Arborsmith's newsletter, wisdom from the trees, includes Backyard Wisdom by Gilbert A Smith, Mother Nature's Moment by Lesley Bruce Smith and Tree of the Month facts to help you understand and appreciate nature around you.

Arborsmith alternative Ash tree replacements list:

Trees that don’t get planted very often because they are not ‘rock stars’ of the tree world.

With both common and scientific names you can go online and search about the way these trees look, their habits, their growing requirements, genetic size etc.

Black Alder - Alnus glutinosa
Aspen  - Populus tremuloides
Baldcypress - Taxodium distichum
Buckeye - Aesculus glabra
Butternut -  Juglans cineria
Catalpa - Catalpa speciosa
Douglasfir - Pseudotsuga menziesii
Elm, Hybrid - Ulmus x hybrida
Ginkgo - Ginkgo biloba
Hickory, Shagbark - Carya ovata
Hickory, Shellbark - Carya condiformis
Ironwood - Ostrya virginiana
Katsuratree - Cercidiphylium japonicum
Kentucky Coffee Tree - Gymnocladus dioicus
Larch - Larix decidua
Tree Lilac - Syringa reticulata
Magnollia, Cucumber - Magnollia accuminata
Maple, Black - Acer nigra
Maple, Nikko - Acer nikoense
Mayabi Maple - Acer mayabi
Mountainash - Sorbus acuparia
Musclewood - Carpinus caroliniana
Bicolor Oak - Quercus bicolor
Burr Oak - Quercus macrocarpa
Paw Paw - Asimina triloba
Persimmon - Diosporus virginianna
Bosnian Pine - Pinus heldreichii
Limber Pine - Pinus flexilis
Ponderosa Pine - Pinus ponderosa
Dawn Redwood - Metasequoia glyptostroboides
Sassafras - Sassafras albidum
Sweetgum - Liquidambar styraciflua
Tupilo - Nyssa sylvatica
Tuliptree - Liriodendron tulipifera
Turkish Filbert - Corylus colurna
English Walnut - Juglans regia
Yellowood - Cladrastis kentukea
Zelcova - Zelcova serrata

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April Wisdom from the Trees

Tree of the Month
Apple • Malus

by Gilbert A Smith 
ISA Certified Master Arborist

Photos by Lesley Bruce SmithThere is so much to say about the wonderful Apple tree, but alas, all we have time for is a brief fly over.
Apples originated between the Black and Caspian Seas.  Archeological records find dried Apples used as food in 6500 BCE during the stone age. Indeed they are so important a food source that apples and humans seem to have co-evolved, each one depending on the other for the propagation and dissemination of our respective species.  Apples were the favorite fruit of the ancient Greeks and Romans so we find reference to apples more than any other fruit in western literature.  

A private Apple Orchard in Long Grove, IL“As American as apple pie?”  Actually there were no native Apples in North America only their small, tart, uncultured relative the Crabapple.  The earliest European settlers brought live trees, not seeds because only live trees would produce the large juicy apples that we love.  Remember the co-evolution I was talking about?  The earliest writings of China, Egypt and Babylon show that people understood grafting (cloning) of fruit trees.  If they had brought seeds as Johnny Appleseed did, the genetic make up of the new tree would be completely different than the parent and usually a big disappointment.
 At first  Apples didn’t produce very well in the new world because the native bees didn’t pollinate the imported Apples.  Remember the co evolution?  Only after the Europeans brought Honeybees in 1622 did the Apples consistently bear fruit.  
John Chapman or Johnny Appleseed (1774-1845) was a Swedenborgian (as was once the author of this article), who wanted to serve God and who’s dream was for the land to produce so many Apples that no one would ever go hungry. He collected seeds from cider mills and gave them to anyone going west.  For 40 years he planted these seeds in Illinois, Indiana, Ohio and Iowa. Didn’t Johnny know, as the Babylonians did, that non grafted Apples yield fruit that is sub standard and usable only for making hard cider? Remember co-evolution? Johnny’s Apples may not have been edible but his seed spreading gave the Apple a vast genetic storehouse in this country that never would have been achieved if we only grew grafted trees. From this genetic bank Apple breeders have selected all of the delicious varieties that we enjoy today.

Apple trivia:
A medium size apple takes the energy of 50 leaves to produce, has only about 80 calories, is fat and sodium free and if you eat it with the peel it has 5 grams of the fibre pectin, as well as lots of powerful disease fighting antioxidants.  "An apple a day really does keep the doctor a way".

Americans consume about 21 pounds of Apples every year, they are the second most valuable fruit grown in the US, and one out of 4 is exported, maybe because Europeans annually eat 46 pounds of Apples.

