Trees: Branching Out
What do you look for in a tree? Paul James hopes it's form and structure.
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What do you look for when shopping for a tree? The other day while hanging out at his local nursery, master gardener Paul James heard what customers were saying about the dozen or so different types of landscape trees available — things like nice leaves, good fall color, reasonably priced, and so on — but he heard no one say a word about what he considers to be a tree's most striking attribute of all: its form and structure.
"Although leaf size and shape and fall color contribute to a tree's distinctiveness, form and structure are what give trees genuine character and aesthetic appeal," says James. "By that, I mean the shape of a tree's trunk or trunks, the texture of its bark, the point at which it starts to branch, and the branching patterns it begins to take over time. These are the attributes that cause us to truly appreciate a tree."
However, these days, most landscape trees sold by retailers have perfectly straight trunks and the reason is simple, that's what most nursery owners and landscape designers want, so that's what most growers produce and deliver.
"In fact, I've seen perfectly healthy trees ripped right from the ground and hauled off simply because their trunks weren't perfectly straight and that's nuts," James says. Of course, there's nothing wrong with a tree that has a straight trunk, although a yard full of them can look pretty monotonous. James prefers trees that have less than perfect trunks for more character. "This tree for example, looks fine. But I think this tree with its curved trunk is far more interesting, and more and more trees are being trained and produced to create multiple trunks."
Bark texture is another characteristic that can greatly enhance the over all look of a tree. Textures can range from smooth as in the case of this Japanese maple, or Acer palmatum to deeply fissured as seen on this red oak to coarse such as this hackberry, and don't forget about exfoliating bark, which is particularly pronounced on the river birch.
The point at which a tree begins to branch is also an extremely important characteristic that can have a big impact on the overall appearance of the tree. One trend among growers is to limb trees up considerably — that is, to remove most, if not all of the lower branches. James says that limbing trees isn't always a good idea. "On this young oak for example, the grower removed all lower branches to emphasize the tree's strong leader, but here's the same type of oak with the lower branches still intact. This tree has far more eye appeal."
The same is true of these Japanese maples that flank the entrance to James' house. They begin branching only a foot above the ground and as a result, give the trees tremendous visual strength. Finally, have a look at the Yaupon holly, or Ilex vomitoria. It too, branches low to the ground and that trait combined with the ruggedness of its bark texture give it a fascinating uniqueness.
The tree characteristic that James considers to be the most important is its branching pattern high in the canopy, something best appreciated by lying on your back and looking up. "The patterns created by the branches in the canopies of trees can evoke real emotional responses in much the same way that clouds can. And those patterns may be somewhat symmetrical or they may be anything but. I'm especially fond of curious, haphazard shapes and patterns."
Among the most popular landscape trees, there are those whose branching patterns are more predictable and more desirable than others. Oaks tend to branch beautifully, and the patterns they create usually improve with age. Maples, including Japanese maples, also have great branching potential, as well as the other attributes homeowners look for in landscape trees. And to a lesser extent, the same can be said of just about any popular landscape tree from ashes to zelcovas.
"So next time you go shopping for a tree, take time to consider all its attributes, not just the obvious ones," James suggests, "and use your imagination to predict how that tree will ultimately look in a decade or so. If you do that, chances are good you'll wind up picking the perfect tree."
Master gardener Paul James fields questions on tree surgery, tree ferns, Sambucus, weeping dogwood and more.