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Wednesday, November 30, 2011

The Art of Trees

A ficus tree(s) that has been shaped.

For centuries humans have attempted to manipulate plants and shape them. Topiary, espalier, pleaching, and bonsai immediately come to mind.  The latest attempts, which have become art forms, are tree shaping.  There are not many artists using plants and trees, but each seems to have their own name for it.  An overall term for it is arborsculpture but arbortecture and biotecture are often seen. The plants used are usually evergreens.

What the above ficus may attain to.

Pleaching, once known as plashing, was commonly done from late medieval times into the early eighteenth century.  The term comes from the French word "plechier", meaning to braid.  It is the technique of weaving branches of trees to form a hedge or a quincunx.  Hedges made this way grew thick enough that they were impenetrable, perfect for enclosing animals, not to mention cost-effective. Every few years the lower parts of the hedge are bent and interwoven, and pruning is an annual task.  A somewhat labor-intensive technique, it never caught on in the U.S., but was popular in shaded allées in Europe.  The word dropped out of common usage until Walter Scott used it in 1822.  Trees with smooth bark, such as linden, apple, or hornbeam, are most used.

Pleaching usually requires a support structure in the beginning
such as the one here, especially horizontal support.

Espalier is a rather ancient practice, usually done against a wall or fence but occasionally freestanding.  Although the word is French, it comes from the Italian word "spalliera" meaning something to rest the shoulder (spalla) against.  Branches are pruned and tied so they grow as a flat plane.  This is popular to do with fruit trees, such as apple, which allows for less space and easier access to fruits.  Also planting next to a wall helps retain heat and allows more sunlight, extending the fruiting season.  Vineyards have been planted with this technique for millennia. There are various patterns both formal and informal.  These, too, are started with supports, and require maintenance.

An espaliered pear tree.

Another method of training plants, and one almost everyone is familiar with, is topiary.  This is different in that the overall aim is to shape a plant into a living sculpture by trimming the leaves and twigs.  The term comes from the Latin word "topiarius" (landscape gardener), which in turn came from the Greek "topia" meaning places.  Plants with dense foliage are preferred, and shaped wire cages often are used to provide structure.  This method has been popular in the West since ancient times, but has also been popular in the East as well, although the Eastern style celebrates a more natural style.  Topiary has caught on and can be seen all over the world, as the examples below show.

At a park in Karachi, Pakistan.
Ocean Park, Hong Kong
Prague, Czech Republic
Zarcero, Costa Rica

Bonsai is only for the patient, as it takes a long time for these plantings to develop. My father loved bonsai, and even took a class in it at a local Japanese nursery he frequented.  Unfortunately, the class was conducted in Japanese, and he was only able to learn what he could comprehend visually.  A "bon" is a tray-like pot used in the art, traditionally one from the few accepted proportions and shapes.  Once a selected tree is pruned, including its roots, and has attained its desired miniature size, it is planted in this special pot which further restricts its growth.  This tradition has been dated back to 6th century Japan, and the idea was that natural beauty could only become true beauty through human intervention.  It is common practice to wire the branches and trunks to manipulate their growth into a predetermined look. Because of the small container, repotting is part of the regular maintenance and special soil is a must.  Most plants, unless specifically chosen, cannot survive indoors.  Some plants grow up a meter tall, but most are significantly taller.  The goal is to create a tree that looks mature with the proportions of a fully-grown tree but no apparent sign of human intervention.

A "group" planting from Martigny, Switzerland.
A California or Coast Redwood from the Brooklyn Botanical Garden, NY.
This Sargent Juniper was "born" in 1905 and lives in the National
Bonsai and Benjing Museum in the U.S. National Arboretum.

Some species of trees used for many of these techniques have a tendency for inosculation, or self-grafting, which is a well-known botanical phenomenon. Tree shapers like to use this tendency and choose inosculate trees.

Inosculated crab apple trees in Scotland.
These are known as "Husband & Wife" trees.

Tree shapers consider the environment where they are creating their art, and choose trees known to do well in an area, and that are resistant to insect damage and disease.  Most trees require time to be shaped, but there also are techniques for "instant" tree shaping.  Grafting, framing (the use of supports), and pruning all contribute to the final work.  Although some tree shapers have "harvested" their works, thus rendering them no longer living, many intend for their works to be living sculptures.

Needle and Thread Tree by Axel Erlandson, Gilroy, Ca.
Image courtesy of Richard Reames/Wikipedia.
The Person Tree, planted in 1998 by Pooktre - Peter Cook & Becky Northey.
Peace in Cherry, by Richard Reames of Arborsmith Studios, Ore.
Image courtesy of Richard Reames/Wikipedia.
Tree shaped by Dan Ladd.
Image courtesy of Treeshapers.net.
Tree shaped by Aharon Naveh.  Image courtesy of Treeshapers.net.

Poet Joyce Kilmer expressed his joy of trees in his famous poem.  Wonder what he would think of some of these tree shapings.

Unless otherwise noted, images courtesy of Wikipedia.
Treeshapers.net is a good site for more information on history and artists.

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