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Trees Trump Humans: You're Fired!

The secret life of trees


Plant life is so exquisitely complex that my anthropomorphisms are simply an effort to express stupefying ideas in terms I can comprehend. Many other students of this glorious world seem receptive to these analogies and metaphors, so it's a personal stretch to refer to most plants as "it." There are people who seem best described as "it," not because of gender ambiguities but because of a lack of any discernible depth. Not even weeds, however, warrant this impersonal pronoun.

My assignments of feminine or masculine labels are entirely capricious. I often refer to bloomers as "she," but in a recent battle with a climbing rose, I called him names of a decidedly male slant. It was a fair fight--and I won--but I paid with blood.

A basic understanding of trees, to which I still aspire, reveals a living being of too much sophistication and depth, literally and figuratively, to call "it." At the risk of offending our big cohabitants, I will persist in my habit of comparing them to humans.

Trees eat, drink, breathe, have sex, make babies, resist change, thrive in ideal conditions, suffer in deprivation, modify their behavior as needed, get sick, get well, puke, swell, atrophy, shed, foster their interests, reward their friends and punish their enemies. They have needs, requirements, strengths and weaknesses. Even in a resource-rich environment, they don't become obese, but they may develop poor character. It may be a lack of understanding on my part, but as noble and generous as they are, I have not observed anything similar to a conscience. In this, alas, they may resemble politicians.

In a process as wondrous as that of humans (and more diverse than we might explore here and now), male and female parts meet to produce a viable seed. Should the seed be translocated to a hospitable site by wind, water, animal coats or obsessive-compulsive squirrels (who always bury thousands more nuts than they can could possibly ever find, usually in the pots on my deck), we may have a teeny, tiny tree. If it is an elm tree that has germinated in the sidewalk crack, along the foundation, or under the raised beds in the vegetable garden, the roots have a diameter approximately 28 times that of the stem and reach to flippin' China. (Try to forget any thoughts of small humans at this time. Pliers are an excellent tool for removing these. Cutting their little heads off only makes them more vindictive.)

We have trees in the wild, living lives of dignified peril and sacrificing themselves to the production of fund-raising leaflets for environmental organizations. We have wild trees in town, some of which have been tamed, cultivated, trained and gentrified to the point of becoming contributing and welcome citizens. And we have trees who began their lives as pampered exotics, developed and cultured at tree farms whose proprietors must imagine the tastes of the buying public five, 10, 15 years out. One hundred years ago, the nursery offered walnuts, elms, silver maples, catalpas, willows and a few oaks. In Idaho, only 126 were sold, while the wind, rain, birds and squirrels engendered the remaining gazillion. The accidental nature of their beginnings does not diminish their worth.

Their worth may be a topic that attracts and holds the attention of even the most nature-blind among us. Researchers have to do something to get their grants, and they have to come up with something that hasn't been quantified and calculated and graphed before. At every tree-training conference I've been to for the last several years, someone presents a PowerPoint talk on how many more people shop at a mall with trees, how their expenditures are reflected by the size and quality of the trees in the parking lot, and how many fewer cars are hijacked in parking lots with junipers that aren't trimmed into meatball shapes. If the mall has planted only pears, women shop at Penney's. If there is an assortment of trees choking and dying in the four-foot concrete planters, women buy expensive handbags that look like lunch boxes. I don't believe that trees should be blamed for the way some people dress, but a study of this topic is probably under way.

A 25-foot tree reduces annual heating and cooling costs at a typical residence by 8 to 12 percent. Two trees supply an average person's oxygen needs for a year. An above average person needs two trees and a houseplant. A mature tree absorbs between 120 and 240 pounds of small particulate pollutants and toxic gases. An immature tree won't assume that much responsibility.

In the symbiosis of our coexistence with these powerful and imposing plant beings, how might we repay them for their contributions to university funding, steering wheels that don't sear our palms and quick real estate turnovers? Their bark is their skin. It covers and protects a circulatory system of incredible efficiency. Don't wound it with mowers, string trimmers, bike locks or dog chains. In an earlier column, I described the importance of careful pruning conducted or directed by arborists with clear objectives. How about feeding? As a rule, the fertilizer applied to lawns (and the next one should be around Halloween or Thanksgiving) is enough to meet the needs of your average tree. An above-average tree is that way because of well-honed resource management skills, and he doesn't benefit from large portions of rich food and caffeine either.

Fall is the best time to plant trees. The nurseries are trying to reduce their stock by discounting prices; the soil is warm and nurturing to young roots; and fall color opens your eyes and wallets. Pay for installation of anything over 1.5 inch caliper. See that every single tree under your care goes into winter well-watered, and tip your ear muffs to those darling folks when you walk by.

Linda Jarsky is an advanced master gardener, certified arborist and landscape designer, and marketing director for DG Nursery and Turf. Send questions and comments to