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A Matter of Life & Death

May 24, 2010

The first time I really noticed, it was a week before Mother's Day.

Every year we invite the moms over for a brunch of crepes, fruit salad and mimosas. We were hoping for decent weather to enjoy the festivities out on the patio, so we were cleaning up the yard in preparation. We snagged those early weeds that sprouted, spread some new mulch in our flower beds and prepped our vegetable garden, including planting green beans, spinach and sugar snap pea seeds with the kids.

By then, most of our trees had stretched and opened their leaves. In the front, the red maples and the oaks were full of green leaves, and the weeping cherries and crabapples were in bloom with white and pink flowers. The 'Cleveland' pears that line the street were also showing their tiny white blossoms.

While the rest of these trees grow dense with foliage, it's the wispy birch in my backyard that captures my greatest attention.. Even when full of leaves, it is light and airy. Its tall, thinner branches sway in the breeze, leaves fluttering up and down like tiny butterflies that never fly away. It provides nice texture and color, but you can see through it like a bride's veil.

I have another birch tree, just to the left of our deck. This one is a 'Crimson Frost' with purple-bronze leaves and whitish, peeling bark. As the other trees started to fill in, I didn't notice right away that the trunk's entire branch structure was not leafing out. But by the weekend before Mother's Day when every other tree was showing off, it was clear something was wrong with this one. All of the stems looked - gulp - dead.

Upon closer inspection, I noticed dozens upon dozens of holes going up and down the trunk. I gasped. If you know anything about trees, the first three words you tend to utter at the site of many holes along a birch's trunk are: bronze birch borer. And at this stage with holes and dead branches, it's usually not a good sign for the tree.

Birch Trunk

But just like any problem that you notice too late, my first reaction was denial. This isn't possible. I take such good care of all the plants and trees on my property. This can't be happening - and especially not to me.

I ran my problem and diagnosis by my arborist colleagues at Davey, and they confirmed my fears.

I didn't want to part with this tree. It was like an old friend that I'd lived with on this property for a while. We shared backyard memories and sun and shade. But emotions aside, my training tells me that trees can be lumped into two categories: assets or liabilities. As long as it is structurally sound and vigorously growing, a tree is an asset to the property. But when does it cross the line into liability territory? For my birch, severe dieback and holes along the entire trunk equal serious liability.

Sure, it's just a saying: Trees are people, too. But, in reality, trees are living organisms that, like people, can grow old and die. Watching over our trees, taking care of them, following proper cultural practices, having them regularly inspected by professionals - all of these things are important to keep your trees alive and healthy for as long as possible.

Rest in peace, dear birch.

"Think you're a big fan of trees? We'd love to hear about it. Send your thoughts to Dave or Daphne at blog@davey.com ."

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