Apples are #1 on the list of the "dirty dozen" fruits that if you are concerned about pesticides in your food you should eat organic.  This is because conventional orchards do a lot of pest control with highly toxic organophosphates that remain in the fruit in trace amounts.

Guess What’s In Flower This Month?

Backyard Wisdom by Gilbert A Smith 
ISA Certified Master Arborist

White Oak flowers and new spring leavesIt’s the shade trees that are flowering. What? You’ve never noticed?  You’re not alone. Many people are surprised when we tell them that their Maples, Oaks and even Pines are in flower.

The reason that we don’t see shade tree flowers is that they don’t need to be showy or fragrant to attract insect, bird or bat pollinators. What they need is something that we have plenty of in April, WIND. In addition, there are no leaves this month to inhibit the wind from doing its cross pollinating job.

White Birch FlowersThere are some species where both male and female reside on the same tree and yet they have clever mechanisms to prevent the tree from pollenating itself. These are called monoecious, and include Alder, Birch, Beech, Oak, Hickory, Spruce, Pine, Arborvitae and many others. Unfortunately, their pollen may cause an allergic reaction.

Some tree species have the male and female flowers on different plants to insure cross pollination. They’re called dioecious and include, Maples, Ash, Poplar, Willow, Yew, and Juniper. If you are allergy sensitive you want to promote the female of these species, which are the ones that bear fruit, and avoid the male plants because their pollen is more numerous, lighter and tends to cause more allergic reactions.

Norway Maple flowers and new spring leavesIt is a curious and sad fact that with the purpose of eliminating messy berries, pods or seeds, landscape committees and tree planning commissions have unwittingly mandated the planting of those male, dioecious trees which are the worst allergy producing trees.

So why is cross pollination so important? Cross pollination creates genetic variation so that trees have a variety of resistance to diseases, insects and adaptability to changing climatic conditions. Trees, like people, have survived down through the ages because of genetic variation. So even though it causes a reaction for allergy sufferers, cross pollination is a very good thing.

Silver Poplar FlowersDid you know that most of our municipal street trees are cloned? That means that they are all exactly genetically identical. This is kind of scary. Trees, plants, and animals have survived because they’ve had a variety of strategies to deal with the many challenges faced in their long history. Tree cloning shrinks and drastically reduces a tree’s ability to survive in a changing world. It is important to note that there is a direct connection between over planting one species and epidemics like Dutch Elm Disease, and Emerald Ash Borer.

Weeping Willow flowersSo what survival lessons can we learn from the trees and their wind flowers?

  • The most obvious lesson is that plants have survived because of diversity. When we select a tree for our home landscape or street-scape, plant something different than the trees that we are familiar with. Check Arborsmith’s list of replacement trees on our website.
  • Use native plants whenever possible to promote diversification and health.
  • If you are an allergy sufferer, request a female tree when planting a new replacement.
  • This spring, look for the tiny but beautiful flowers that are the evidence of millions of years of tree survival.

The Power of the Organic Landscape

Mother Nature's Moment
by Lesley Bruce Smith ISA Certified Arborist

Gil & Lesley with Jeanne & Verd NolanLast weekend, Gil and I co-taught a new class with Jeanne and Verd Nolan of the Organic Gardener at the Chalet Nursery for their spring lecture series, titled The Power of the Organic Landscape Garden.  It was a spectacular success so I thought I would share some of the juicy bits with all of you!  There is a lot of confusion about what it means to be organic. The US Department of Agriculture actually certifies food growers to carry the label “organic”  which means they have gone through a pretty rigorous process to prove their production meets a strict set of guidelines (you can read all about it here:

Strong plants are healthy plants, our goal is to keep plants strong.So few of our landscapes would ever qualify as organic, but that doesn’t mean we can’t make a difference!  Everyone in midwest America lives in the Mississippi River watershed.  What that means is, that what we do here matters pretty much everywhere on the globe, because our water all ends up in the Atlantic Ocean!  When it comes to growing our fruits and veggies, organic is the best way to go, but when it comes to our ornamental landscapes we need to work towards as much of an earth friendly environment as we can.  Things we can do that can make a big difference towards making our landscapes as earth friendly as possible include:

  • Mulching under our trees to preserve water, nutrients and provide great root growing environments
  • Mulching under our trees also saves time mowing the lawn which preserves the use of fossil fuels, reducing pollution, in addition to eliminating the need for the use of many artificial fertilizers or pesticides because it increases the tree’s natural ability to fight off invading insects and diseases.
  • Trimming using horticulturally sound techniques, the only ones Arborsmith uses ;-), to prevent the creation of disease and ill health.
  • Eliminate the use of pesticides and herbicides on our lawns.  There are lots of ways to tackle the weed problems in our lawns without the use of herbicides but maybe the most important one is to remember that perfectly dandelion and clover free lawns are not normal natural or healthy and those “weed” flowers are great honeybee and butterfly oasis food.
  • Compost our vegetable matter from the kitchen and our green waste from the yard.

