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Lessons in Health from a Tree in Distress

Jan 19, 2012

Written by Marla Richmond, M.S.

I have always been intrigued by the way tree branches flirt and flutter their leaves in a warm summer breeze. As a child, I made a game of guessing each species’ unique leafless shape against pale winter skies. However, until the day I met Jennifer Hitchcock, certified arborist, I had never contemplated the outcome of a tree in distress.

One afternoon, while riding my bike through a lovely wooded neighborhood, I noticed a young woman standing on a patch of grass in the front yard of a newly constructed home. As she gazed into the treetops and jotted down notes, I assumed she was designing a landscape – that is, until I parked my bike, walked up to join her, and then zoomed in to the crease of concern on her brow. Jennifer Hitchcock was well acquainted with the signs of decline of a tree in distress.

She explained what she saw while she pointed. “The Red Oak by the front door on the east side of this property is suffering crown dieback from the top of the terminal. Dieback of this form is an indicator of the tree succumbing to high levels of stress, from which it will unlikely recover. Dieback from the terminal can be a symptom of root defects. A compromised root system can predispose the tree to windthrow or root crown failure during windstorms. This tree is considered to be in poor condition and health.”

Unexpectedly troubled by her prognosis, I rode home slowly and sadly, but determined to learn more about stressed-out trees. I was soon able to translate some of the “tree talk” into lay terms. Apparently, the Red Oak’s branch tips were no longer growing or bearing leaves. Problems that occur at the top of a tree are frequently telltale signs of problems underground, perhaps a weakening root system. Since a tree’s root system is what anchors it to the ground, a sudden and strong gust of wind during a storm could potentially uproot an ailing tree and knock it over – onto a roof, a car, another tree, or a person.

Had the tree been protected by a strong and sturdy physical barrier (as simple as a fence) during the home construction, it might not have become a potential hazard. And, even though Ms. Hitchcock recommended that it be removed (by experts who would preserve the safety and health of the remaining plant life and trees), I made a childish wish that the Red Oak would recover.

Word Scramble: Parts and Perils of Trees
A tree’s natural environment is enough for it to contend with during the course of its daily life without our adding to its stress mix.

Unscramble the seven words using the clues provided.

  1. bkra
  2. orpse
  3. psstythoonhsei
  4. psa
  5. eahls
  6. rcown
  7. otor

Clues:

  1. Think twice before carving your initials, as once this protective outer layer is damaged, it becomes susceptible to invasion by insects and disease.
  2. From top to bottom, all of a tree’s parts are covered with these so it can breathe.
  3. Food-making process that subsides with the dwindling daylight of autumn and the approaching winter
  4. A tree’s life blood that also makes great syrup.
  5. This dog-restraining item often chokes a tree’s trunk.
  6. Many of us have climbed up into this “regal” tree part, composed of branches and leaves.
  7. A water- and nutrient-slurping system that lies directly beneath our picnic blankets; also seems to be a place for a portable WC during building construction.
  8. Use the boldfaced letters to spell out the word that solves the riddle below. Consider the message in that riddle and your own lifestyle. Are you thriving or declining?

Riddle:
What trees need more of from humans, our cells need more of to thrive, and the title of the 1967 signature song of a legendary female R&B singer: __ __ __ __ __ __ __

A Tree Has No Choices, But You Do
A tree must prevail in its wars with the wind, deal with the doubt in a drought, frost, or flood. A tree must change with seasons, lean toward light, and expand its roots in search of (breathing) space and richer soil. When faced with multiple threats, a tree has no choice but to stand up to them or decline and fail.

A few weeks after my visit with Jennifer Hitchcock, I rode back to the property to see how the Red Oak was doing and discovered it was gone. In its place was a pile of soil. I was unexpectedly grief-stricken. Like a child, I imagined that the tree left a note, some lesson in health, and it said, “Protect your wellness with a strong and sturdy lifestyle. Never compromise yourself or your cells. Eat and sleep well; avoid droughts. Take and make ‘breathing’ time and space when you need it (and even if you think you don’t). Move and shake your limbs and dance whenever you get the chance. Flow with, rather than resist, the winds of change in life. Flutter your leaves and laugh often!”

Clue answers:

  1. Bark
  2. Pores
  3. Photosynthesis
  4. Sap
  5. Leash
  6. Crown
  7. Root

Riddle answer:
RESPECT

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