Tree Leaves and Their Long Journey Into the Soil

Tree Leaves and Their Long Journey Into the Soil

Wisdom from the Trees, January 2019, Backyard Wisdom
by: Gilbert A Smith, ISA BC Master Arborist and Lesley Bruce Smith, ISA Certified Arborist

I fondly remember the autumn smell of burning leaves when I was a kid in the 1950s. Our push mower wouldn't grind them up so my brothers and I had to rake all those leaves out to the street and burn them. In the 70’s the environmental movement stopped the burning and it became the responsibility of the villages and cities to haul the leaves away. This month I’ll tell you the story of leaves from the tree’s point of view. It may change the way you perceive this annual ritual of fall.

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January Wisdom from the Trees • Tree of the Month

January Wisdom from the Trees • Tree of the Month

Red Oak, Quercus rubra

text and photos by:
Lesley Bruce Smith, ISA certified arborist

The Red Oak is one of our more common and beautiful native trees in the Oak family. Although susceptible to Oak wilt, a fungal pathogen that is potentially fatal, the Red Oak species are an important part of our urban forests. I love their fall color especially. Yet they have much to commend them all through the year. They have a long history of ethnobotany, the scientific study of the relationship between the use of plants by people. The Iroquois people had an interesting use of Red Oaks for healing ruptured navels. Callus bark or the rounded healing growth that appears when a tree is wounded would be scraped off the tree. This was then dried and powdered into a fine dust and then probably made into a paste and applied to the navel to assist in healing.

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Traveling South with the Arborsmiths, Part 2

Traveling South with the Arborsmiths, Part 2

Backyard Wisdom by Gilbert A. Smith, ISA Board Certified Master Arborist
all photo credits: Lesley Bruce Smith

In Northern Illinois the dominant species, the king of the prairie, remains the giant Burr Oak. Standing strong where most trees fail. You can see it on hill tops and out crops from Chicago to Rockford and all the way through Iowa. Burr Oak still grows down south but it becomes far less prominent, while the Red and Shingle Oak, Sweet Gum, Red Maple and of course Sycamore are the trees we notice at 60 MPH.

The Flowering Dogwood, in October, was in burgundy fall color taking over the understory. In May before the big trees foliate, when the Dogwoods and Redbuds dress the forest in white and pink lace it is wonderful to behold the Tennessee and Kentucky woods. Though it is one of the best known flowering trees in the country I’d never even seen a flowering Dogwood until I was 17, when I left Illinois.    

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Can You Tell if a Tree is Alive in the Dead of Winter?

Can You Tell if a Tree is Alive in the Dead of Winter?

Mother Nature’s Moment January 2015

photos and copy by: Lesley Bruce Smith
ISA Certified Master Arborist

This is one of the most common questions we get asked this time of year as arborists.  We know that the buds for next spring’s flush of new growth got formed last summer when the sun’s energy was really strong. It takes a lot of energy to push out all those lovely flowers and fresh green leaves each spring and trees are smart!  They take advantage of the sun’s energy when it’s hot.  Any branch on a tree, or an entire tree, that does not have live buds right now is obviously dead, and those that do have plump juicy buds waiting for spring’s longer warmer days, is alive.

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September Wisdom from the Trees 2014

September Wisdom from the Trees 2014

Mother Nature’s Moment
by: Lesley Bruce Smith, ISA certified arborist

Team Tyler Rides

From time to time it is good to come to you not just as your arborists but as fellow human beings.  Eleven years ago this December we lost our 15 year old niece, Tyler Rebekah Byrd Smith to a rare form of germ cell cancer.  Sadly the funding for cancer research for pediatric cancers is only 4% of the national Federal totals.  This is the case even today, in spite of the fact that more children die of cancer in this country than AIDS, asthma, cystic fibrosis, congenital abnormalities and diabetes combined.  

Gil’s brother, Jon, and his wife Kim, Tyler’s parents, are riding their bikes across the USA, over 3000 miles, from San Diego, CA to St. Augustine, FL.

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July and August Wisdom from the Trees 2014

July and August Wisdom from the Trees 2014

Tree of the month
Cucumbertree Magnolia  • Magnolia acuminata

Gilbert A Smith, ISA Certified Master Arborist

It’s a funny sounding name that doesn’t really capture this tree unless, of course, you’re just looking at the flowers and fruit, which must have been what the botanist that named it was looking at.  The hardiest of all the Magnolias the flower isn’t showy, white or pink the way you’d expect.  Flowers born on the upper parts of the tree, which grows 60 to 80 feet, you generally don’t know that you are looking at a magnolia at all.  If you look real hard the fruit does look a little like a cucumber.  I recommend it as a replacement for Ash trees and it’s among the best.