There is so much more to say but if you would like an evaluation of your property to move towards a more earth friendly landscape check out the Conserve Lake County Conservation@home program or give your earth friendly Arborsmiths a call.  We would love to consult with you on how to save your little corner of the world and make it a more healthy place for us all.



March Wisdom from the Trees

Tree of the Month • White and Paper Birches
Betula papyrifera, Betula alba

by Lesley Bruce Smith
ISA Certified Arborist

All photos: Lesley Bruce Smith©2014

A Betula papyrifera, Paper Birch located in Northern Door County, WI on the edge of a meadow.The Birch tree is a favorite among North American trees. It likes the colder and more moderate temperatures along the northern shores of the Great Lakes. The English language is filled with poems referencing birch trees, I am sure because their distinctive powdery smooth pale colored bark make them a standout in the forest and the landscape. Even in their favorite environment, Birch trees do not live very long, only about 80 years, and are pioneer species. This means they are the first ones to establish themselves into areas of land that have yet to create forest, like the once newly glaciated plains of the midwest, or freshly burned prairies of the central states. Birch trees find their homes on the edges, the edges between prairie and forests, the edges of water, the edges of short lived (grasses) and long lived (forest) species, the edges of light.

Their Sanskrit name, bhrag, meant shining and I am sure it is because these distinctive species are full of light.A Betula papyrifera, Paper Birch or Canoe Birch located in N. Door County, WI in summer on the edge of a meadow. They have airy crowns that dapple the sunshine on their light colored bark with beautiful artistry. That light colored bark contains a substance known as betulin, a crystalline substance making it pale as well as waterproof. President Thomas Jefferson wrote to Meriwether Lewis recommending that he use birch bark paper for his field notes as it was “less liable to injury from damp than common paper”. However, birch trees have been serving humans long before writing. The buds and sap and even the bark could be eaten, and early New Englanders fermented birch sap for beer. They have been used to make shelter, clothing, cooking and eating utensils, dolls, baby cradles, and of course, because of the waterproof nature of the bark, the beautiful canoe. Longfellow has immortalized this in his epic poem Song of Hiawatha:

A White Birch along the shore of Northern Lake Michigan in January against an electric blue sky.“Give me of your bark, O Birch-tree!
I a light canoe will build me Lay aside your cloak, O Birch Tree! Lay aside your white-skin wrapper!
And the tree with all its branches
Rustled in the breeze of morning,
Saying with a sigh of patience,
‘Take my cloak, O Hiawatha!’”

Their are many kinds of Betula species including the Yellow, Silver, Downy, Water, Asian, and one of our Chicago hardy favorites, the River. The Birches have a long history of use and association with sacred rites and ceremonies, as their “light” makes them somewhat magical, mysterious and extremely well loved.
“One could do worse than be a swinger of birches” wrote Robert Frost.  As swingers of Birches, we agree.

The White Birch’s cousin, the Riverbirch is a favorite of ours because it is hardy in the Chicago area and has a beautiful cinnamon colored exfoliating bark that gives interest all year long. After this winter, any plant that can look good in the winter gets extra points. Read more about it in September 2012 tree of the month.

Sweet gifts from the trees

Backyard Wisdom by Gilbert A Smith 
ISA Certified Master Arborist

Ojibwa woman gathering Maple sap for sugaring.  
photo credit from:
The celebration is a month later this year than last but it is finally here.  When the daytime temperature is in the 40s and at night it descends into the 20’s a uniquely American festival begins, lasting a month or more. Some of the Native Americans who first celebrated it, called it Sugar Moon Festival during which they did a Maple Dance, you guessed it, it’s Maple Sugaring time.  

Maple Sugaring is not an European import. The Algonquin people cut a “v” shape into Maple trunks and used a reed to drain the sap into wooden tree trunk buckets. They showed the Europeans how to concentrate the sugars by putting hot stones into the sap to boil off the water or by letting the sap freeze and removing the ice.

The chemistry behind this phenomena is not completely understood but here is my version. In the summer, the tree converts the sun’s energy into sugar and stores it in the trunk and roots, as a starch.  In late winter the tree converts the starch back to usable sugar. The higher concentration of sugar inside the tree creates osmotic pressure, pulling water from the soil and pushing it throughout the tree.

