Mysterious tree failure…

Here is this week’s plant puzzler.  This mature tree just fell over one summer day.  There had not been any significant wind, the soil was well-irrigated (but not overly wet), there had been no construction work or other root-zone disruption.  There were no significant pest or disease problems.  I’ve posted two photos from different angles, and will show one more photo on Monday.  Why do you think the tree failed?

Seattle Chainsaw Massacre

In the spirit of the season I’m including some photos from our neighbor’s willow tree that failed a few years ago.  The failure wasn’t unexpected, given the age of the tree and the lack of crown care it received.  What’s truly scary is the “tree service” that came out to deal with the problem.  Low bid wins again!

(And yes, I’ll post a puzzler as well.  Two for one today!)

Here’s the willow after the crown collapsed

Rickety ladder + chainsaw = suspense!

Standing in the collapsed crown – no rope or other safety equipment


Look Ma!  One hand!!!

And best (worst?) of all, the remaining trunk was just left in place.  It quickly resprouted and now resembles Cousin Itt from The Addams Family.

Graft and corruption

It’s election season – but that’s not why I’m doing a blog on “graft and corruption.”  Instead, let me back up and explain that today I gave a seminar on diagnosing urban tree death.  One of my points to the group was the importance of knowing the history of a site – what species were selected, how trees were planted, whether there had been any major construction activity, etc.  I thought I’d continue the importance of site history into today’s posting.

Here’s a photo of a street tree – a Prunus spp.  (Disclaimer: I am not endorsing a candidate for Mayor of Seattle despite the appearance of a campaign sign in the photo.)  It’s a healthy enough specimen, though possibly a bit large for this narrow planting strip:

Several years ago you would have seen a different tree in this same spot:

Now did this weeping cultivar somehow transform into an upright form?  Let’s look at this second photo in its entirety:

This reminds me of my favorite childhood book on Greek mythology, which had a great drawing of Athena springing from the head of her father, Zeus.  Yes indeed, we are seeing the scion of a grafted tree lose the battle to the rootstock.  Rootstocks, by their very nature, are vigorous.  If we revisit the first photograph again, this time a little closer, we can see all that remains of the poor scion:

Lesson:  if you are using a grafted tree in the landscape, you need to keep the rootstock under control.  Grafted trees are probably not good choices for low-maintenance landscapes.

Should I boycott cypress mulch?

It’s hard to think of mulch as a controversial topic but, as with most things these days, we find people on both sides of an issue.  And, as with most things these days, some of opinions are based on substance, others are not.  In the southern U.S. some environmental groups are advocating a boycott of cypress mulch.

Cypress mulch is derived from baldcypress and pond cypress, which grow in ecologically sensitive wetlands in the Southeast.  Cypress wood is highly valued for is natural decay resistance.  Florida and Louisiana are the leading states for cypress harvesting for timber and other products.  In Louisiana it is unclear if cypress is logged solely for mulch but cypress harvesting for mulch does occur in Florida.  According to Dr. Jim Chambers, professor of Forestry at Louisiana State University and Chair of a governor’s science panel on forested wetlands in Louisiana, cypress mulch production is a sensitive issue.  “Many of our cypress-tupelo forests are in a severe state of decline. As you can imagine, these forests are very important to south Louisiana for many reasons. Areas permanently flooded, areas that are flooded for substantial parts of the growing season, and areas subjected to salt water input cannot regenerate. The amount of forested areas with these conditions continues to increase as subsidence increases, coastal wetlands are eroded by storms and human impacts on hydrology continue to degrade many sites.”

The inability to regenerate new stands of cypress is an important concern and calls into question the sustainability of cypress harvesting on these sites.  Chambers is working with environmental groups and others to develop a process to certify that mulch is produced from sustainable forest harvest operations

Another issue related to cypress mulch is a claim that is circulating in parts of Michigan (and perhaps elsewhere) that cypress mulch is linked to cancer.  I conducted a search of the National Library of Medicine and National Institutes of Health literature database ( on ‘cypress’ and ‘cancer’.  The only hits I found were related to studies looking at falsecypress (Chamacyparis) extracts for anti-cancer properties, similar to taxol.  The claims of cypress mulch and cancer may be an amalgam of the environmental concerns over cypress harvesting discussed above and concerns over use of mulch derived from CCA (chromated copper arsenate) treated wood, which is used for decking and other uses similar to cypress.  Research has shown that leachate from mulch containing CCA treated wood can have elevated levels of arsenic and metals above established health standards.

We all know Linda’s fondness for wood chips as mulch.  My personal favorite is ground red pine bark for its durability and natural appearance.  The key is to look for renewable mulch products that are locally sourced.

Epicormic mystery solved!

Good morning (at least it is in my time zone)!   And welcome to those of you who found us through Blotanical or another blog site.  We love seeing the increased participation on our blog.

Since I am a teacher at heart, I was glad to see so much thoughtful discussion over the weekend.  Many of you suggested that pruning for vehicular traffic was the trigger for this growth, and it’s true that removing large limbs or heading back branches will result in vigorous epicormic growth.  But I cheated on the photo and cropped it above the point of interest.  Here’s the entire photo of this tree:

You can doubtlessly see that dark line encircling the trunk just above the two branches with the shoots.  Here it is close up:

Venturing around to the back of the tree, we can see the source of this line – neglected staking wire that has now been enveloped by the trunk.

What this wire has done is to girdle the phloem elements, which as you’ll remember from basic plant science, are directly below the bark and the cork cambium.  Without functional phloem, nutrients from the crown can’t reach the roots.  Since the two lower branches were spared this girdling, they can still transport sugar to the roots, so the tree hasn’t died.  But now it’s directing resources (water and nutrients) into the lower branches, where the new epicormic shoots are forming a new, functional (albeit ugly) crown.  In time, the original crown will probably fail; there’s already evidence that the trunk is dying:

What could be done with this tree?  If the wire were removed or at least cut so that the trunk could pop it apart, there is the possibility that the crown could have been saved.  But since the upper trunk already looks severely compromised, it’s probably too late.

As a sad update to this set of photos, the owners had a tree “service” (I use the term loosely) to remove all the epicormic shoots from the lower limbs!  I will let you know when and if the whole thing fails.

Oh, and gold stars to all who participated in the quiz!

Quiz time!

One of the things we Garden Professors can do is give tests!  And the nice thing is you don’t get penalized for being wrong.  So this will be my inaugural Plant Puzzler.

Below is a photo of a tree with epicormic shoots on its two lower branches.  Epicormic shoots are vigorous, upright branches that have more of a juvenile than mature appearance.  They often appear when a plant has been stressed, perhaps by overpruning, or maybe the roots were damaged by construction:

So here is your test question.  Why are these epicormic shoots primarily (if not exclusively) on the two lower branches, and not elsewhere in the crown?  (You can’t see the top of the tree, but I promise there are no epicormic shoots up there.)  And what evidence would confirm your diagnosis?  While there is only one correct answer for this particular tree, let’s see how many possibilities you can come up with.

Answers and more pictures next week!