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June Wisdom from the Trees 2014

June Wisdom from the Trees 2014

Tree of the Month
Hawthorne • Crataegus sp.

by Gilbert A Smith
ISA Certified Master Arborist

Thirty five years ago this month Lesley, my pretty young bride, stepped out from behind a Hawthorn and right there we were married in the middle of a grove of Downey Hawthorns in full flower. Every year when the Downeys dress up in their creamy, white clusters of daisy like flowers, we remember that happy day. If you were to pin me down I might say that the Downey Hawthorn is my favorite tree.

Here are the other reasons I like it...

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May Wisdom from the Trees 2014

May Wisdom from the Trees 2014

Tree of the Month

Sycamore • Platanus occidentalis

O the moonlight’s fair tonight along the Wabash From the fields there comes the breath of new mown hay Through the Sycamores the candle lights are gleaming  On the banks of the Wabash, far away”

Maybe you recognize the state song of Indiana

The Sycamore tree is a standout, both because of its large size and it’s mottled white bark, that earns it the names of White Tree and Lacewood Tree. The bark of the Sycamore is too rigid to split or furrow as the tree expands (which is what most other trees do). Instead, “plates” of Sycamore bark break off and fall away revealing lovely, massive, white, mottled trunks.

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April Wisdom from the Trees 2014

Tree of the Month

Apple • Malus

by Gilbert A Smith 

ISA Certified Master Arborist

Photos by Lesley Bruce Smith

Photos by Lesley Bruce Smith

There 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 leaves

White Oak flowers and new spring leaves

It’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 Flowers

White Birch Flowers

There 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 leaves

Norway Maple flowers and new spring leaves

It 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 Flowers

Silver Poplar Flowers

Did 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 flowers

Weeping Willow flowers

So 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 Nolan

Gil & Lesley with Jeanne & Verd Nolan

Last 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 2014

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: 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, ILThe 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 2014

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 2014

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 2013

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. 

November Wisdom from the Trees 2013

Tree of the Month

Shagbark Hickory, Carya ovata

by Lesley Bruce Smith

ISA Certified Arborist


Shagbark Hickory Tree by Lesley Bruce SmithShagbark Hickory is one of the easier species to identify because its name says it all.

The shaggy exfoliating buttery grey bark is so distinctive any season of the year, it is a standout, even for the novice tree lover.

Carya ovata or Shagbark Hickory is a significant member of the Carya family and is a gift to us in many ways.  Few of us have not enjoyed the savory scent of hickory smoked barbecue on a summer’s eve or relished the flavor of one of the Shagbark’s close relatives: the pecan (Carya illinoensis), in pie, or butter pecan ice cream (yummy). The Hickories produce some of the most delectable nuts in the world and every single hickory can be grown from its nut.  Each crop of nuts is unique to the species of Hickory and in some measure to the season’s growing condition; very much like each season of grapes vary in the making of fine wine. The Cayuga Tribe used either the Kingnut or the Shagbark Hickory in remedies for arthritis and intestinal worms.  A healthy high protein food, not unlike tofu, was also made from the nuts of the Shagbark Hickory by creating a nut cream using a hot water separation technique. 


The Shagbark Hickory is one of the partners to Oaks in the northern Illinois climax forest ecosystems. Needless to say, they are a favorite of the squirrels, and trees that feed the squirrels help to expand the forest. The squirrels sense of smell permit them to discard diseased nuts and only bury=plant the healthy ones. Due to their ability to increase forest size and territory, with an increase in the squirrel population we will see an increase of other wildlife, including birds. There is even one species of butterfly which uses the Hickory as a host and is entirely dependent on it for life.

Our favorite and lifelong use of the Shagbark Hickory is in our backyard grill.  Just a very small piece (1” x 2”) of bark, readily available on the forest floor around any Shagbark, creates a savory flavor to any meat on the grill and even turns a gas grill into a more BBQ flavor.  Three cheers for the Hickories...yum yum yum!

The story continues. 

Illinois soil and how it effects our trees.

Backyard Wisdom by Gilbert A Smith 


ISA Certified Master Arborist


Sugar Maple seedlings germinated in northern Wisconsin soilIn September Wisdom from the Trees we talked about the soil history of Illinois.  So who cares?  Isn’t dirt dirt.  Don’t all trees grow well in dirt?

When the European settlers arrived in Northern Illinois many of the Oaks alive today were just saplings, however, there were no native evergreens.  Even today when your Austrian Pine drops thousands of seeds in your yard not one of them will germinate.  The same is the case for White Pine, Scotts Pine,  Birch, Beech, Sugar Maple, Arborvitae, Spruce, Fir and many others.   Those little seeds have wisdom that they will not thrive in this environment.  It is not the climate but the soil that tells them not to bother sprouting.