"Sugar Bush" is the term used for a high concentration of Sugar Maples.  
Sugar Bush at the Ryerson Conservation Area, Riverwoods, IL
The tree uses this sugar energy to grow or respire and like people the tree gives off carbon dioxide when it respires.  I’ll bet you thought trees only breathed in carbon dioxide and breathed out oxygen. You’re right, when a tree is photosynthesizing it uses carbon dioxide and gives off oxygen. However, at night when there is no sun, the tree is also using oxygen and giving off carbon dioxide.  

What we have then, is carbonated sap, much like a carbonated drink, when the temperature rises this time of year it forms bubbles that create pressure which drives the sap up into the tree tops and out any cuts or holes in the sapwood, which is just below the bark. When it cools at night the carbon bubbles shrink, creating more vacuum that pulls water from the soil.  This wonderful process only happens in late winter when the temperature goes just below and just above freezing.

Here are a few other fun facts about Maple sugaring. If it is done responsibly it doesn’t hurt the tree because it uses only about 7% of the sap.  Each year an average Sugar Maple will produce 17 gallons of sap and it takes about 40 gallons of sap to make one gallon of Maple syrup. Maple Syrup is regulated and has to contain 66% sugar. It also contains natural phenols and anti-oxidants and 300 different flavor compounds that make it unique and not duplicatable. There are many imitations that contain mostly corn syrup and which the Quebecois refer to as “syrup de poteau”  or syrup tapped from telephone poles.  Abolitionists used only Maple Sugar because slaves were used to make cane sugar.

So the next time you have pancakes with real Maple Syrup you will have a story to tell about the sweet gift of the trees and the American Indians. 

The Buzz on Bees

Mother Nature's Moment
by Lesley Bruce Smith ISA Certified Arborist

Bees on newly installed sugar in feeder tray, excited to get some extra energy before the next polar blastIt has been a tough winter for all of us, especially for the honey bees.  I am so grateful for my bee mentor, Larry Studer, who came over in January, (yes January!) and helped me check into my two hives.  I was worried about one of them because I did not hear any activity in the hive.  Sadly, we discovered my strongest hive had died of starvation;(.  Not because they did not have enough food stores/honey, but because the temperatures had been so cold for so many consecutive days they could not move around enough to access the honey they had. It was a grievous thing to open the hive and find the cluster of bees all dead and frozen.  This is a year for the stout of heart, both bees and beekeepers.

With Larry’s wise help we transferred the extra honey stores in the failed hive to my hive that was still thriving.  This was a hive we had established late in the summer 2013 with a new nucleus (nuc), which is comprised of several (6-8) frames filled with honey and laden with honeybees and their queen.  At that time, we also added bees and honey from my existing stronger hive which was absolutely packed with both.  In this way we were able to get the new hive off to a strong start.  It is still a mystery and a wonder to me how those wise little honeybees sort it all out. I did not harvest any honey last year in an effort to keep my hives healthy and strong.  During this winter I was very glad for that decision.  

Opening the live hive in January to discover a very healthy colony! The bees don’t ever sleep.When Larry came in January, because of my concern, he did something I would have never had the courage to do on my own, as a novice beekeeper.  He opened the hive on a 20F day when the snow was falling, to see what was going on and to install some feeder trays with clumped sugar he had prepared before hand to provide supplemental food. What a sad thing to open the hive and find the once vibrant cluster of bees all frozen and dead. This was just before the second polar vortex creeped down from the fridged north.
Beginning the transfer of honey stores to the living hive on the left from the dead hive on the right. The “dirt” on the snow are the bees from the frozen hive.After thoughtfully inspecting the hive colony we set to work to carefully move the remaining honey stores into the still active hive.  We placed the honey stores as close to the live cluster as we could manage without hurting them.  They were feisty, even in the cold, and managed to sting Larry several times.  I was stung a few weeks later, on another just below freezing day, while adding additional sugar to their stores.  As smart as they are, I wish those girls understood I was their friend, not a foe.  I am happy to report that as of mid-March, they are active and healthy and I am praying we can get them into the real spring weather, surviving until their natural flower food supplies are in full swing.  Won’t that be a welcome time for us all!


