Don't top that tree!
by Michael O'Rourke
One day several years ago, when the youngest was 5 and her sister 8, the youngest brought home from kindergarten a watercolor she had painted of a tree. Painted on 9-by-18-inch paper, the tree's shallow crown stretched the 18-inch width of the paper and off both edges. My wife and I of course praised the painting and privately dubbed it the "mustache tree," but Amanda's older-and-wiser sister knew better.
"That's not how a tree should look," she said. "Here. I'll show you."
And produced in a matter of seconds the predictable stick with its neat spherical crown perfectly balanced on top.
Elder sister had "learned" that trees should look like green balloons.
I think of that little incident each spring as I drive around marveling at the idiocy of people who have hired tree "services" to have the trees in their yards "topped." Wherever you live in the West, you know what I'm talking about: the reduction of perfectly good trees to ugly, albeit spherical, stumps-with-bristles.
No one seems to know for sure how this practice started. Some say power lines, but others more plausibly point to an old European practice now largely abandoned called pollarding, which was a similar but benign procedure whose original purpose was to provide people — on a largely deforested continent — with a reliable source of firewood. Tree-topping, then, is pollarding made easy, pollarding dumbed down, pollarding (why not say it?) American-style.
There are dozens of Web sites on the Internet about tree-topping, and they all say the same thing: Don't do it. Besides the fact that it doesn't work (those blasted trees just grow back), topping starves the tree, which reduces and weakens the roots, which doesn't increase the odds of the tree staying vertical. A topped tree is forced into a survival mode. Most of the viable buds that would have produced viable limbs have been removed, so the tree must now rely on its latent buds, which produce weak, poorly anchored watersprouts that look as if the tree's hair is standing on end.
Meanwhile, what stored reserves are left in what is left of the limbs are feeding this frenzied process (watersprouts can grow 20 feet in a year) while at the same time trying to keep what roots are left functioning. This means that all the tree's energy is being channeled into just staying alive "normally," which means little or nothing left to fight insects and disease, which spells rot. Add sunscald to those parts of the tree not previously exposed to sun, and it's easy to see why arborists cry with one voice, Don't do it.
But people do. So why?
In my search for an answer, I found an article in the July 1999 issue of the Journal of Arboriculture that addresses the question: "Underlying Beliefs and Attitudes About Topping Trees" by James Fazio and Edwin Krumpe. Their study confirmed what you probably already know, that people top their trees out of fear: fear that the tree is somehow getting "too big," and fear that this great big wild thing will fall over and squash their happy homes. Colossal ignorance, the authors found, is also a factor, and they conclude their article with a call for more education.
But if, as they note, "a plethora of printed literature about topping" is already available to the public; if, as I discovered, a plethora of similar information is available on the Internet; and if, as seems reasonable, common sense alone should be enough to tell anyone that a tree should just be allowed to be a tree; then — to repeat — why?
Fazio and Krumpe are undoubtedly correct when they cite fear as the principal reason, but I think the fear that drives people to top their trees runs deeper than just concern for private property. Fear of the wild, fear of nature, and the desire to control it, are apparently elemental in the human psyche, and in America took the form of conquering the wilderness.
There was nothing beautiful about the great eastern forests, for example, to the colonists: they were just a barrier to expansion and a threat comprised of countless unknowns. The wild had to be tamed, and the effort to tame continued for two centuries ever-westward. So it continues, of course, to this day.