SAVING TREES (EVEN REALLY BIG, OLD TREES) – REAL LIFE LESSONS
By Cascade Anderson Geller
Respectfully submitted on April 17, 2009 to United Plant Savers for possible publication All rights reserved by the author.
“Trees are poems that earth writes upon the sky, We fell them down and
turn them into paper, That we may record our emptiness.” -Kahlil Gibran
I started working on this article a long time ago because I love everything about trees. Though it sprouted and grew steadily for months, the sobering facts unearthed in the research made the writing fall dormant. Trees are having a rough go of it all the way around: blights, environmental degradation, development and agricultural practices, logging, bad policies and other issues make our human financial crisis look relatively tame. There was already so much depressing news for us all to wrestle with that I couldn’t bring myself to pile on more and so the article was left fallow.
The article began to blossom again not because trees are less threatened. Actually, even more diseases have been identified that weaken the roots, reduce circulation, or just kill outright. More trees have fallen due to commercial and natural disasters, fear and greed for more money, or just more light. Many dogwoods Cornus sp. Cornaceae, and the old stately live oaks Quercus sp. Fagaceae of California, have succumbed to killing blights. The high Appalachian Mountains have lost most of their Fraser fir trees Abies fraseri Pinaceae from aphid and other infestations. The list of loss is lengthy.
I was able to revive the writing because, as always, amidst the sad realities there were also many stories of success, even when the odds were grim. The point is that trees can often be saved and their life spans extended when someone is willing to extend themselves. It is my hope that this article will provide support to a person wrestling with a decision about a tree, or a grove, or an entire forest that is faced with potential devastation.
Interest, and trust, in trees, and the healing power of nature, is a family trait on both sides of my family. We like to give plants the benefit of the doubt as my mother did for our Russian mulberry tree Morus nigra Moraceae one early Thanksgiving morning. Visiting on her 80th birthday, we were awakened to her distinctive, deep-south dialect proclaiming that the mulberry tree had fallen down in the road. The soil had grown sodden with days and days of drenching rain and other trees in the region had come down with the autumn winds. The mulberry tree had been in the ground for nearly a decade and was top heavy due to the grafting of the exotic mulberry onto a lighter-weight trunk species. Though it had been staked for years, we had recently removed the stake, obviously not a wise decision. A group of us gathered around the tree that had tipped over, its root wad intact. A neighbor said that it was a shame that the tree would need to be removed. We had no doubt that what she was really thinking was how thankful she’d be to be rid of a nuisance that bore staining fruit, dropping onto the walkway and street, for at least two full summer months. No matter how many times we offered, she would never taste the succulent berries.
Not missing a beat, my mother retorted that there wasn’t a thing wrong with the tree that propping, staking, watering and feeding would not remedy. That’s just what we did and now over a decade later we still enjoy the masses of deep red, sweet-tart fruits that just keep on coming all summer long.
Though uncommon in the U.S.A., scaffolding, guy wires, props and other means of helping keep trees upright and safe, are used throughout the world. In the town squares of Mexico, as well as many other places around the globe, large trees are preserved and contribute to the beauty and livability of the site. Look up into the canopies of these trees, and you may see cables stretched between heavy branches to provide support.
On the southern Greek island of Kos, the birthplace and teaching site of Hippocrates some 2400 years ago, there is a celebrated oriental plane tree (sycamore) Platanus orientalis Platanceae. The tree has a massive hollowed-out trunk that would have been deemed unsafe long, long ago if it were in the middle of an American city. Here it is maintained with elaborate scaffolding, protected with an attractive low fence. Though this tree is only reputed to be about one-half a millennium old, it still honors the place where Hippocrates, and other notables, taught under a plane tree said to be the relative of the current one.
Trees save themselves using ingenious methods when they have even half a chance. The woods near my home have numerous native wild cherries Prunus emarginata Rosaceae that have toppled over on the hillsides where birds and squirrels have planted them. With their root wad still attached to the ground, the downed trunk becomes a nurse log that turns branches into trunks growing straight up. Some of these trees that have been left alone for years now have become interesting trees with some of the stronger branch-trunks developing their own set of roots that reach down over the fallen log right into the ground.