February Wisdom from the Trees

Tree of the Month
American Beech Tree • Fagus grandiflora

by Lesley Bruce Smith
ISA Certified Arborist

American Beech Tree, Fagus grandiflora • by Lesley Bruce SmithIt is hard not to sing the praises of the magnificent American Beech, Fagus grandiflora.  It has such an imposing presence and the smooth silver grey bark make it easily recognizable.  The winter photo shows the distinctive “needle like” reddish brown buds that were once used as toothpicks. The coppery leaves that often persist into the winter months make it a favorite in the northern climate because it affords four seasons of beauty and interest.  The name Beech is similar to book in many languages, in Anglo-Saxon the “tree” was boc and bec meant “book” and indeed slabs of Beech bark were used in early times to write on and were sometimes tied together to create the earliest books.  The Latin term Fagus comes from the Greek, phagein which means “to eat”.  Most likely, because Beechnuts, although small, are nourishing for humans and livestock.  The Iroqouis aboriginal peoples would combine equal volumes of leaves from both the Beech and Linden trees and steam them to create a poultice that was used to treat burns.

Beech trees need to be carefully placed in the Chicago area if they are to survive and thrive.  They demand a loose, well drained soil.  This fact is only affirmed as we see Beech trees growing easily in the sandy well drained soils that are so abundant on the opposite side of Lake Michigan less than a hundred miles away.  The weather is certainly not the limiting factor here.  The heavy clay glaciated soils of the northeastern corner of Illinois are not friendly to the magnificent Beech trees we see growing like weeds in the soils of western Michigan and Door County, Wisconsin where the soils are loose, gravelly, sandy and extremely well drained, yet with plenty of moisture.  They also need lots of room, because they will dominate the space provided for them with their magnificent spreading canopy.

These are all fascinating facts about the Beech tree, but like most of our landscape plants, which have a rich history in ethnobotany, we plant the Beech because of it’s amazing structure and beauty.

A silver lining to the cold winter?  Have emerald Ash Borers been killed by cold temperatures?

Backyard Wisdom by Gilbert A Smith 
ISA Certified Master Arborist

There has been a lot of press recently, about tests done in Minnesota indicating that the cold weather may have killed large numbers of the Emerald Ash Borer.  This is very good news in the battle against the borer that is killing our Ash trees.  So what can we expect to see next summer?  Are the Ash going to survive after all?

Autumn Ash Tree • photos by Lesley Bruce SmithI’m very sorry to say it, but the answer seems to be, in the long run, no. The state of Michigan lost hundreds of thousands of Ash trees in spite of cold blasts.  Tests from Canada indicate that the borer has coping mechanisms for cold.  If the polar vortex had occurred earlier in the year when the insects had not yet acclimated to the cold it may have killed more borers.  Like us, the borers get hardier as the cold persists, but it is the big fluctuations between warmer sunny winter days and arctic blasts that are killing.

In the long run however, because there is no natural population control for the Emerald Ash Borer, their numbers will skyrocket. They multiply by a factor of 10 every year. This means that even if all but one single mating pair were killed, in six years this couple would produce one million of their kind.  To complicate matters they do their dirty work under the cover of the bark.  By the time we can see them, their populations have often built up so high that too much damage has been done to save the tree.

Really if the reports are accurate, and the borer populations have been knocked back, this is good news because nature is giving us a second chance. When the first wave of attack came to our area many tree owners didn’t act to protect their Ash trees until the infestation was out of control. Don’t wait!  If you haven’t already, ask your favorite Arborsmith to inspect your landscape to see if you have any Ash trees.  The cold may have given us “a time out” in which we can select a few Ash trees and protect them. In 5 years we may not have another chance.         

Sharing the Love

Mother Nature's Moment
by Lesley Bruce Smith ISA Certified Arborist

I wanted to remind everyone this month that Gilbert and I have been doing business on the North Shore of Chicago for 33 years now, and we have lived here our whole lives.  As fifth generation entrepreneurs we have a pretty amazing network of folks that we know who do all kinds of services.  I wanted to share a partial list of who they are, so if you find yourself in need of help in an area not having to do with trees, and you are uncertain as to where to turn, don’t hesitate to ask us for a referral.  We probably “know somebody!”  We have used and know every one of these vendors personally and the list is not complete. Be sure to ask us if you find you have a need, and need a referral you can trust.

Effective Air Heating and Cooling, owned by Gil’s brother Jon Smith.

Hanson Painting, owner Greg Hanson, Greg is always going the extra mile, has a shop where he can powder coat/paint outdoor furniture to get ready for summer.

Cornerstone Painting, owner Jonathan Richards, Jonathan has worked for us several times and is meticulous and exacting, superior work.

Lake County Movers, owner Mark Paiser, moved us to our new offices, can’t say enough about Mark’s quality and dependability.

The Organic Gardener, Jeanne and Verd Nolan owners, creates beautiful organic edible gardens to nurture your family’s health and well being.

Legal Council, especially for litigation, Timothy M Johnston, just the guy you want in your corner no matter the issue, gives free initial consults.

