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!

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.

July & August - Wisdom from the Trees

Tree of the Month • Sugar Maple -  Acer saccharum

I cannot think of another tree with as wide a recognition to North Americans than the amazing native Sugar Maple.  We love this tree, so much so, that it is the Maple leaf which graces the Canadian national flag, and the tree most people name first when asked which family of trees they like best. She comes from a big family as the Aceraceae have over a hundred or so species.

We will most likely see a lot of early fall color on Maples, like the photo above, due to the drought stresses of this last year.  

It is the Sugar Maple that the aboriginal peoples of North America discovered had a sweet sap that we boil down to create Maple syrup.  Ever wonder why real Maple syrup is so expensive?  It takes 40 gallons of sap to create one gallon of syrup, and you can think of it as the life blood of the tree, because it is.  I think of the Sugar Maple as the real Giving Tree. In fact Maple syrup was a daily food item for the First Nations throughout the centuries.  It’s wood has been long venerated for it’s charcoal and wood craft properties.  It’s medicinal properties are found in the bark, leaves, twigs and mostly the sap.  The sap contains eight major bio-chemicals that are always in a constant proportion and as such become the identifying tracers for true Maple syrup.  The first flow of spring sap in it’s raw form has long been used for its physic or tonic properties because of these bio-chemicals that act as a diuretic effect with a cleansing action to the skin and have positive effects to the spleen.  Specifically, the compound α-furanone, has an antibiotic action and decreases cholesterol levels.  It is the tree that keeps on giving long beyond it’s beauty and shade giving properties.

Forest Wisdom

Backyard Wisdom by Gilbert A Smith
ISA Master Arborist

Walking through Half Day Forest Preserve in Lake County I notice that the trees are a deep dark green.  The few grasses in the understory are green as well and the temperature is 5 degrees cooler than in the surrounding prairie even on a cloudy day.    It’s so peaceful in the forest. Most of the trees elsewhere are in serious trouble from July’s continuing drought and blazing temperatures.  Lesley and I see scores of trees that are being lost every day.  

This should teach us something about tree health.  Trees are tribal.  By that I mean that they are healthy when grown in a group with no grass under their branches.  Trees in groups protect each other from the hot sun and drying winds.  Their roots, always close to the surface, are shaded from evaporation and covered with natural leaf mulch that holds moisture and limits competition.  This critical root zone can be 50 degrees cooler than an unshaded lawn.  

What the forest is telling us is that our own trees should be planted in groups with mulch out to the edge of the branch spread as they are at the Chicago Botanic Gardens.  This is a simple thing to do even in a smaller garden but you must listen to the trees and reduce the amount of lawn beneath them.  No mounds of mulch burying the trunks, they need natural forest leaf litter out to the drip line.  Please refer to our Mulching Abstract on our website or call and ask for it 847-634 -7734.  

If you do this you will greatly reduce your need for an arborist.  Oops!  Maybe I shouldn’t be telling you this.  

Drought Eases - Trees Still Stressed

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

Typical scorch symptoms on a WitchazelThe rains of the last few weeks have finally eased the drought, but only slightly.  Our lawn that was the color of straw just 10 days ago is a beautiful kelly green this morning!  Proof that grass is a drought tolerant species when managed properly. 

Trees are another story.  We have seen more scorch this summer from the heat and drought than ever before!  The drought has actually lowered the trees’ defense mechanisms by stressing their immune systems.  We will see the effects of the 2012 drought for at least the next three years.  Drought damage will express itself in the onset of disease and insect attacks that will now have a foothold due to the trees lowered defense systems.  

We will be watchful for early fall color this year and borer attacks in the near future.  We will continue to remind our clients of the need for monthly watering and mulching.  In spite of watering restrictions you can water your trees by setting a soaker hose on one tree at a time for 18-24 hours once a month or more often in the intense heat and drought.  See our Watering Abstract for detailed information.

The honeybees hanging out on the front porch in the heat.Even the bees are feeling the effects of the drought.  I have to “water” my hives by providing supplemental water for them but they are such clever girls. They make use of even the dew in the early mornings and the cooler parts of the day.  At night they “hang out” on the outside of the hive to help keep interior temperatures in the hive lower.  It is so fascinating to watch.

Our oldest son is getting married next month and we were able to harvest 4.5 gallons of honey that we used to fill 200 tiny jars as favors for the guests.  Another sweet gift from the hives.