Arborvitae germinated on a rock on the northern shores of Lake Michigan The Prarie soil is too alkaline and too dense to support optimum tree root growth.  If we plant these non-native trees they may live for many years but they will not thrive and they will constantly be under stress.   Of course we love our Flowering Dogwood, Blue Spruce, and White Birch.  But we have to realize that we are inviting them into a harsh soil environment that they would not choose to live in.  They need special treatment.

Here is what the trees are telling us:

  1. Our roots can not expand in the heavy clay, poorly drained, alkaline soils of the prairie.   
  2. Please provide space for our roots near the surface by mulching them out to the branch spread separating us from the lawn. (As is done at the Chicago Botanic Garden and the Morton Arboretum) (see our Mulching Abstract)  
  3. During drought we need to be watered infrequently (no more than once a week) but  heavily .   According to the University of Illinois, sprinkling systems that go on every other day do more harm than good, both to trees and to lawns. (see Watering Abstract)
  4. Please plant us at least 8 inches higher than the surrounding soil surface and give us mulch or compost to grow above the clay.  (see Planting Abstract)
  5. Don’t add soil, burying our roots.
  6. Avoid trenching, even shallow 4 inch deep trenching under our tree canopy. Lighting or sprinkler trenches can be catastrophic for us.
  7.  When planting in the confused soils near buildings avoid using those of us who are sensitive to alkaline soils such as; Pin Oak, Red Maple, River Birch, Rhododendron.
  8. Have us annually inspected by our favorite Certified Arborist who loves us and will help us thrive in our difficult circumstances.

Understanding our unique Illinois soil history helps us nurture our beautiful Illinois trees.

Gilbert Smith  ISA Master Arborist

The Greatest Fertilizer on Earth

Mother Nature's Moment

by Lesley Bruce Smith ISA Certified Arborist


Hybrid Maple in fall color by Lesley Bruce SmithJust available in an all new format is a fertilizer for trees that we just cannot keep to ourselves!  A fertilizer, yes, but really so much more!  It is packed with nitrogen, phosphorous and potassium.  It is a root insulator that keeps roots protected from excessive heat in the summer and excessive cold in the winter.  It is loaded with micro-nutrients, it has all kinds of micro-flora and fauna, it conserves moisture and acts as a mulch and amazingly it is completely renewable, organic and even beautiful.  However, the most astonishing reality about this fertilizer is that it is absolutely FREE, yet every fall it is tossed away as though it was worthless, or even worse, a nuisance.

What is this amazing fertilizer?

The leaves that blanket our lawns each fall. Recently, in speaking with a friend we were reminded once again that many of us don’t know the wealth of resources that lay just at our feet every autumn.  By separating lawns from grass using even small mulched or planting beds we have the marvelous reward of never having to rake our leaves.  In 32 years of home ownership we have never raked leaves.  We have a mulching mower, which most lawn mowers are now, and what doesn’t fall into our planting beds to be recycled gets munched by the mower and composted into the lawn, fertilizing and enriching that area of the landscape.  So if you are panicking about not getting the leaves raked up or hate that particular chore, take a break!  Do a favor to your trees and shrubs by leaving the leaves alone.  


The Greatest Fertilizer by Lesley Bruce SmithLawn specialists will often say the lawn can’t take it, but our little acre of the world has a happy coexistence with trees and turf by just a little degree of separation.  We have a lovely lawn which lives quite happily with five White Oaks on our property, a Riverbirch, a Catsura, a Hackberry, several fruit trees, three Crabtrees and a Native Hawthorne plus lots of Pine and Spruce trees as well as many shrubs and can I just say it again, we have never raked leaves or paid to apply supplemental fertilizer.  If you need help giving up the habit of leaf raking give us a call, we would be thrilled to help you kick the habit and your trees will love you for it!

Lesley Bruce Smith, ISA Certified Arborist

September Wisdom from the Trees 2013

September Wisdom from the Trees 2013

Water, Ice, Dust and Fire!

A Story of Illinois Soil by Gilbert A Smith 

ISA Certified Master Arborist

Fall Colors by Gilbert A SmithWhy is it that Illinois is called “The Prairie State” ?    Why is our climax forest ‘Oak/Hickory‘ when just 50 miles east in Michigan the climax forest is ‘Beech/Maple’ and why do most of our trees grow 30% shorter than they do almost everywhere else: North, South, East, or West?  Many texts say that our harsh climate inhibits the growth of many trees, (USDA zone map) but you are hearing it here first, THE REAL REASON IS THE SOIL.

Read More

July/August Wisdom from the Trees

Tree of the Month

Catalpa, Indian Bean Tree • Catalpa speciosa

by Lesley Bruce Smith

ISA Certified Arborist


Catalpa, we think, is one of the most showy and impressive summer-flowering trees of the north temperate regions of the world.  Our old professor, Mike Dirr, hardily disagrees with us as he lists it as one of the trees he hates.  There are many species of Catalpa that find their homes in areas around the globe but it is thought by some that the native North American wildwood Catalpas originated around the confluence of the Ohio and Mississippi Rivers, we really do not know for certain.