Alpha Graphics Printing in Vernon Hills and online, contact Christie Sweatman.

General Contractor, BDS Construction, owner Bryan Slowick, Bryan won’t settle for anything less than excellence.

Jean MacDonald, Network Connect Success, Jean is the queen of networking and  does motivational and sales speaking nationwide.

Marketing Department for Small Business, Leslie Lipps, helps us create all our beautiful e-marketing materials, I couldn’t do Arborsmith without her;).

ADT Security Services, contact Mike Hogan, will help you evaluate your security even if you don’t buy anything from him, such a great guy, there to help, works with many professional ball players!

Chuck Bourgeois owner of Progressive Energy Group, will save you money on your energy bills, at home or better at your place of business.

The Chalet Nursery, for all your gardening supply needs in Wilmette, IL, contact: Jennifer Brennan.

Pasquesi Garden Center, the elegant showplace for all gardening and garden decorating, Lake Bluff, IL

The Beaded Garden, Anne Flannery, Landscape Designer, great plantswoman and lovely lady with a great design sense.

Cliff Miller owner of PC Miller, Landscape Artist and simply the most knowledgeable native plantsman on the North Shore.

The Garden Consultants, owner David Migdal, landscape architect, beautiful work, second generation horticulturist, we have worked with David and his mother, Fern, almost our entire career.

Photographer, Studio West, Jeff Mateer, owner, just beautiful portraits and commercial product photography.

Possibility Place Nursery, owner Conner Shaw, absolutely best source for small trees and native plants.

Nancy Lyons Hannick ASLA, NLH Design, a real landscape architect with over 25 years of experience on the North Shore, educated on the east coast with a flare for excellence.

Urban Forestry Products, owners, Bruce and Erica Horrigan, Don’t burn your dead  Ash tree make a family heirloom out of it, by letting UFP mill the wood and kiln dry it,  Gil and his brothers created our beautiful dining table using a Black Walnut we harvested.  

PC Custom Woodwork, Peter Cichy, owner, an amazing cabinet maker and creator of  all things from lumber...meticulous, conscientious and exacting! 

Architect, John Hershey of J Hershey Architecture, specializing in consultations with homeowner associations to get the repairs and maintenance done correctly the first time, saving you time and money in the long run!

Don Csiky of Current Electric, top notch performance, neat, knowledgeable “bright ideas with powerful results.”

This is just a partial list:  we really do probably “know someone” if you need a referral...ASK us, we all like to support good work and good people, so this is our “February Sharing the Love”.


January Wisdom from the Trees

Tree of the Month
American Elm • Ulmus americana

American Elm, Ulmus americana; by Lesley Bruce SmithIt seems a fitting photograph of this month’s highlighted tree to be taken on a late winter day.  The embattled American Elm (Ulmus americana) was one of America’s best loved and most widely planted species.  Foot traffic, pollution, concrete and even nearby building construction could not knock out this rugged urban champion that can handle all kinds of human abuse. Unfortunately, what we humans failed to do directly, a little beetle from Holland managed with little difficulty.  That is why so many cities were denuded of their urban forests when hit by the fungal organism of Dutch Elm Disease. The beetle arrived in a shipment of furniture from Dutch country which was transferred from ship to train in New York and traveled west.  We can trace the spread of the disease (which is not a problem for the European Elms who co-evolved with the fungus) all along the iron rails across America.  It was transmitted on the the tiny feet of the beetles that escaped the train all along the route.  However, in spite of all the struggles we have endured with this species, it is not hard to see why it is a favorite, with its spectacular cathedral like arching branch structure that so elegantly graced many American boulevards in the last century.  

The American Elm is a native of North America, as her name suggests.  The bark tissue was used in combination with the Slippery Elm (Ulmus rubra) by the Cayuga aboriginal peoples in the child birthing process to prevent inflammation and soothe torn membranous tissue.  

The lesson this month’s tree has for us is that species diversification in our urban forests is a must, yet  it is a lesson slowly learned as we continue to plant too many of the same species, creating the set up for another catastrophic loss.  For Elm lovers in the present, much research has been done in cultivating disease resistant varieties of American Elm, many of which were created right here in Illinois at the Morton Arboretum by Dr. George Ware.

read more in Arboretum America by Diana Beresford-Kroeger

Does the snow harm my trees?
Being a “wet blanket” is a good thing.

