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!