The name Catalpa originates from the name it was given by the native peoples of North America, Kuthlapa, which means “head with wings”.  This name comes from the tree’s botanical origin from seed in which the new seedlings rise like a funny mop head from the center of the seed giving it a real head like appearance with wing like shoulders.  The Cree, the Cherokee and other First Nations were aware of the medicinal properties of the Catalpa, which included a decoction from the bark that was used as tea and taken for lung complaints such as asthma and bronchitis.  The dry pods were also used as an effective vermifuge to rid areas of parasites including being placed among clothing and linens to keep them free of pests.  These are just a few of the ways Catalpa was appreciated for its multitude of beneficial uses.

The Catalpa is amazingly tolerant of alkaline soils making it a great tree for our suburban landscapes and although it does have flowers that drop and “beans” in the fall, I believe it is a tree that merits greater appreciation in our tree planting palettes.

Raspberry Pancakes

Backyard Wisdom by Gilbert A Smith 

ISA Certified Master Arborist

This morning I picked wild raspberries from our Prairie Garden.  Seeded by the birds, in any other garden these raspberries wouldn’t fit, but here, they are perfect.  Summer and winter the Prairie Garden is the most active and interesting garden that we have and yet it is the lowest maintenance garden on our property.  Occasionally I remove Buckthorn or Garlic Mustard


-- that’s it.

Last night we stayed up past our bed time watching the fireworks display put on by thousands of fireflies just above the prairie.  At the same time, we were watching a Great Barred Owl perched on our barn and hunting in our yard.  Our neighbors lawns however, sported very few fireflies and no owl.

Along with the prairie roses, daisies, and prairie sunflowers the elderberry is in full flower right now.  It’s flowers, seeds, stems and fruit feed literally hundreds of birds, bees, butterflies, bats and bunnies.  But my favorite flower in the prairie is the milkweed and that is because it is the preferred food of Monarch butterflies. When I was a boy, both the Monarch and the Milkweed were very common but are now becoming more and more rare.  Both falling victim to urbanization and neat tidy lawns.  Monarch Butterfly Larvae by Gilbert A Smith

Midwest prairies are the whole reason that the United States is an agricultural power house in the world and yet only 2% of Illinois prairies are being preserved.  So, if you want a particularly lively and low maintenance garden, that naturally fits into Illinois history, please consider carving out a small section of lawn and giving it over to prairie.  Just 10 feet by 20 feet could provide an island haven for Milkweed and Monarchs.

This is not a big project.  You can find books, tools and seeds at The Chalet Nursery in Wilmette.  If you want someone else to do it you can contact PC Miller, Landscape Artist in Lake Bluff, or Native Prairie Restoration.  Or, you could just stop mowing and see what springs up, that’s how we got started.  

As an added benefit you can combine your prairie garden with a rain garden that will store, clean, and recapture rain run off from your house, drives, and lawn. Illinois prairie also can sequester as much carbon dioxide, acre for acre, as a tropical rainforest.  So, if you can’t plant a rainforest you can reduce your carbon footprint by allowing a bit of prairie to grace your landscape. Have fun and save the world.

Recipe for Raspberry Pancakes

by SavvyJulie with a few changes by Gil and Lesley

Serves 1-2

    •    1/2 cup whole wheat flour

    •    1/2 cup whole wheat pastry flour

    •    1/4 cup ground flax seed

    •    1/4 cup granulated natural organic sugar or natural local honey

    •    1 teaspoon baking powder

    •    1 pinch of sea salt

    •    1 1/2 teaspoon of vanilla extract

    •    1 tablespoon canola or grapeseed oil

    •    1 cup organic milk

    •    1/2 cup walnuts

    •    3/4 cups black raspberries

(may substitute red raspberries if you do not have a prairie garden yet;)

    1. Chop the walnuts into a coarse meal

    2.  In a medium bowl, whisk together the flours, flax seed, sugar, baking powder and salt.

    3.  Add the vanilla, oil and milk, stirring until completely mixed together.

    4.  Fold in the raspberries and walnuts.

    5.  Preheat a greased skillet or griddle over a medium heat. When a drop of water sizzles when it is flicked onto the skillet, you are ready to make some pancakes.

    6.  Pour about 1/2 cup of batter onto the skillet and allow to cook for 2-3 minutes.  When the edges are set, flip the pancake and cook for another minute or two until both sides of the pancake are browned. Remove to a plate to partially cool, and repeat with the rest of the batter.

    7.  Serve topped with syrup or preserves.

Lots of Seeds

Mother Nature's Moment

by Lesley Bruce Smith ISA Certified Arborist


Many of us have noticed that many of our trees seem to have produced an abundance of fruit, or seeds this year.  Last year’s acorn crop was really huge, as well.  Why is it that some years we see almost no seeds and others we feel like we are drowning in them?