Backyard Wisdom by Gilbert A Smith 
ISA Certified Master Arborist

Snow cover early in the winter is very good for your trees and shrubs.  It acts as a wet blanket for your trees, insulating the soil from freezing, while slowly melting and watering roots. This allows a whole riot of activities that are essential to tree health.  If we don’t have snow cover, it’s even more important to leave the natural leaf litter beneath the tree canopy, because leaf mulch, like the snow is an insulating blanket that keeps the soil warm and biologically active. (click here to see Mulching Abstract)

So what is going on beneath the snow white cover?  You’ll be shocked to know that there is a mating dance happening between tree roots and fungi in the soil.  The fungi need sugar for food to survive and the trees have those sugars stored in the roots.  The Fungi have nutrients that the trees need, like nitrogen, phosphorus, potassium and other micronutrients.

Those tricky tree roots actually lure the fungus by secreting a sugar rich syrup like perfume that attracts the fungus.  “Come and get me fungus!”  The fungus falls head over heals for the tree root and penetrates and infects the root cells.  Then the fungus wraps its arms, called fungal hyphae, all around the root.  The two actually begin to grow together so closely that you can’t tell where the tree root begins and the fungal hyphae end.  That’s why we call it mycorrhizae.  mykos=fungus  riza=roots.  Literally fungus-roots. Naturally, when Arborsmith fertilizes your trees we use beneficial Mycorrhizal fungi.

The tree allows the fungus to have some of its sugar in exchange for nitrogen, phosphorus and potassium which are essential to tree growth.  Another benefit of the association is that the fungal hyphae greatly extend the surface area of the root, making it much more effective at harvesting nutrients and water.  The root is so pleased with this new source of minerals that it doesn’t need to grow as long, allowing the fungus to branch out and harvest for it.  That smart tree root has given up just a little sugar, gained the nutrients it needed, got access to more water and saved energy in the exchange by not having to extend itself out so far.

Not far under the snow there are also a whole host of soil microbes, bacteria, virus, fungus, wiggly worms, and bugs that you can’t see that are digesting the leaves and twigs on the forest floor, living, dying and creating food for the spring growth spurt.   Things are never as quiet as you might think under the snow in your back yard.  

In February the sap begins to rise and guess what that means?
Stay tuned for Maple sugaring time. 

How do you tell if a tree or shrub branch is alive or dead in the snow and cold of winter?

Mother Nature's Moment
by Lesley Bruce Smith ISA Certified Arborist

Wintering Beech Tree by: Lesley Bruce SmithThis is a question we are so often asked this time of year. It is really quite easy and I have created a very short (less than two minute) video explaining the secret on how we tell the living from the dead.  It is all about little observations that most folks overlook and understanding how trees grow...easy peasy!

Click here to find out how!



December Wisdom from the Trees

Tree of the Month
Eastern White Pine • Pinus strobus
Another favorite for use as a Christmas tree

by Lesley Bruce Smith
ISA Certified Arborist

Eastern White Pine by Lesley Bruce SmithPines, in general, are a favorite tree to use for Christmas trees and Eastern White Pine, in particular, is one of our favorite species of Pine to plant for ornamental purposes in the Chicago area.  It was also depicted as a symbol on the first Revolutionary War flag and thousands of 200 foot tall Eastern White Pines were felled and used as ship masts for the British Navy.  To the indignation of the American colonists, the crown claimed the tallest trees and any settler caught using them might have all his land confiscated.  However, it should be noted that no pine species is actually native to the northeast corner of Illinois.  All the pine species capture our imagination and so we plant with abandon.  Recognizing that pines are out of their comfort zone, however, helps us to understand that we need to treat them with a bit more care and tender loving.  Eastern White Pines are no exception to this rule.  They need to be planted out of the clay soil in northeastern Illinois, up high, in a well mulched organic soil environment where they respond best to being permitted to self mulching of their needles and cones.  They are tough only when they live in well drained environments.

I love many traits of the Eastern White Pine including it’s lovely soft needles and gentle yet potentially towering presence in the landscape.  Hands down my favorite attribute of the Eastern Whites is the lovely sound that the wind makes through its branches.  We purposely planted them outside our bedroom windows to help lull us to sleep.  

Pines have a wonderful history of being a living pharmacopoeia. Pines in their native habitats exist in some of the most extreme conditions on the globe, including drought, heat and elevation.  Similar to other medicinal herbs, the naturally stressed, super tough survivors will have a greater medicinal value, possibly due to the higher levels of isomers and anti-oxidants produced by them.  Pines are the source for many essential oils and the use of the Pine knot goes back to the Romans who used them as torches that they knew had both antiseptic and antibiotic properties while burning.  The Cayuga peoples used the Pine knots in the treatment of tuberculosis, creating a tincture from carefully selected knots and utilizing the antibiotic, pinosylvin carried within the pith tissue.

