Ada, We've Got a Tree Problem

Ada's flowering pear trees are in trouble.  For the past three years, they've been battling fire blight, a bacterial disease that gives a tree a scorched look.   Village administrators have been holding meetings to discuss replacing the trees, especially since this particular type of tree is now considered an invasive species by Ohio's Department of Natural Resources.

But thoughtless pruning is an even bigger threat.  I know, because a beautiful big old silver maple right next to my house is dying because of it.

Dead Branch Leaning, right toward our house.

Dead Branch Leaning, right toward our house.

"Looks like someone topped it at one time," said Brad Brooks, of Tawa Tree Service.  Mark had flagged him down, seeing as he was doing a service call to a neighbor's house across the street.  Brooks had been assessing a dead tree in their backyard.  It, too, was the victim of topping, also known as "tipping," "heading," or, my favorite, as it best describes what the tree is reduced to, "hat-racking."

Our neighbor's hat-rack. It was once a tree.  

Our neighbor's hat-rack. It was once a tree.  

We wanted an arborist's assessment of what was ailing our silver maple.  A few weeks ago, following an overnight storm, we found a ten-foot-long, six-inch-thick branch on the ground.  It had cleared the porch roof by just a few feet.  It was as hollow as a toilet paper roll.  A glance up, into the canopy, revealed that several other branches, disturbingly big ones, looked just as decayed and fragile.  

And yet the tree's putting out leaves and looking pretty vigorous.  From a distance.  Brooks pointed out signs of interior trouble, like a large swatch of the trunk that no longer has bark and is acting as worm food.  

Rotting wood inside an old wound on our silver maple.  This is at eye level in the main trunk.  So, just how structurally sound IS this tree, anyway?

Rotting wood inside an old wound on our silver maple.  This is at eye level in the main trunk.  So, just how structurally sound IS this tree, anyway?

"See that hole up there?"  He pointed along another big branch, the one that curves closest to our house.  There was a hole in the branch with a thick collar of callus tissue bunched up around it.  From it spewed a black streak that stained the bark.  "That's water and decayed material coming out of there," Brooks explained.  

He said the tree is structurally unsound.  "Eventually, you'll need to remove it."  Or Mother Nature will remove it for us.  And that would likely to cost a lot more than the fee we'd be charged for cutting down the tree and digging out its stump.

Topping is what caused this problem, and what may lead us to get rid of this 80-year-old tree.  

"Topping is the indiscriminate cutting of tree branches to stubs or to lateral branches that are not large enough to assume the terminal role," explains Tawa Tree Service in one of its educational brochures. It's often done to reduce the size of a tree.  Joe Homeowner looks at his big old silver maple, sees that it's getting in the way of a utility line or throwing shadows on his patch of Early Girl tomatoes, and he hires someone to cut it back.

A topped tree along a county road north of Ada.  Topping stresses a tree and causes it to put out shoots, to make up for the loss of leaves.  "People love it because the tree looks nice and full," said Brad the Arborist.  But the tree's been set on a path of disease and decline.

A topped tree along a county road north of Ada.  Topping stresses a tree and causes it to put out shoots, to make up for the loss of leaves.  "People love it because the tree looks nice and full," said Brad the Arborist.  But the tree's been set on a path of disease and decline.

"Keep the ball shape, though," I can hear Mr. Homeowner saying to the Tree Guy, the guy with a chain saw and the guts to shimmy up the tree with it, who doesn't know how to prune a tree but has that lollipop tree image in his head.  

Correct pruning cuts are made just beyond the branch collar at the point of attachment.  The tree is biologically equipped to close such a wound, provided the tree is healthy enough and the wound is not too large.  Cuts made along a limb between lateral branches create stubs with wounds that the tree may not be able to close.  The exposed wood tissues begin to decay.

Trees don't heal pruning wounds or other breakage the way our skin does.  It doesn't seek to restore the damaged tissues with new ones.  It just walls off or compartmentalizes the hurt part.  The cells around the wound change chemically to provide barriers that keep disease at bay.  It's a pretty impressive process, one that was first systemitized by a German forester named Robert Hartig, and expanded upon by American plant pathologist Alex Sigo.  

It's also inspired equally impressive artistic renderings of the inside of a tree, on the USDA's Forest Service website, no less.  Your tax dollars at work!  (Green) Thumbs up to federal arborist artistry.

The inside of a tree...or is it the inside of a space station?  You decide.

The inside of a tree...or is it the inside of a space station?  You decide.

 Now that I know what topping is, and how bad it is for trees, I'm noticing hat racks all over the area. I don't know when some tree barber came through and gave the Ada area's trees a buzzcut, but it may have been a decade or more.  The trees I'm seeing that are dead from their topping all look like they've been that way for a while, meaning, that the original offense took place some time ago.  

May the practice of topping die with them.