Research seems to indicate that seed production on trees runs in cycles known only to the trees.  However, we have seen a correlation between stress and seed production.  It may be the tree’s method of reproducing itself if it feels that it’s life has been threatened.  Last year’s record setting drought and this year’s record setting rains have set up ideal conditions for the trees to feel stress and then have lots of moisture to push out a bumper crop of future new baby trees.


In the photo of the two Silver Maple trees it is easy to notice that the one on the left looks thinner than the one on the right.  A close up of the tree on the left shows the exceptionally heavy crop of “whirly birds” or maple seeds.  Why did two of the exact same species of tree growing right next to each other produce such different crops of seeds?  The root damage that is caused by both drought dry out and drowning from flooding causes real, long term stress on a tree that can last for many years beyond the event causing the stress.  So the tree on the left was obviously responding to that stimulus and putting out a big crop of seeds to insure the future of the species.  Another lesson in the life of our amazing trees whose wisdom is always teaching us new things.

Linden in seed production stage by Lesley Bruce Smith

Important correction for Arborsmith Tree Calendar users:  We misprinted the date for Thanksgiving this year.  It should be November 28th, 2013 not the 21st...sorry.

June Wisdom from the Trees

Tree of the Month

Hackberry • Celtis occidentalis


Hackberry, Celtis occidentalis, is a native Illinois tree that has much to commend it.  It is very hardy in our area, it has a relatively fast growth rate, an interesting bark, and dark green heart shaped leaves.  It was one of the first trees we planted in our new home landscape just over 20 years ago now. You can see it has reached to about 25’ tall and 22” in diameter.  The most common pest it has is a tiny harmless adelgid insect that creates small galls or nipple shaped bumps on the leaves.  These nipple galls are so ubiquitous that many people think they are part of the tree’s natural habit.


Hackberry has a yellow fall color and is a great shade tree. We planted it over our patio to provide shade that we enjoy gratefully every summer against a western afternoon sun.

The Native peoples valued the common Hackberry for medicinal, food and ceremonial purposes. The fruit of the common Hackberry were mixed with fat and corn to add flavor to foods. Medicinally it was used in a decoction to aid in gynecological remedies and the bark was used in decoctions to help with sore throats.

Who was that masked man?

Backyard Wisdom by Gilbert A Smith 

ISA Certified Master Arborist

Our clients trust Arborsmith to use non-toxic or very low toxicity pesticides to save their trees.  For many people its a surprise when they first see us wearing spray masks.  Please don’t be concerned because, WEARING A MASK IS ACTUALLY A HEALTHY SIGN.

None of the pesticides that we use require or even suggest the use of a spray mask.  We wouldn’t use them if they did.  Even when using organics like Soap or Dormant Oil it is much more healthy for us if we are not constantly breathing the mist.  

None of the sprays that we use are stronger than common cleansers or soaps that you use in your own home.  If you were breathing those all day it could be harmful.

So why is a spray mask a good sign? Though it is a bother and is often surprising to our clients, it is a sign that we care about the health of our employees. If we care about our employees this way, you can be sure that we care about the health of our clients and our environment.  But you already knew this.  Arborsmith does not use any highly toxic pesticides, in fact we try to avoid any pesticide use if we can, while keeping your trees healthy.

So when you see a masked man (or woman) from Arborsmith thank them for being careful while they save your trees.

High Ho Silver......Away!

HoneyBee Update

Mother Nature's Moment

by Lesley Bruce Smith ISA Certified Arborist


This month we were featured on Dig In® Chicago, an all local Garden-to-kitchen TV show. In keeping with that theme I thought we might share some of the ways we use our gardens for sustaining life.

As a third year beekeeper, I help to transform our backyard prairie into a honeybee  haven.  Last summer was not only extra hot for us, but it was hard on the plants and the bees. Along with many other beekeepers in Northern Illinois, I had my hives “swarm”. It is a natural occurrence but a little unsettling when you walk into the back yard and see thousands of honey bees flying around...”ooohh, this is not normal!”  

When a hive swarms they have hatched a young new queen and the older experienced queen takes about a third to a half of the worker girls and leaves the hive to find a new home, all this to give the original hive more room to grow.  It is Nature’s way of reproducing, but lots of things can go awry making survival a challenge. I have often wondered how the queen communicates who will stay and who will go. Do they count off by twos?  It’s quite fascinating to contemplate and even though it mystifies me, the bees know exactly what to do.


As a bee keeper, if you have extra hive bodies and equipment you can try to capture the experienced queen and her kin and provide them a new home nearby.  I was actually able to do this. When you have 30,000 bees buzzing about is an interesting task. Picture organized chaos, the bees aren’t confused, just me.  We did manage to capture the first swarm and even a second.  

