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

Tree of the month • River Birch - Betula nigra

River Birch by Lesley Bruce SmithThe River Birch is one of the few Birch species that are actually native to the warmer climates of the southern tip of Lake Michigan.  We love it for its amazing creamy cinnamon colored bark which adds so much winter interest in the leafless seasons of the year.  We like to plant these trees in clumps and so they are propegated this way in our nurseries.  A five trunked birch tree is actually 5 different trees that were gathered together as infants and forced to grow as a unit.

Birch trees were considered sacred by the aboriginal peoples of North America and the Chippewa peoples were very clever in the use of it’s bark, creating cups, bowls, kettles, serving dishes, coffins, wigwams, sleds, dolls and many other important items for daily use.  Birch trees were even used for setting broken bones.

Birch trees prefer a more acidic and well drained soil and so they often suffer from chlorosis or yellowing of the leaves, due to the unavailability of nutrients which are tied up in our alkaline clay soils.  We also often plant them next to our homes, adding to this problem, because construction disturbed, concrete filled soils are extremely alkaline causing all kinds of problems for our friends the birch trees.
It helps to offset these problems by keeping these trees mulched out to the branch spread in an attempt to return their surrounding soils to a more acidic environment.

Biochemicals from the birch are found in almost every home of the Western world in the form of aspirin.  Over 100 BILLION aspirin pills are consumed annually around the world.  So the next time you take two, you can thank a birch tree.

Fall Colors

Backyard Wisdom by Gilbert A Smith
ISA Master Arborist

A description of how fall color appears by master arborist Gilbert A Smith and cert. Arborist Lesley Bruce Smith of Arborsmith, craftsmen in the care of trees and shrubs. This video explains what triggers fall color and what creates the showy displays in an easy to understand way.


Poison Ivy

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

This season finds many of us out in our gardens or in local forest preserves enjoying fall color.  Since we spend a good deal of time in your yards, as well, we know that there is a lot of poison ivy out there. As professionals, we realize that the best way to avoid this often agonizing malady is to be able to identify and stay clear of the plant.

You may not know that humans react to the oils in poison ivy (Toxicodendron radicans) and that our contact with it does not have to be direct.  If our pets walk through it and we touch them or we walk through it and then touch our shoes or touch any thing that has been in contact with it, the oil can rub off and cause a reaction.  What we have also learned, from painful experience and from our doctor, is that our skin cells actually have a memory and when we are exposed to poison ivy over long periods our reactions become more intense.  When we get a particularly bad case, it becomes somewhat systemic and can pop up as big blistered sores on other places of our body....yuk!

The good news is that when you know how to identify and stay clear of poison ivy you can stay rash free.  Our sons, avid outdoorsmen, who are now in their 20’s and who learned to identify poison ivy as very small children have never had a case of it because their exposure has been so limited.

Avoid the painful experiences of poison ivy exposure by eliminating it in your yards and gardens by cutting vines and using Glyphosate (generic original Round-Up) weed killer, carefully following manufacturer’s labeling. Whenever working around poison ivy cover your exposed skin by wearing long pants and long sleeve shirts and be careful to remove and wash them immediately using hot water and good laundry soap.  Then bathe using laundry detergent or Fels Naptha soap thoroughly cleansing your skin, both areas that were exposed or unexposed. The oil can remain viable on your tools, gloves, shoes and clothes for days afterward!  When you know what poison ivy looks like you can stay away from it on the trails and forest preserves and in your own back yard.

If you know your skin has been in contact with poison ivy you can greatly lessen or completely avoid a rash by washing the affected area using laundry detergent within 1/2 hour of exposure.  The laundry soap or Fels Naptha soap are the only soaps we know of that have significant surfactants to disperse the oil of poison ivy.  Caution:  hand or dish soap will make it worse!

Poison Ivy by Lesley Bruce Smith