Tree Mutilation For Fun And Profit
By Tim Clancy, for Let's Talk Plants! March 2022.
For me, tree pruning falls into three general categories; pruning for aesthetics, pruning for horticultural reasons, and pruning for functional reasons that have to do with safety.
On the topic of safety, we are mostly concerned with clearance pruning. This is the removal of tree parts that may now or in the near future obscure stop signs or interfere with power lines. Maybe the tree has grown too close to your chimney. Perhaps some of the tree branches hang too low over the street and would impede traffic (fire trucks on their way to put out a fire at your house). I consider this a totally legitimate diagnosis and, with the correct specifications, a necessary activity.
We may prune trees from time to time based on a Tree Risk Assessment. This is when a qualified person examines the tree for failure potential and suggest some mitigating action. This may be removal of a large branch growing over a structure or perhaps removal of the entire tree due to advancing internal decay.
Moving on to aesthetics.
What I like is different than what you like is different than what they like . . . Then there is the actual tree worker doing the work. This is the person who most likely will be the “artist” providing the finished product. So, the result is what the tree worker decided and if the person paying the bill likes it, then who cares? I have seen homeowners and property managers specify branch removal based on nothing other than they don’t like the look. Poor trees. I suppose if it’s your tree or someone has entrusted you to “take care of it" then the final result is your business. Regardless of what the tree thinks.
We now come to horticultural reasons. This is when you ask yourself how does removing this branch from this tree benefit the tree from a horticultural perspective? In my experience, most of the time, and I mean 90% or more, branch removal does not benefit trees. In fact, it has the opposite effect. It impacts the tree in a negative way. A pruning cut is a wound. Trees do not heal like humans, but they do seal. Sealing a pruning wound takes energy away from the tree that the tree would use on growth.
I recently watched a homeowner mutilate two Rhus lancea, African Sumac. These were trees with high vigor and, to me, looked like fine representations of their species. Apparently, the homeowner needed something fun to do and decided that using a battery-operated reciprocating saw to remove all the foliage was enjoyable.
Notice I used the word mutilate. I have heard some people refer to trees that have been topped or otherwise incorrectly pruned as being butchered. I implore you not to use this term when referring to trees that have been severely pruned. The profession of butchery is honorable work and as such it should not be disparaged by association with sub-standard work.
As I drive around Southern California, I can’t help but think there is a secret society intent on the mutilation of trees for both fun and profit. I just can’t imagine so many homeowners and property managers requesting that their trees be mutilated.
The tree care industry is full of charlatans that convince homeowners and tree managers that trees need to be pruned to make them “more safe”. I find this approach of selling tree “services” using fear to be particularly despicable.
How about the weight reduction tactic? You should request data to support this weight reduction diagnosis. Tree care salesman use all sorts of nonsense to convince people their trees need to be pruned.
Every time you think about tree pruning substitute the word mutilation for pruning and then see if you can come up with a good reason to mutilate trees. You might save some money.
As for this month’s pictures. Please don’t try this at home!