However, they did not all survive.  Before the end of the long hot summer I experienced a hive robbing, which is where another colony of bees comes in and systematically kills off a weaker hive and steals all their honey.  I don’t know if the marauding bees were from my other hive or from somewhere else but it was very sad to have thousands of little dead bees in front of the hive and find it empty of honey. The robbing all happened in two days. Leaving me with one hive.

This all sounds like an exercise in complex math and gives you a sense of how complicated this can all get. This spring I was left with one hive from bees produced here in Lake County and I have purchased another new queen to bring my hives up to two again. I am very grateful for my bee mentor, Larry Steuder, who helped me and taught me how to sort all this out.

May Wisdom from the Trees

Tree of the Month

Magnolia • Magnolia soulangiana

by Lesley Bruce Smith

ISA Certified Arborist


Saucer Magnolia by Lesley Bruce SmithMagnolia’s are so beautiful this time of year with their uncommonly huge pink and white flowers they seem to just be the loudest voice of the heralders of spring. The Saucer Magnolia we most commonly see planted in our area is a hybrid of two Chinese magnolias, the Yulan Magnolia and the Lily Magnolia. We also see an equally popular, Magnolia stellata or Star Magnolia.  They are all cousins of the only true North American magnolia native, the huge Cucumbertree, Magnolia acuminata, which is struggling from near extinction.  The Magnolia family gets it’s current name from a botany professor, Pierre Magnol who became facinated with it’s species in the 17th century.


Magnolia stellata by Lesley Bruce SmithLong before professor Magnol was interested, the aboriginal peoples of N. America revered the Magnolia acuminata for use in medicines, for inland canoes as the wood is soft, heavy and close grained making it perfect for flotation, and as a sacred wood for carving masks used in ceremony.  A quinine like molecule occurs in all magnolias and so in the South it was used as a substitute for quinine in the treatment of endemic malaria.

Southern Magnolia fruit by Lesley Bruce Smith

Southern Magnolia fruit by Lesley Bruce Smith

Star magnolia in full flowe by Lesley Bruce SmithThe Cherokee people also used a bark decoction as a gentle action skin wash for rheumatism, sores and ulcers. Today, we utilize the Magnolias almost entirely for ornamental purposes but they have a long history of ethno-botany and have been used widely throughout history for many beneficial medicinal purposes.  All the more reason for us to be more protective of our native species.  We never know where the next cure for cancers will arise.

Wildflower Alert - An invitation to join the party!

Backyard Wisdom by Gilbert A Smith 

ISA Certified Master Arborist


Trillium in Daniel Wright Woods, Mettawa, ILThere is a wild dance being held in the woods.  It is held every year in early May and most people miss it completely.  The invitations go out in early April when the soil warms enough for microbes to begin breaking down leaf litter, releasing nitrogen essential to plant growth.  The normal spring rains would wash the nitrogen away if there were no plants to capture and use it.  But, thankfully, nothing is wasted in the forest.


Native Bloodroot photo by: Lesley Bruce SmithThe forest floor is covered with native Illinois wildflowers like Bloodroot, Hepatica, White Trillium, Bellwort, Toothwort, Anemone, Jacob’s Ladder, Waterleaf, Wake Robin, Trout Lilly,  May Apple, Wild Geranium, Wild Ginger, Solomon’s Seal, False Solomon’s Seal, and Buttercup.  In order to capitalize on the nitrogen and sun light energy, they need to act fast.  


Meanwhile high above the forest floor, in the canopy, the trees are in flower too.  To capitalize on spring winds, on which they depend to spread their flower pollen,  there is also a desperate race to release their pollen before the leaves come out, because the leaves impede the wind that spreads their pollen.  


The wildflowers that hug the forest floor are insect pollinated, some smell sweet to attract native bees and little wasps while others, like the Wild Ginger, are deep red, smell like garbage and are pollinated by maggots.  However, what they all must have is sun light.  It takes a great deal of the sun’s energy to to produce leaves, flowers and fruit.  By mid May the tree canopy is filled with leaves shading out 98% of the sun’s life giving energy.  The wildflowers have to live their lives fast!  They shoot out their leaves, produce beautiful flowers, are pollinated, produce fruit, store energy and die down for next years wild party, and all of this has to happen in 2 to 3 weeks. Gilbert A Smith leading the wildflower walk


That is why most of us miss it.  Here are a few pictures, but if you don’t delay you can  SEE ILLINOIS’ BEST FLOWER SHOW FOR FREE RIGHT NOW!  Lake County Forest Preserves are wonderful.  My favorite is Daniel Wright Forest Preserve in Mettawa off Everett Road and Saint Mary’s Road just west of Lake Forest. Click here for directions.


Guided wildflower walk

Gilbert A Smith in Daniel Wright Forest Preserve

Enjoy the photos of the wildflower walk from Saturday, May 11th.

