Home & Garden Columns

Green Neighbors: Trees Show Their Bones and History in Winter

By Ron Sullivan
Tuesday February 05, 2008

Most of the public and literary appreciation for bare trees seems to come from wintry places like New England, but bonsai artists and fans and the landscape pruners who think along similar lines make a big deal of the “winter silhouette.” It’s one of the most refined criteria for judging a deciduous tree. 

One reason for that is that a deciduous tree in winter is naked indeed, and any mistakes you’ve made in shaping it will stick right out. In bonsai, the small scale makes errors even more obvious: it’s not so much miniaturization as abstraction, representing a wild tree in as few artistic strokes as possible, so any single part gets more attention.  

Once the leaves fall from landscape trees, it doesn’t take an expert to see what horrors have been wreaked upon them. There’s a row of poplars I have to look at every time I’m in the Union Bank parking lot; they’re up against a building on Channing and face west. In leaf, they look like so many toothbrushes; maybe some people think that’s an OK look. Naked, they’re just pitiful: nice straight trunks and then little awkward twigs sticking out in graceless desperate clusters.  

Maybe some people think that looks OK. There are those who go for pollarded trees, and some among them might be a bit uncritical of un-treelike forms for perfectly innocent trees. I find it hard to imagine, though.  

I’m a bit more tolerant of pollarding than I used to be—as long as it’s done right. Originally, pollarding was utilitarian, a way of harvesting firewood without killing the trees. Mulberries and sycamores will tolerate it well; it’s a classic urban way of treating London planetrees, a sycamore hybrid we often see in cities. If you try pollarding other species it’s riskier.  

Pollarding doesn’t mean just sawing pieces off at random. You have to start when the tree’s relatively young and take care to cut back to the same place on each scaffold limb every year. It gets easier to spot the place after a couple of years, as the tree forms big knobs at the cut places. You leave the knobs, taking off just the straight skinny branches that grew since the last pollarding.  

You also have to do it yearly, because those skinny branches are attached weakly, not to the central part of the tree. If they stay on the tree and get bigger, they just might fall off and bonk you on the head and it would serve you right.  

The trees still look funny to me, but I’m so old that low-rise pants look funny to me too: quaint. I wore them the last time they came around, in the ‘70s, and I remember how odd those old photos looked 15 years later. It’s just a matter of fashion, pollarding, until somebody blows it and then it’s tree abuse. (I suppose when somebody blows it with the pants it’s a gesture of solidarity with plumbers or somesuch.) Or maybe I’ve become more apathetic as I’ve noticed that both mulberries (the ‘Fruitless’ male clones planted as street trees) and planetrees are allergenic as well as ubiquitous. I’m Irish/Welsh; I bear grudges.  

One more positive reason for looking hard at a tree in winter is the revelation of the private lives of summers past. We see abandoned nests of squirrels and birds; there are field guides detailed enough to tell what species reared its young in each of them, in the shelter of last year’s leaves. Woodpecker holes and sapsucker drillmarks show up and winter residents become visible. The tree tells you what it and its tenants have been up to.  

The basic attraction of the winter silhouette is its sheer unlikely beauty. It’s so difficult to imitate the tree’s natural ramification, or just not to screw it up, because it’s not at all random. It obeys rules that are complex, mathematical, exigent, and organic, and while we sometimes know enough to approximate their effect, we rarely know enough to follow them precisely.  

Every cell in those twigs grows to reach toward light, to support a leaf that will catch as much light as possible, while responding to every other cell in the tree, pushing and dancing and proposing hypotheses, turning to bask in the sun and later lignifying, supporting its successors in the same quest.  

The tree makes its silent approximations every second of its growth, refining its formulae, adding to its suncatching surface, crystallizing to make its space while filling it, fracturing the sky into precise geometries. If we’re to do it justice, we must sit and learn, listen awhile, humbly shut up and hear what it has in mind.  




Photograph by Ron Sullivan. 

The delicate geometry of deciduous trees in winter at the MLK Jr. Shoreline from Arrowhead Marsh, Oakland.