That got me wondering: Could you get the same effect from a real tree?
If plain old green evergreens are too ho-hum for you, there's a world of "self-igniting" evergreens awaiting.
For example, consider growing a variety of yellow-leafed conifer, many of which make good cut trees. The Aurea, Lutea and Rheingold varieties of arborvitae; the Aurescens variety of Japanese yew; the Gold Cone variety of common juniper; and the Gold Coast or Old Gold varieties of Chinese juniper all sport yellow foliage.
Any of these conifers also have relatively dense, small needles, so the trees look full even when viewed up close, propped by the fireplace.
Some evergreens even provide their own version of tinsel: silvery leaves. Try something like the Glauca variety of Japanese white pine or the Argentea variety of Colorado blue spruce. The blue of evergreen needles results from a waxy coating, and that waxy blue is not far from silver, making the Angelica Blue, Blue Cloud and Blue Vase varieties of Chinese juniper also self-decorating, sort of.
OK, let's admit that while a yellow or silver conifer might look good among other plants out in the garden — especially lighting up a shady area — it could look sickly, boring and bereft of holiday cheer standing alone in a living room. Nature has provided for us here also, though.
For instance, Dragon's Eye pine, a variety of Japanese red pine, has two yellow bands decorating each of its otherwise green needles. And the green needles of the Aureovariegata variety of arborvitae are randomly splotched with yellow.
Still interested in tinsel? Grow Nana Variegata Japanese falsecypress for leaves that are both green and white.
Like the artificial tree that glows at its tips, another variety of Japanese red pine, Alboterminata, glows pale yellow only at the tips of the leaves. A couple of Hinoki falsecypress varieties ignite similarly. Mariesii glows white, and a tree of Crispii is a pyramid of green suffused with a glowing yellow surface.
One more conifer worth mentioning is the Aurea variety of Scotch pine. It actually fades in and out of colour like those artificial trees — though not nearly as quickly. Young leaves emerge yellowish in spring, turn pure green in summer, then become yellowish again in cold weather.
For anyone who wants their living tree to actually glow with light from within, British genetic engineers have been working on techniques to use genes from luminescent jellyfish and fireflies to produce real holiday trees that glow without added lights.
All of these real trees — whether all yellow or silver, just so at their tips, or changing colour — have a place in the garden, and perhaps even cut as branches or whole trees indoors.
None can offer the festive, dramatic contrasts that you get from a lush, green tree draped with shiny tinsel and brightly colored decorations. Then again, neither do those softly glowing artificial tree.