The Deadly Sins of Spring

Herbicide Use and Abuse

Mother Nature's Moment 

by Lesley Bruce Smith ISA Certified Arborist


The use of broadleaf weed killers to create perfectly weed free lawns is so ubiquitous in our culture that we use many times more of it on residential turf than in agricultural settings.  The chemical smell that we are noticing everywhere right now is predominantly 2-4D (dichloropheoxyacetic acid).  It is often overpowering the delicate scents of the beautiful spring flowers.

Although this herbicide is fairly effective in ridding our lawns of the “dreaded dandelions”, it has also been implicated in a number of human health issues. (  Our concern regarding its widespread use in the landscape is two fold, we are concerned about plant health and human health (not necessarily in that order).  Like any tool we have at our disposal we need to use it:

    •    knowledgeably,

    •    judiciously and with

    •    the big picture in mind.


Initially, as we evaluate a property for its plant health care needs we realize that most of our patient trees do not live in a forest, which is their native home, but rather in a beautifully manicured landscape dominated by virtually perfect lawn.  Those lawns are non-diversified, unnatural and not very healthy prairie species and are maintained with excessively high volumes of fertilizer, weed killer and fossil fuels for cutting.   


Did you know that a broad leaf weed killer does not know the difference between a broad leaf dandelion and a broad leaf oak?  If these weed killers are applied on days when temperatures are warm and skies sunny there is a high volume of volatilization which can and has caused the damage and death of many trees.  The sad reality is that as dandelions die from weed killer application, they go to seed, insuring another healthy crop in about two to three weeks time.  Also, if weed killer is applied too heavily or too often it can put mature trees in the root zones being treated at risk of damage.  Unfortunately, the damage is invisible, putting the tree under stress and laying it open to attack by other organisms, because it is in a weakened condition.  

Photos by Lesley Bruce Smith

Photos by Lesley Bruce Smith

Ok, so here is my confession...shown here is our lawn just before mowing last week.  There is a healthy crop of dandelions and clover and creeping charlie, etc.  Before mowing it isn’t pretty, but it is safe to walk in barefoot.

Then there is the after picture, beautiful and visually weed free. The “wild” area on each side of the lawn is our prairie restoration project where we battle garlic mustard and buckthorn, just like the rest of you.  But, that part of the garden is one of the most interesting parts of our landscape, always full of flowers and interesting wildlife, even in the winter months.  

 •    If you must treat chemically for weeds, do so using spot treatments, not broadcast methods,

    •    and consider paying for two mowings a week during this time of year, instead of a chemical treatment.  This can achieve getting rid of those ugly dandelion heads and preventing flowers from going to seed.  You could also opt for the old fashioned way of ridding the lawn of weeds by doing it by hand.

We cannot get around the fact that pesticides/herbicides are poisons in some form or another! We need to be careful and incredibly sparing in our use of these substances.  The companies that manufacture them are not going to tell us they are harmful to us or our children or our pets.  We need to be educated consumers.


Our turf professor at the University of Illinois told us many years ago, that the more resources you put into the lawn, the more you will have to put into it.  When we fertilize, which is done way too often in our country, we need to mow more, the more we create a perfect monoculture, or a lawn without any other species (namely weeds), the more we create an environment that needs attention.  Be on the alert that all fertilizers with phosphorous are banned in Lake County communities and many others in Cook County.  Phosphorous is a HUGE polluter of our lakes and streams and our lawn fertilizers are the biggest source of this substance! That is why ArborsmithTM doesn’t recommend much fertilizing, and it is always phosphorous free!!

Can we give you permission to have a few weeds in your lawn!

A truly healthy lawn:

    •    has bio-diversity, which means it does have a few weeds!

    •    will have some creeping charlie, clover, some grubs, even dandelions and crab grass.

    •    will NOT make you sick!

    •    doesn’t need as much maintenance as one that appears “perfect”.

April Wisdom from the Trees

Tree of the Month

Baldcypress - Taxodium distitchum

by Gilbert A Smith

ISA Certified Master Arborist

Baldcypress in Southern IL by Lesley Bruce Smith

Baldcypress in Southern IL by Lesley Bruce Smith

I bet that you didn’t know that Baldcypress trees are native Illinois residents.  Cypress Gardens in Florida gets its name from its beautiful groves of Baldcypress. But a Cypress growing in Florida isn’t as hard to believe as a Cypress native to Illinois.  

A victim of common name confusion, Baldcypress is not a Cypress (Cupressus)  at all but a Taxodium.  Taxodium (like a Yew)  distitchum (leaves in pairs along the branches).  

Baldcypress is also confusing because it is a needle bearing tree like a Spruce but after displaying a vibrant burgundy fall color, it looses all its needles.  This is where it gets its name “Bald”.  