May - Wisdom from the Trees

Tree of the Month  -  Redbud

There are few trees that are more dramatic when in flower than the spring explosion of the Eastern Redbud (Cercis canadensis). Part of the unusual show is the eruption of flowers before any leaves emerge along the graceful stems of the tree in that spectacular fuchsia pink color.  How could you not like how this looks after the long winters of the northern climates of North America? 

The Redbud is a difficult tree to get established and is best installed or transplanted only when it is in flower.  Like any new transplant in the Chicago area mulching the existing and potential root zone of the tree, as shown here in it’s site at the Chicago Botanic Garden in Glencoe, will greatly enhance it’s chance for survival and thriving.  The summer heart shaped leaves of this exquisite ornamental tree are a deep green with a slight dark violet hue.  If any tree deserves the title of romantic, this one has my vote.

This tree is a relative of the Honey locust and both the flowers and indeed the buds are edible and good for putting in salads.  It is sometimes called the Judas tree because of the Christian oral history surrounding it.  Before Jesus was hanged by crucifixion, he was betrayed by His friend, Judas Iscariot, who, it is believed in anguished remorse of his action went out and hanged himself on a Redbud tree.  The history also holds legend that the tree blushed in shame and was forever after pink.

A Desperate Race

Backyard Wisdom by Gilbert A Smith

The Trillium, Bellwort, Cranesbill, Wood Anemone and other spring woodland wildflowers are in a desperate race to live their life cycle before the leaves foliate the trees.    It takes a lot of sun energy to produce flowers, fruit, bulbs, and buds which is what it takes for these flowers to continue to survive.  When the tree leaves mature they block 98% of the suns energy from the forest floor.  So as soon as mid March the wildflowers are making use of the light and by the end of April they are finished and going dormant for the rest of the year.

THE COMPETITION FOR ENERGY IS FIERCE, forcing woodland flowers to live their whole above ground year in just four to six weeks. Even though there is competition, the trees and flowers have worked out a way to live in perfect synergy.  

The fallen tree leaves warm the soil and protect the flower bulbs through the winter. In the late winter the soil microorganisms break the leaves down into essential plant nutrients.  But it is too early for the trees to use the nutrients and the spring rains would wash them out of the soil if it weren’t for the wildflowers. They are in their most active growth period and they gobble the nutrients up, thereby holding them in the system.  Then, just when the trees need the nutrients to support their great stately growth, the lowly woodland wildflowers go dormant and give the nutrients back.

What lessons do the trees and flowers have for us?   

For our landscapes one lesson is to grow trees in native associations.  That’s not really as hard as it sounds.  It just means that you isolate your trees and shrubs from grass and thick ground covers as they do at the Morton Arboretum and Chicago Botanic Gardens. Create woodland gardens.

Next, don’t rake leaves out of those non-grass areas....EVER.  Don’t use fossil fuels and other precious resources (your money) to rob the trees of their natural nutrients during spring and fall cleanup. If you really want to mimic the simple forest economy, have your landscaper grind the grass clippings and leaves into mulch and leave it on your grass or in your woodland gardens.
    Third you can plant just a few wildflowers every fall, and if you don’t use pre-emergence herbicides your wildflower garden will spread every year.  If you’d like to get a few ideas take a walk through the woodland wildflower gardens at the Chicago Botanic Gardens.
    The trees are ever are teachers.  We can live in intense competition for natural resources and at the same time in synergy, if we learn to give back and recycle. Photos by Gilbert A Smith

Sweet Surprises 

Mother Nature’s Moment by Lesley Bruce Smith

Did you know that over 99% of the bees in a hive are female and the girls do all the work!  The hive is an amazingly complex system of cooperation and mutual care.  Much to my surprise, I find myself going out to the hives and greeting the girls almost every day just to watch them busily go in and out of their home.  I am always relaxed by watching them for a moment or two and usually learn something interesting in the bargain.    

After our unexpected bounty of honey in the fall I created beautiful labels and gave honey away as gifts to many friends and family.  So many people stated that it was the best honey they ever tasted that we were actually surprised. Then just recently I read an article which might explain why and greatly saddened me about the fact that the majority of honey sold in stores isn’t really honey at all.   

