The Search for Next Year's Tree Is Already Branching Out

What's the best way to find a Christmas tree - a really, really big Christmas tree?

Try a helicopter. Next week, that's the way David Murbach, Rockefeller Center's horticulturist, will start to look for the 1997 Christmas Tree that presides over Manhattan.

From the air, Mr. Murbach and an associate from a nursery fly over the tri-state region looking for giant Norwegian spruces. What they usually find from the air is that there are very few trees to choose from. "We sometimes cruise for 5 or 6 hours and don't find a single tree. This is why it is a job, not a pleasure," says Mr. Murbach.

To qualify, a tree needs to be at least 65 feet tall and 35-to-40 feet wide. The branches should be slightly ascending in their posture. The tree needs a certain density since it will be decorated with 26,000 lights. In short, it needs to be sort of king of the landscape.

If Murbach and his crew see a tree from the air, they mark it on a map and then return to the site on the ground. Sometimes what looked like a perfect tree from the air is actually two trees. Or, it may have a defect. Almost half the time, the owners turn down Murbach. "Maybe their grandfather planted the tree, or it blocks a neighbor or it's a great feature on the landscape," he says.

To convince people, Murbach tells them about how much joy the tree brings to the 2.5 million people who view it live or the millions who will see it on TV when it is lit on Dec. 3. "We hope they are interested in joining in and feeling the spirit of the holidays," he says.

That's what happened with Mrs. Ann Dilger of Armonk, N.Y. Nine years ago, she turned down Rockefeller Center when it wanted to use a 90 foot Norwegian spruce on her property. When Murbach returned this year, Mrs. Dilger conferred with her family and agreed to let the center have the tree.

Once the tree is located, Murbach will fertilize it to make it greener and may prune it if necessary. To actually move the current tree, he had to remove two telephone poles plus the electrical and cable television connections. The tree arrives at the center in the middle of the night and becomes an instant celebrity.

The tree is lit on Dec. 3 to Dec. 30 (5:30 a.m. to 11:30 p.m.), 24 hours on Christmas Eve and Christmas Day at 30 Rockefeller Center.

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