We have found them growing naturally as far North as Bloomington, Illinois. The species originally lived in huge 500 to 1000 year old groves in the Southeast. One ancient tree which is called ‘El Tule’ (the name means aquatic plant) near Oaxaca, Mexico may be 4000 years old. In the U.S. these ancients were logged out because the wood has a natural resistance to rot.  Rot resistance served the building industry and Railroads. (Think railroad ties and bridges). Unfortunately the rot resistance doesn’t develop until the tree matures beyond 200 years old.    


Baldcypress KneesHere’s another peculiarity of Baldcypress, they like to grow under water. Normally tree roots drown in water. In fact all tree roots respire like we do, need oxygen and carbon dioxide exchange, just like we do, and survive because 50% of healthy soil is comprised of ‘air space’. So, how do those tricky Baldcypress roots breathe under water? To date, no one knows. Some people guess that they breathe through the knobby protuberances called ‘knees’ that stick up above the water but it’s only a guess.

Despite its identity confusion, Baldcypress is an under used gem that will thrive in our Chicago area landscapes. Please consider it when you have to replant dying Ash trees. (see also our list of replanting options on our website)  But watch out, they grow fast, get big, and may last through the next millennium.

Low branches, to cut or not

Backyard Wisdom by Gilbert A Smith 

ISA Certified Master Arborist

stately Corktree at the Morton Arboretum Low Branches by Gilbert A Smith

stately Corktree at the Morton Arboretum Low Branches by Gilbert A Smith

Often a first complaint that I hear from new homeowners is, “This place feels like a jungle, please cut all of the low branches out of my way.” Also among the first to be cut by landscapers are those pesky low branches that knock them off their lawn mower.

So I know that I’m fighting an uphill battle when I suggest that you think twice before you cut those lovely low branches off of your trees.  Because....

        1 - They will never grow back.

        2 - There are other options.

        3 - Low branches add balance, strength, health, and grace to your trees.

Forty-five years ago when I was training to be an arborist it was common practice to “skin” all of the low branches off of trees.

Low Branches by Gilbert A Smith

Low Branches by Gilbert A Smith

Since then research has shown that removing the low branches and even ‘suckers’ will leave the tree weaker and more susceptible to storm failure and breakage. A healthy tree, we have learned, has at least 1/3 of its branches on the lower 1/2 of the tree.

Of course you often must remove a few low branches if they are hitting cars, trucks or people. But it is harmful to the trees and they will be made more dangerous if you trim too much.

So what are the options? There are many ways to leave your low branches and plan around them. The easiest way,  which is what the Chicago Botanic Garden does, is to mulch under the trees and shrubs out to the branch spread. This is good for your trees for many reasons (see our Mulching Abstract), its good for your lawn and your lawn mower operator.

Let’s face it, grass doesn’t like to grow under trees and trees don’t like grass on their roots. Its a win/win when you return your trees to a forest garden, removing the prairie/lawn from beneath them; allowing them to recycle their leaves beneath their branches.

The option we prefer is to leave a few low structure branches to reach down and embrace your landscape. They tie the heavens to the earth. If you do not mulch beneath them you may need to duck when you mow, but you can lean on them when you need a rest. Just think, if you let your kids have a branch that is within reach, they will develop and always keep a fond connection to nature.

Avoid the deadly sins of Spring clean-up

Mother Nature's Moment

by Lesley Bruce Smith ISA Certified Arborist


Every spring Gilbert and I notice things that are done by hundreds of landscapers and homeowners that are deadly practices when it comes to their trees and shrubs.  We are bringing them to your attention to let you know that there is a better way, and so that you can alert your landscape professional that you do not want these things practiced on your property!Correct Spring Clean Up by Lesley Bruce Smith

Leaf Blowing


Spring clean-up can be a beautiful thing. It is great to be out in the garden enjoying the sweet smell of the soil and the light fragrance of the newly emerging flowers. Spring Clean Up Instructions by Lesley Bruce Smith (My condolences to those of you that suffer from spring allergies.) However, it seems a crime to include the “blowing” of leaves out from under your trees and shrubs as part of the process.  Those leaves are a natural mulch layer that helps to prevent moisture loss from the roots of the trees, it helps to moderate soil temperature, it assists in soil aeration, it helps to provide natural fertilizer and it does all of this for FREE!


Then we use non-renewable fossil fuels to blow all that good stuff out from under our trees in the name of clean-up.  Save that kind of clean-up for the kid’s bedroom...and leave your leaves alone!!  Usually by April or early May they are mostly decomposed or eaten by the worms doing their jobs fertilizing and aerating.  I have two photos here that show  an area that was “cleaned up” by an army of leaf blowing landscapers and an adjacent area that was left natural.Natural Spring Clean-Up Results

Stay tuned, next month:

    • shearing trees and shrubs

    • the use of post emergent broadleaf herbicide