Probably the most popular use for Pines is in the treatment of respiratory ailments.  They release terpenes which have expectorant, antitussive and anti-inflammatory properties. It has been suggested by some that every hospital should have a Pine grove on its grounds where the healing properties of these magnificent plants could be fully utilized.1
1Arboretum America,  Diana Beresford-Kroeger, copyright 2003

What Does Maple Syrup and Anti-freeze Have in Common? OR

Why don’t trees freeze in the winter?

Backyard Wisdom by Gilbert A Smith 
ISA Certified Master Arborist

This is not an easy question to answer because though it has been studied a great deal, plant scientists still don’t completely understand the mechanisms that allow trees to survive in the cold.  When trees go dormant they don’t really stop growing.  They continue to function including photosynthesis, (yes, even without their leaves) they just slow way down. Living plant cells never stop creating sugars, using energy, building, transporting, and protecting their system.  Most of the cell is water. When water freezes it crystalizes and expands and would rupture the cell walls, killing them.  Still, trees in the Boreal Forests can survive in temperatures as low as -76℉.

Winter Oak Tree by Lesley Bruce SmithThe vast majority of cells in trees are dead.  Yes, that’s right!  The “inside” of temperate climate trees, the xylem, consists of dead cells penetrated with a few living cells, called ray cells, which use this dead heartwood for storage, structure and transport.  The only 100% living cells are in the cambium, a thin layer just a few cells thick, just beneath the bark.


 The tree protects itself against freezing by:

  1.  Closing down the “breathing tubes”  stomates and lenticils in the needles and stems.
  2.  Sending water into the already dead xylem structure where it can’t do any damage.
  3. The living cells partially dehydrate, sending some of their water into the areas between the cells.
  4. Life still needs some water to keep living. When they dehydrate, those extremely smart tree cells have increased their concentration of sugars, and like antifreeze, those sugars lower the freezing point of the H2O.
  5. The final protection that the trees utilize is impossible for scientists to replicate because they kill the living cells. So when it freezes outside this thick cellular soup does not crystalize or expand so the living cell wall is not damaged, thus saving the tree.  

Frost Crack on Maple Tree by Lesley Bruce SmithTrees are amazing survivors!  If the temperature swings rapidly between hot and cold as it does in late or early frosts, tree cells rupture and can die, killing all or part of the tree.  An example of this which we see in forests and in landscapes is frost cracks.  Usually on the south side of the tree the winter sun heats thin barked trees, like Maples, during the day.  When the temperature plummets at night the bark splits and remains a weak spot that opens up every winter.  
We can’t manage the weather but here are some things we can do to mitigate freeze damage.

  1. Keep needles and leaves below tree and shrub branches as these  are natural insulators.  
  2.  Plant freeze sensitive plants, like Magnolias, Japanese Maples, Rhododendrons on the North side of structures so they are not “heated up” by the southern or western sun in the winter and then super cooled at night.
  3. Keep evergreens further away from the house and drives, especially near glass or on South and West exposures.  Again, the building or drive heats and or reflects the solar radiation in the winter causing the plants to heat up and lose their cold hardiness.

Think of your trees on a cold winter day, because your trees always appreciate your thoughts, and know that your trees are prepared for the freezing cold weather.

December Reprise

Mother Nature's Moment
by Lesley Bruce Smith ISA Certified Arborist

Douglas Fir by Lesley Bruce SmithBecause Gil’s article on Trees and Freezing and my tree of the month article on Eastern White Pines are both a bit long winded  (we try to hold these posts to brief informative articles) I am going to just reference the helpful information from last year’s Mother Nature’s Moment December entries for those of you that wish to read more.

Just a reminder that using a real, cut Christmas tree is in fact an environmentally sound thing to do.  Christmas trees are a totally renewable resource and the trees harvested each year end are replaced 3 fold with young saplings in the spring.  Click here to see article from December 2012 Newsletter, Wisdom from the Trees dedicated to live/cut Christmas trees.

Poinsettia by Lesley Bruce SmithWilt-Pruf is a non-toxic spray on anti-desiccant, and a great way to preserve the cut greenery, including your Christmas trees, from early dry out while they are inside or out, decorating our homes.  It is available at Pasquesi’s and Chalet Garden Centers.

Click here to read the article on Poinsetta’s and learn that they really are not poisonous as so often is thought.  It is also available in the December 2012 Newsletter in Wisdom from the Trees.  

Don't forget to take advantage of the marvelous holiday exhibitions at both the Chicago Botanic Garden and the Morton Arboretum.  It is a great way to enjoy the winter weather and the wonder of the season. 

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