. “It's a personal preference. Whatever color you can think of, we can do it.”

Flocking may still be in search of a fan base here, but it's clear that nationally sales of trees — particularly of live ones — have bounced back since the recession years.

Pennsylvania still ranks second nationally in the number of Christmas tree farms, and fourth in both the volume of trees cut each year and the acres used in production. Only Oregon has more tree farms, according to the U.S. Department of Agriculture.

Sales of real trees outpace those made of plastic or aluminum by a 3-to-1 margin, according to the National Christmas Tree Association. The Chesterfield, Mo.-based nonprofit represents tree farms and more than 4,000 business that grow and sell Christmas trees or provide related supplies and services.

In 2011, consumers bought 30.8 million trees, a 13 percent increase from the year before. The sales generated $1.1 billion in sales for the industry.

Travis spent part of one day recently trimming her 7-foot blond pine tree with red orbs and miniature shoes.

“I hope this (trend) doesn't go away,” she says. “I just don't know what I'd do without a gold tree in my house for Christmas. It just wouldn't be the same.”

Chris Ramirez is a staff writer for Trib Total Media. He can be reached at cramirez@tribweb.com or 412-380-5682.

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