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Growing a New Look for Trees

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The poet who said “I think that I shall never see/A poem lovely as a tree…” might be surprised to see what some trees have become, thanks to the art of tree-shaping.

It’s not a new idea. There’s a bridge in India made more than 500 years ago by guiding and shaping the roots of trees. Since that time, gardeners have been experimenting with what they can do to shape trees into unique, useful and intriguing forms.

Since medieval times, European gardeners and farmers have incorporated this idea into hedgerows, to make the hedges into a strong, impenetrable fence. Attention is needed only every few years to keep the hedge fence strong and sturdy.

Known by several names, tree shaping has been called “pleaching” or “plashing,” in which young trees’ branches are tied, or even grafted, together into shapes nature never intended. Traditionally, limewood, linden, and hornbeam trees have been popular for this kind of project. 

Axel Erlandson, of California, is sometimes called “the father of modern arborsculpture.” In the 1940s, he began shaping more than 70 trees on his California farm. He invited the public to view what he called his “Tree Circus.”

What got him started was observing two “conjoined” branches in a hedge on his property. The two branches were growing separately, until their close proximity to each other caused them to grow together, or “conjoin.” That gave Erlandson the idea to see what else he could create by deliberately causing tree branches to grow together.

Other well-known tree-shapers are Peter “Pook” Cook and Becky Northey, in Australia. They call what they do “Pooktre.” Their idea is to shape growing trees into artistic or practical shapes. A favorite is the chair-shaped tree displayed on the cover of their new book, Knowledge to Grow. The pair has grown tables by shaping tree limbs around table tops, and human figures or even groups of figures by shaping a single tree. Some of the shapes are “harvested” by cutting them off near the ground, letting them dry completely, then painting, staining or varnishing them to make totally unique home furnishings.

This kind of growing together is called “inosculation.” It happens often in nature, when tree branches, trunks or roots are growing in close proximity. They simply grow together. When humans get involved, however, things can get much more complicated. Humans like to bend, weave and brace growing branches and trunks. The result is figures of humans, designs – the peace sign is a popular one – or chairs, tables and other furniture.

Not every tree, of course, is interested in such gymnastics. People who take part in this activity find that box elders, birches, willows, sycamores and poplars are most willing to go along with such projects. If you’re interested in recreational tree work, you can start by learning the basics here.

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