Toad in the Hole

May 31, 2006

The Arrogant Arborist #2: Basics and Butchery


Now, it's easy to tell that this tree has been brutalized. There's no excuse for this sort of crap, and the people who did it and the people who paid for it should be beaten with large burlap bags of wet shit until they pass out, and then roused up and beaten some more. And then drowned in it.

Ok, maybe not drowned unless they've done this before. Gee, what are the chances?

No, this is not the start of a rational, if weird, course of pollarding. The tree's too old; the cuts are too big and ill-placed. This is just stupid.

I console myself with the thought that the tree's not long for this world anyway, partly because of the results of a similarly too-big cut some years ago, clearly evident here.


That big picturesque hole shows the failure of the tree to "heal" -- actually, to compartmentalize decay -- after a big limb was cut off. Trees deal with decay organisms by creating a chemical barrier in their live wood in the path of the organisms' colonies. When a bad cut is made, especially a cut that leaves a stub, the tree can't raise its defenses fast enough to stop the organisms that have had a headstart, so to speak, in the protruding wood.

It's also bad to make the old-fashioned "flush cut" that leaves no protrusion at all. The tree's main defense lies in the branch collar, a zone of live and lively wood that circles every branch at its origin in the trunk or larger limb. This might sound mysterious, but trees as a rule show you right where that zone is, under a visible turtleneckish lump circling the limb base, called the "bark branch collar." The thing to do it to cut just outside that lump -- or even into it, if there's a very good reason, so long as you leave as much of it as possible. Best to leave it all.

How to tell whether you've left too much on the tree? Try to hang your hat on it. If you can (ruling out knit toques and such, yes) then you've left a stub and you need to trim it off. If your reasonably weighty hat falls off the lump, you've done it right.

What might not be so obvious here is that this mess is also a lawsuit waiting to happen.

Look closely here and at the biggest magnification on the Flickr page -- I left my antigravity belt at home, so this is as close as I could get to the thing:


See in particular that little whippy twig coming straight off the bottom of the cut? That's where it shows best. If it doesn't snap off in the next heavy wind -- and, as this is a weeping willow, it might not -- it will keep growing and someday be a branch. But it will have originated not in the central or nearly-central wood of the tree, not in the wood that would have been live wood of some years back and been progressively strengthened by layers of sap- and then heartwood around it, but will be completely superficial, and thus attached only weakly to the tree. It will grow fast, though, as will the other twigs the tree puts out in a panicked attempt to recuperate its foodmaking leafy branches before it starves to death.

And then it will break off and fall on some hapless passer-by's head.

OK, maybe not; that path is not heavily trafficked. (Yes, by the way, that's Mount Tamalpias in the background.) The branch will break off, though; gravity's a bitch that way. And the mess would be entirely preventable and its existence demonstrates negligence. Wonder how good that building's or grounds' owner's insurance is? Wonder if they ever thought to budget a bit for, hm, what's the opposite of dangerous vandalism? And that's not even getting into the offense against a living being and the sensibilities of anyone sensible.

Here's one on the same lot, slightly less obvious but just dumb.


It's a red ironbark, one of very few well-behaved eucs that look great in urban settings. Its bark is gorgeous, like molten pig iron with black on top and glowing red fissures, hence the name. Its foliage is bluegray-green, nice contrast, and on graceful, dancing twigs. One of the best things about eucs is how they dance in the wind, and this is a breezy spot that shows them off well. There's another line of them on the opposite side of the longish pair of three-story office buildings and those trees seem to get treated this way too, unfortunately. On the face of it, it could be mistaken for a radical lacing-out or liontailing, but look closely again. See the stubs? See the twig clusters where the last set of cuts was made? See the difference between the diameters of the twigs and the branches they spring from? All signs of shallow attachment.

And another aesthetic offense besides.

This one might look less dangerous but it's over a deck with seating where people sit to eat lunch, await appointments, and/or just watch the lagoon in front of it, which is fairly birdy in winter and just relaxing otherwise. The sad thing is, you can get away with a lots of pruning on a red ironbark; they're tough. But it does require just a little more knowledge than the people who whacked on this one seem to have.

Posted at May 31, 2006 10:28 PM


I love these posts, and I am so grateful for them, but they always make me cry, a little. Poor butchered trees! Argh!

I must confess to a little gender stereotyping here. Whenever I see a mess like this, I know -- I mean *know* -- that a man has made it. Though I've seen lots of women be plenty assertive with saw and lopper when the need arises, and I've even done some severe pruning in my own time to save various trees and shrubs who deserved another chance, I have never, ever seen a woman do anything like this to a tree.

It's not all men who do this. I would never argue that men should not be allowed near trees or anything. Shoot; it was mostly men who taught me how to tend trees in the first place. However, I would still bet -- and not just because the industry seems to have more men than women in it -- that it was a man who perpetrated these travesties. Men (in my experience) are just more likely to take a chainsaw to anything that's in their way. Out of the way now? Great. Job done. On to the next.

What's your take on this?

Posted by: Sara at June 2, 2006 04:26 PM