Wednesday, March 13, 2013

Some tree trivia

Listening to the radio in the car the other day, I heard an advert for a particular brand of paper tissue. What caught my attention was the proud claim that this particular manufacturer planted three new trees for every one used in the manufacture of  its product. Who's kidding who and is it really relevant? Paper isn't manufactured from specimen trees felled in the local park - its a crop, planted grown and harvested just as wheat or potatoes. As for the 3-1 ratio, well that doesn't sound surprising. Even when I planted ornamental trees in the university grounds, I often planted in threes, one to be lost in drought, one to be vandalised and one to grow to maturity - maybe a bit cynical but realistic. In timber terms I cannot believe that every three that are planted will also grow to maturity.

Harvesting a timber crop - plant some more paper tissue trees!

Another bit of nonsense is the planting of trees as carbon offset. Now don't get me wrong, I've nothing against tree planting and I don't for one  minute doubt their value in environmental matters but its usually just corporate hype. On a number of occasions when at the university, I was approached by conference organisers, who wanted to plant a tree as carbon offset. Usually they asked at the last minute and wanted to plant something totally inappropriate just outside the conference building, so that the delegates didn't have to walk far. And inevitably they wanted pictures of the planting to go in the corporate newsletter and add to their green statistics. They were always surprised when I declined their not so generous offers!

The Millennium garden, with many donated trees

By contrast I was thrilled over the years by many people who wanted to donate trees for the sheer love of planting or to commemorate a special occasion or person. 'Its a bold man who plants trees under whose shade he will never sit'. Apologies if I have misquoted this! On one occasion a sweet lady came to me, asking to plant 70 trees to mark her 70th birthday. We discussed the practicalities and realised that this might be difficult in an already highly developed campus but settled on  seven large trees, one for each decade of her life. She made it known to all her family and friends that she wanted no presents that day, but donations for her tree fund. On her birthday, all her family and friends gathered to help her plant the trees. We did dig the holes for her in advance! Their gifts covered the cost of the trees and fair few more and I hope the lady lives many more years to see her trees grow.

Planting the birthday celebration trees

I have on a number of occasions ranted about bad pruning and the abuse of trees always gets my blood boiling! Some people seem to have an obsession with pruning and think that just because you have a tree, that it has to be pruned. Just before I left Palm Springs, I was horrified to see that the beautiful Queensland bottle tree near to where we lived, had been pruned and its shape ruined. It wasn't near a building, blocking windows or hanging precariously over a road. Why prune it?

Brachychiton rupestris, the Queensland bottle tree as it was
After pruning - how can anyone do this to a tree?
On other occasions I have seen trees reduced to nothing more than poles. As well as damage to the branches, there are the vulnerable roots. Whilst at the University, I waged a constant battle with surveyors, engineers and contractors, who would regularly cut through the roots of a tree rather than dig around. On one occasion I found contractors who had excavated around three sides of a tall tree, severing 75% of its major roots in a bizarre attempt to locate some pipes. The tree was adjacent to a major road and had obviously become totally unstable in this process. Sadly we had to carry out emergency felling.

Car park trees in Nottingham - you can hardly distinguish from the lamp standard!

Trees deserve respect and protection! I'm not exactly a tree-hugger and whilst I have planted many hundreds of trees over my career I've also made the decisions to fell major trees on many occsions but only when essential. I recall many years ago being told to quietly fell a Juglans cinerea, a butternut tree, as a new building was being planned. Whilst not rare, it is unusual and I was incensed at the thought of felling this beautiful tree. For once, I thought I might have to chain myself to the tree and call the press! I argued my case and eventually the footprint for the building was moved and the tree survived. That was thirty years ago and the tree is still there.

The reprieved butternut and new building in its altered location

On many occasions whilst at the University, I had phone calls from neighbours complaining that they had just had a new satellite dish installed and they couldn't get reception because of the trees on our adjacent property, so would we cut them down. Usually the dish had been placed at first floor level and when I suggested that it be erected higher there was a shocked response that this would cost money. They expected us to fell mature trees to save them a few pounds and allow them to sit and watch TV. The answer was always negative - we don't fell trees for satellite dishes!

Can you imagine felling this to improvesomeone's TV reception?

Trees do need protection and it is good that in the UK we have the system of Tree Preservation Orders that can be placed on mature or important trees, to prevent their felling or pruning. However this in itself is sometimes a nonsense. I recall once designing a new garden in which there was a decaying sycamore right next to the house and casting shade over most of the garden. We wanted to remove the tree and replace with a number of smaller and more appropriate garden trees. The initial response from the local authority was a sharp intake of breath and a hissed negative but we pursued it with a formal request backed by valid reasons for removal and replacement. It was agreed!

The oddly shaped sycamore dominates the garden and house - sycamore is a weed tree!
New garden takes shape with newly planted trees

If you find curious facts about unusual trees interesting, do track down a little book called 'Meetings with Remarkable Trees' by Thomas Pakenham. This describes sixty or so individual trees that are remarkable for their age, size or history and includes some fascinating stories and curious illustrations. Its only £8.96 and well worth reading! Click the link and you'll find it on Amazon - I do make it easy for you - enjoy!


  1. Glad we're not the only ones to pick up on the 'we plant three trees' claim on this company's advert, misleading indeed as that has always been the practice as it's expected that not all three will thrive or will remain as they were later on...

  2. The Greek proverb you quote is 'Μια κοινωνία αναπτύσσεται πολύ παλιά, όταν φυτεύουν δέντρα άνδρες των οποίων η σκιά που ξέρουν ότι ποτέ δεν θα καθίσει μέσα'. Usually translated as 'A society grows great when old men plant trees in whose shade they know they shall never sit'.

    As to loo roll adverts and planting trees; I am just glad they are finally admitting loo roll is compressed sawdust! Medically it is not a good product to scrub your most delicate bits with!


    1. Once again Chad - thanks for the extra information - I'll stick to the English and hope to get it correct next time - well I got the essence of it!