My Favorite Tree Died, A Lesson in Plant Biology

September 2nd, 2010

My favorite tree has died. I have blogged about it a lot, and the posts will be mentioned below in the related posts section.

It was a Forest Pansy Redbud. I’ve had bad luck with the spot that I planted it. It is very full sun, from dawn to dusk, I had two weeping cherries die, but I think they were infected with bacteria at the nursery, then I ordered a redbud mailorder, and grew it for a year, and spring came and the blossoms were the wrong color, so I gave it to a neighbor, and finally bought my Forest Pansy.

In Memoriam

This tree was really great, it has a fairly unique purple foliage color, not red, or burgundy, but purple. In addition to the typical redbud pink flowers in spring. I like trees and plants with more than one feature. So both leaves and flowers.

I was so excited at how well it was doing last year, very full with leaves, nice color, growing great. Then a wind storm came and it had grown too great because branches were too heavy and the trunk split. I blogged about this and tried to fix it. I was able to maintain the current foliage last year after the damage, but the leaves on the weaker half never grew this spring. So I cut that half off.

Then we had a hail storm that damaged all my plants with large leaves, like redbuds. So the tree was looking really straggly.

Then we’ve had a drought for 2 months that just ended today, just one barely rainy day that whole period.

This is where the plant biology comes in. Redbuds like shade, they are an understory tree that likes to be sheltered by big oaks and whatnot. My spot, as I said, is full sun, and Redbuds can grow there, mine did very well in 2009 and before, but they need moisture.

Plants leaves lose moisture based on sun exposure and heat, the more direct sun, and the hotter it is, the more moisture they lose. If you’ve ever seen a squash plant on a hot summer day, with the wilting leaves, that illustrates the point. With squash the leaves will recover during the night or after a watering, some others, like a redbud, will get crispy and scorched.

So, in general, plants that prefer shade do so because they have a hard time providing enough water from their roots to their leaves when in full sun. Think of it like the water is actually flowing, if the flow rate out of the leaves is greater than the flow rate up from the roots, the leaves wilt and could scorch or die.

So, my redbud was able to thrive, despite being in sun, because I kept it watered.

This year, during the drought, I kept it watered as well, but it wasn’t helping. After I cut it down I discovered why. At one cross section, because of the split trunk damage and a previous scar from before I bought the tree, 80% of the tree’s cambium layer was dead. This is the layer of green flesh directly below the bark where trees do all of their “living.” So the roots had access to water, but there was a bottleneck getting it up to the leaves. I knew the cambium layer had been damaged when the trunk split, so I did a lot of pruning of the leaves to try to keep things in balance.

Unfortunately, even with the pruning, the tree could not stand up to the two months of heat, constant sun, and less water. There was to much cambium layer damage, for a tree that really needs to be at it’s best to handle full sun.

So I cut it down. I’ll plant one again some day when I have a different house with a spot for one in shade.

To replace it I waffled a lot, I kept going back and forth between different ideas. First I wanted a pine, but something tall and narrow. Then I decided I wanted a columnar maple, and really got interested in a “Newton Sentry” maple which is this really neat tree that grows 60 feet tall but only 6 feet wide. However, the only source I could find had short ones, and if I know we’ll probably be moving in 5 years I would never see it get to it’s potential.

Then I thought about doing a chinese red birch, because the bark is amazing, but I couldn’t find any source for those except seeds, which of course would take a really long time.

I finally decided on a “Royal Frost” Birch. This tree has burgundy foliage and interesting white peeling bark, bit of a standard birch, but at least two points of interest on it. I was able to get a 14 foot tall one for only about $60, which was by far the cheapest option in a price to foot comparison from among the ones I had shopped around for. It doesn’t have much trunk caliper, but it is tall. My forest pansy had a beefier trunk, but wasn’t more than 7 feet tall. So this fills the space well.

Birches are often sold in single trunk or multiple trunk forms. Some people like multiple trunk forms, or “bushier” forms, I’m not sure why, but multitrunk birches don’t grow as tall. Considering I was going for something tall and narrow, I went with a single trunk birch, so that it’ll grow narrower and taller. But if you ever buy a birch mail order or something, make sure you know what kind of trunk form it has, because many are trained to be multitrunk.

2 Responses to “My Favorite Tree Died, A Lesson in Plant Biology”

  1. Macy  Says:

    I hate that. I love to plant new things but, sometimes they just want grow. I have tried several plantings of a dogwood tree but, no matter what I do, it will not stay alive. I have done everything that is said to do but, no go. I decided to plant a bush in the spot instead but, it died, too. I do not think that I should put anything in that spot. I cry UNCLE!

  2. Barbara Hessler  Says:

    I was sorry to hear your favorite tree died. I lost a favorite tree this summer myself. It was a Hemlock. I am a fan of Hemlocks. I like the airy look of them. Hemlocks get these small pinecones on them that just add to my interest in the tree.
    One early afternoon I walked out onto my deck and noticed that over half of the tree was dead. I walked down to the tree to find green needles lying in the grass. Only the very top of the tree still had green needles. The tree was planted two falls ago and had grown so well. I have no idea what could of happened to it. It had stormed the day before and my husband thought maybe it got struck by lightning. Not only was I upset with losing the tree but of all the Hemlocks planted in my yard that one was planted in a nice spot. When we sit on our deck, it is in our view. We plan to replace it this fall.

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