These new trunks are blossoming and bearing fruit now while the downed mother-log provides stability to the hillside and amends the soil.
When given the opportunity, giant trees can produce strikingly beautiful means of achieving stability on their own. Tropical rainforest trees can be seen with stupendous buttressed trunks and roots, making the most of keeping their roots close to the surface of the ground where the nutrients are harbored. When given the room to spread, the lowest branches of a colossal tree may reach down to the
ground and then back up again in an effort that can only be described as beautility. These low dipping branches will root and help provide nourishment and much needed support for the great weight of the tree. They will keep a tree that is isolated from the network of forest roots upright even in strong storms. Like a human elder with a cane or a walker, the tree gains stability by creating more points of contact with the ground.
Most old trees are deprived of the ability to provide for their stability in this way since they are pruned for better access for mowing, walking or light. Many people are uncomfortable with plants that appear to have had little grooming from human touch and reach a large size. In the Pacific Northwest, some early loggers would brag in the taverns about the Douglas fir Pseudotsuga menzeisii Pinaceae they had fallen just because it was “obscenely big.”
When tree branches are able to make ground contact, a sacred “room” is created. Banyan trees are figs such as Ficus benghalensis Moraceae. Also known as strangler figs, their seed, deposited by a bird, germinates in the bark of a host tree and roots descend down to the ground and eventually surround the host. The fig tree thrives at the expense of the host, growing not only taller but expanding laterally with the aerial roots becoming sturdy prop roots. One of the biggest recorded trees in the world is said to be the ancient banyan called
Thimmamma Marrimanu in Gutibayalu, India that extends out some two kilometers.
Here in the U.S.A., magnificent examples of prop branches can be seen in Hot Springs, North Carolina at the Mountain Magnolia Inn where there are two astounding trees in the yard. One is the namesake tree, a big leaf magnolia Magnolia macrophylla Magnoliaceae, and the other is a black walnut Juglans nigra Juglandaceae. Other notables are the giant female ginkgo Ginkgo biloba Ginkgoaceae, planted in 1785, in Leiden’s botanical garden in the Netherlands. On the trail, that leads to the cave dedicated to Mary Magdalene, up through the sacred forest of mount Saint Baume in the south of France, there are many old trees, including marvelous ancient yews Taxus baccata Taxaceae with their many drooping, supporting branches.
More than three decades before the episode with the toppled mulberry tree, we pulled into our driveway only to find that the “mean boys” next door had snapped the red maple sapling that my dad had planted the year before. It wasn’t broken clean off, but it was a mangled mess and most people would not have believed that the tree could be saved. Without a word my dad immediately went to work setting a stake and then carefully matching the tree’s tissues, like a surgeon, and wrapping the trunk tightly with wide strips of an old clean white sheet. Then he fed and watered the tree and each day after work he
would check on it before he had his own dinner. In deep shock, it dropped all of its leaves and looked like it was dead but he assured everyone that it was healing just like a broken leg would heal. That tree is big and beautiful now and if you look closely you can see where it is scarred from that long ago trauma.
The stories of saving the mulberry and maple happened with relatively young, small trees, but with the right equipment and determination even very old trees can be, and are, rescued. More than a decade ago, a construction project in Portland, Oregon was destined to destroy a century-old ginkgo. By sheer public pressure, advocates were able to convince the construction company, who had the necessary heavy equipment, to gently dig the tree up and move it to a site donated by a local private college about 5 miles away. The tree was transported
and carefully replanted in its new home and it has slowly recovered. I have visited ancient olive trees in northern Spain that have been transplanted miles from their original site that was destined for development.
That old trees can be transplanted is a marvel but not a wonder when you consider the tenacity and wisdom they embody. To reach such a ripe age requires the ability to bend with the winds of change and storms of conflict, to resist illness and heal.
“Trees are your best antiques.” -Alexander Smith .