TREES WITH FLAIR, (A FLARE)?

"I think that I will never see a poem as lovely as a tree". Arboricultural music to everyone's ears but rarely read in its entirety. No matter how many times I have asked someone to read the poem during a program, someone always ends up with a tear in his or her eye. Trees do that to us, don't they? They are provocative, ethereal and evoke feelings that are often difficult to express. (Don't worry, if you have these fuzzy moments you are on the right track!) Trees are our friends, and as the little redheaded kindergartener said during an Arbor Day program, "Why Mr. Deahl, trees are important because that's where the monkey's live"! How right she was, and how critically important her statement is to the survivability of each connected organism that exists within our urban forests.

"Trees with flair", you say? Yes, trees with a flare. Now which one is correct? An ethereal discussion of trees is not my intent, but instead, a tree's physical makeup and its biological characteristics is our topic for the moment. It is a conversation that has become not only necessary but is horticulturally critical if we are to allow our friendly giants to remain as safe, healthy parts of our urban forest.

Picture yourself, if you can, spending your childhood in a pair of shoes one-half size too small, "Gee mom, I can't walk very well in these but they are the best looking shoes I've ever had"! Let's look at a tree and see what we can do to help it fit into its urban environment.

The crown is usually the first thing we notice. The further up we go the smaller the wood becomes until it turns into those all important leaves, where the tree manufactures food through the process called photosynthesis. Too often we look at woody plant fertilization as "Tree Food", which we now know to be biologically incorrect. Tree fertilization simply provides the root system with valuable nutrients necessary for the tree's own food production. That is an important concept to remember as we attempt to change or augment the soils in which our trees exist. From the crown we move down through the twigs, limbs and larger branches until the wood becomes the trunk. Can you imagine a tree that stands 100 feet tall, next to your house with a weak trunk, or one that has been compromised by something that occurred earlier? Remember when we said how trees give us all those ethereal feelings because of their majestic presence? They can also make people uncomfortable. Trees become a risk for myriad reasons, and our actions can and do have everything to do with their condition. Remember, tree health and tree condition are two very different yet connected topics and are both critical in regards to safety.

Keep moving down the tree to its base, where it enters the ground. What should the trunk look like at this point? Should it resemble an elephant's foot or a bell, or should it look like a telephone pole as it enters the ground? Take a look and if yours looks like the pole, your tree warrants closer inspection.

With few exceptions, trees display a peculiar habit of widening their trunk where they naturally enter the ground. This part of a tree's anatomy is called the trunk flare and might well be a tree's most important structural characteristic. This is the point at which the trunk attaches to the root crown. As simple as that seems, all parts of the roots must remain below ground and those belonging to the trunk above ground, exclusively. This phenomenon is genetically "hard wired" into a tree's existence and cannot, (should not) be changed. In other words, if we change our trees natural habits above or below ground we create a difficult existence for our trees and potentially for us as well.

Quite simply, each time we simulate a tree's most natural growth environment we allow the tree to do what it does best, become bigger every year, which it does better than any other organism on earth. I heard the other day that an adult Blue whale weighs as much as 130 tons. I wonder if that's more than a big white oak. I'll have to ask Scott Prophett, he knows everything about trees.

A tree's flare becomes buried for many reasons. It can happen during a construction project or at the wholesale grower during root pruning procedures. We have no control over these situations but the thing we can control is how our trees are planted. Planting and maintenance are the two most critical maintenance responsibilities we have in the urban forest. They encompass safety, health and most importantly the intrinsic benefits we receive during a tree's existence. Taking a few precious minutes before planting can be analogous to the proverbial "stitch in time..." (The whole time I was a kid I had no idea what my grandmother meant by that!). While your new tree or shrub is still sitting on top of the ground, carefully placed next to your planting hole, move the burlap back and inspect the tree's base or trunk for the flare, or that "bell" shape. If one is not visible, gently excavate the root ball next to the trunk until the flare comes into view. Be extremely careful not to "nic" or scar the bark. This area on the trunk is susceptible to grave problems when injured so loosening any dirt with a trowel or stiff paintbrush must be done with great care. Once the flare is located and exposed, the tree can be planted. It is always best to plant your tree too high than it is too low and try to dig the hole only as deep as necessary without packing dirt back into the hole. This will keep the tree and soil from settling. Next, when backfilling the hole and mulching around the tree, be sure the mulch and dirt are not touching any woody part of the trunk flare. The term "volcano mulching" has become a household word, with examples everywhere. It looks like a volcano of mulch with a tree emerging from its top. Once again, if your tree goes into the mulch or ground like a pole rather than a bell, something is wrong and it is time to investigate. We have found newly planted trees buried or over-mulched by as much two feet. By changing this situation you and your tree will be rewarded well into the future. The first three years of care after planting are critical to a tree's survival. Think of how a tree would grow naturally in a forest situation, and try to simulate how that works. Planting, watering and structure pruning during this time is like giving your infant child all the love and attention they crave during their formative years. I guess that's why trees and babies receive such special attention in places we call nurseries.

Planting trees professionally or as a homeowner is not only wise but is therapeutic as well. We are all charged with the well being of our urban forest; it belongs to all of us. It is everyone's responsibility to insure that our children's children enjoy the benefits urban trees have to offer. Imagine a city without trees and all their connected organisms. What is the value of Central park in New York City, Lincoln Park in Chicago or our tree lined Mall in Washington, DC? We have everything to do with the health and well being of our urban forests. We had our friend the Wye Oak with us since the sixteen hundreds. Many of our young trees can live that long and we can be a positive part of that investment. So… Next time you plant a tree, look for that flare and be sure it's there. Let's give our trees a chance to be all they can be, a safe and healthy work of art with FLAIR!


Copyright 2005 by Peter Deahl. All rights reserved.

 
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