It may have started in the hive but in the USA, the sale of certain types of foreign honey is prohibited, because it contains so many illegal antibiotics and heavy metals.  The only way to trace the origin of honey is through the DNA of the pollen.  Unfortunately, most commercially sold honey is ultra filtered to strip it of the pollen, and to filter it in this way, in a large commercial setting, requires heating and sometimes even watering down the honey.  This ultra filtering and heating process destroys all the life giving enzymes in honey and sometimes it is even cut with high fructose corn syrup.  Sadly, by the time it reaches our grocery store shelves, what we are purchasing is a poor substitute for the rich golden nectar that the honeybees so carefully create.  It takes 2 million flower visits for honeybees to create a pound of honey!  It is truly a precious commodity. Photo by Lesley Bruce Smith


Welcome to our First Tree of the Month

Our premier tree of the month is the Illinois State Tree, the White Oak.  One of our favorites, although to be honest you will be hearing that a lot from us.  We just love trees and so we have a lot of favorites.  As you can see from this photo taken just outside New York City, White Oaks in maturity are magnificent and stately beings that deserve the honor we give them.  Those dwarfed humans under the boughs of this grandaddy Oak are your arborists, Gilbert and Lesley.

When planning for a White Oak plenty of space requirements are needed as they can reach a branch spread in our area of 40’ to 60’ and reach 80’ tall.  They love an acidic well drained soil and do not like getting their roots messed with once they reach adulthood.  They start life as a little acorn and maintain a shallow root system that usually is no deeper than 3’ to 6’ with the majority of roots staying in the top 12” of soil...yes, the top 1’ of soil.

Medicinal properties of the Oak are found beneath its bark where a chemical called quercitrin is found that supports the tree’s ability to trap and use sunlight in the shorter wavelengths.  It is an important vasoactive drug that helps control human blood pressure.  Similar plant compounds were used like Viagra by the pharoahs.

You are on our brand new website!  Help us by taking a quick look around and letting us know what you think...suggestions, insights, observations?  We would so value your feedback!

Emerald Ash Borer Update

Backyard Wisdom by Gilbert A Smith

You may have heard that the Illinois Department of Agriculture has released several batches of non native wasps that kill the Emerald Ash Borer.  This is good news indicating that the State is on a campaign to slow the borer that has killed over 200,000 Ash trees in Michigan.
    No one knows if this introduction of natural controls will work.  Only time will tell.  In the mean time we will remain vigilant in protecting our beautiful Ash Trees.
    Because it has killed so many trees in Wilmette and Glenview, we are using a stronger, more invasive insecticide called Treeage on select trees.  Those of you who have large champion trees or are near infected trees will notice this change of strategy in our annual renewal. The initial application of Treage insecticide is twice as expensive but because this treatment lasts for 2 years the cost increase amortizes to be the same.  
    Arborsmith is always experimenting and studying what approach is best to keep your trees healthy, while protecting the environment and human health.  If you have any questions please feel free to call us, visit our website for more information, or request our Abstract on Emerald Ash Borer.

Confessions of a New Beekeeper

Mother Nature's Moment by Lesley Bruce Smith

    Last year I began a new adventure of keeping bees, or apiculture.  I became fascinated after watching a friend work her hives.  I was interested in helping the bee populations who are struggling with sudden colony collapse disorder and I hoped to learn more and help with flower pollination in our gardens as well.  I got so much more than I bargained for!  I am in love with my “girls”.  
    Did you know that during the winter the bees are working to keep the hive healthy and warm, and because they keep the hive in pristine shape to insure clean honey production and a tidy nursery, they never urinate or defecate inside the hive?  They have to “hold it” until they have an above freezing sunny day.  They were out one or two days in both January and February and amazingly throughout most of March we have witnessed the bees out and about  returning with full pollen sacks.  Not a good sign for allergy sufferers, it will be a long spring season.
    I started with two hives last May.  You purchase bees by the pound and I bought two queens who came with 3 pounds each of attending workers.  Working with my more experienced friend, I literally just dumped them out of the box in which they arrived into their new homes.  They have been hard at work ever since and those relatively few thousand bees increased their numbers to about 60,000 to 80,000 in each hive during the peak of the season.
    In addition to raising and caring for all those bee babies, who start their lives as tiny eggs in one of the hexagon shaped cells of the comb, the girls produced approximately 250 pounds of pure delicious honey between the two hives. What a sweet reward for all our collective labors.  Keep watch for more buzz about the bees in upcoming Wisdom from the Trees newsletters.