Tough Decisions


In their highest boughs the world rustles, their roots rest in infinity; but they do not lose themselves there, they struggle with all the force of their lives for one thing only: to fulfill themselves according to their own laws, to build up their own form, to represent themselves. Nothing is holier, nothing is more exemplary than a beautiful, strong tree. When a tree is cut down and reveals its naked death-wound to the sun, one can read its whole history in the luminous, inscribed disk of its trunk: in the rings of its years, its scars, all the struggle, all the suffering, all the sickness, all the happiness and prosperity stand truly written, the narrow years and the luxurious years, the attacks withstood, the storms endured.

Hermann Hesse, Bäume. Betrachtungen und Gedichte

Red Oak stump – photo Kathleen Salisbury

In February we had to make a couple of tough decisions. These are decisions we do not take lightly and decisions that we do not make in haste.

We had to take down two large trees in the Arboretum.

American Beech removal – Photo Kathleen Salisbury

Those of us managing plant collections are here because we love plants and we want them to thrive. We enjoy seeing people marvel at the size of an old old tree. In some cases, public gardens like this are the only place people get to see the potential for grandeur trees have.  Removing them is not a decision we take lightly or that we really want to make. Not only does removal mean a loss in our collection it also means high expense. Removing large trees is expensive and alternatives are always sought before this decision is reached.

In my experience working in park systems with old, large trees, this is decision is always questioned and rightfully so. People become attached to these trees, and more attached the older and larger the trees are. Trees do not live for ever and in most cases, as the trees age they start a phase of decline in which they are more susceptible to insect infestations, rots and other stressors that significantly increase their rate of decline.

When we, as stewards of our trees, notice this happening we must make some informed decisions. Our decisions are guided by the answers to the following questions:

  • Is this tree savable?
    • Can the problem be treated? Can the damage be repaired?
    • Can we afford these interventions?
    • How long will this prolong the life of the tree?
  • Are there safety concerns?
    • If we leave the tree to fall naturally what will the collateral damage be?
    • Is the tree near paths, drives, structures that will be damaged when parts or entire trees fall?
  • Is this tree horticulturally or culturally significant?
    • While all trees are special, some have stories and meanings attached to them in the community, some are the only ones in the area, or the largest, oldest of their kind.

To find the answers to these questions we ask professional arborists specializing in plant health care, to consult on the future of the tree, we ask the community about the significance of the tree and we work with facilities to determine the collateral damage should the tree be left to fall naturally.

The two large trees we had removed were a Red Oak and an American Beech.

The American Beech (Fagus gradifolia) had been in a state of decline for years, with large sections of the canopy dead or dying. Some previous removal of deadwood had been done and we had planned to let this one stand for as long as we could because it is a large specimen in our woodlands. We were keeping an eye on it. This winter, as I walked past this tree with my students, I noticed a large weep coming from the point where the co-leaders connect. The class and I went to take a closer look at the tree and noticed it had a large crack at the intersection of these two large trunks. At this point I notified facilities who brought in a consulting arborist. We all agreed that because of the existing decline and poor health of the tree, trying to save the tree by cabling the branches together would not work. Because of the size of the tree and the potential for it to damage other large trees in the woodland area if left to fall on its own, we decided to have it removed. Upon inspection of the trunks after it was cut we noticed the trunks were hollow, indicating significant rot.

American Beech – Photo Anne Brennan

The Red Oak (Quercus rubra) was also in a state of decline for a number of years and had previous trimming done to remove dead branches in the canopy.  This tree was in a precarious location – along busy Meetinghouse Road, over a fence and along a trail. After consulting with the arborists and facilities once again the tough decision was made to remove this tree for safety reasons. The wood of this tree looked solid but the signs of distress indicated disease that could not be treated.

I am a tree hugger. I walk up to large trees and wrap my arms around them. I cannot help myself! I am in awe of their stature and am curious to learn their stories. I think about what they have witnessed during their lives and who has celebrated beneath them. I think about all of the wildlife that calls the tree a part of its daily life, providing food, shelter, shade. I think of all of the ecological services this large tree provides holding soil, cleaning water, producing air. None of this is lost on the people making decisions here to remove trees, I can guarantee this.

The other thing I can guarantee is that we will continue to plant trees in the Arboretum. We will continue to do the best was can for those in our care and we will continue to build our collection. We will be doing more succession planting so when it comes time for the large trees to come down there are others waiting in the wings to take their places.

The Woodland Garden – photo by Benjamin Snyder

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A Late Winter Walk

Pollen on Mt. Aso Pussy Willow catkins

Each season I offer a mid-week walk around the arboretum for anyone interested in seeing what is going on.  From interesting seed pods and galls to flowers in all colors, here are the finds from today’s March 1, 2018 late-winter walk around.

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Marvelous Maples

Maple Sugar operation at Ridge Valley Farm

One of the things I am very excited to get to do for the Ambler Arboretum is connect our 187 acres of natural habitat and formal gardens to the greater community. This community includes the students, faculty and staff who work here daily, the students who attend classes here regularly as well as the students faculty and staff from main campus who may not get up this way very often as well as our neighbors in nearby Ambler and our home town of Upper Dublin.

I am also privileged to meet people from across the state and the region and to tell them all about the Ambler Arboretum’s terrific history and wonderful displays.  All of this in the hopes of connecting people to our resources and our activities with the goal of creating a community connected to each other and to nature.

To prepare for our upcoming March 24 program on Marvelous Maples, I visited Ridge Valley Farm, to learn about their operation and to see a maple-sugaring operation up close.  Jim and Sue Myers are enthusiastic syrup producers that have turned a hobby into a full-fledged agricultural enterprise.

We are thrilled they will be joining us for the free March 24 Marvelous Maples Celebration and hope you will be able to join us as well. We will have syrup tastings, a walk and talk so you can learn how to identify sugar maples and other maples, as well as information and demonstration on how to tap your own trees and make your own syrup. Not only will Ridge Valley Farm be here but our own Temple Ambler Student Organization – the Food Forest Club will be offering activities throughout the event.

We are really excited to host Jim and Sue here. According to the Myers’ their Ridge Valley Farm is a 30 acre farm near Green Lane, PA where the trees grow naturally and are free-range. Although they are not certified organic their maple syrup contains nothing but pure sap. Their trees are never sprayed or fertilized. The syrup is graded according to USDA standards and they are liscnsed by the PA Department of Agriculture. They carry a full line of grades and sizes of syrup as well as maple products such as maple coated nuts, maple granola,  maple sugar, maple cream and maple sugar candy.

While they are here they will have products available for sale and will have syrup to taste. And, if the weather is right, they may even have some maple cotton candy available!


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More than Plants

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Winter is not yet here, but the first snow fall of the season has come and left a blanket covering our dormant flowers and crowning the colorful berries our birds have not yet needed.  This is a special time in … Continue reading

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Autumn in the Arboretum

This gallery contains 6 photos.

According to the calendar fall is here. But when you look outside it is still a bit difficult to tell. With temperatures in the 80s and high humidity it certainly doesn’t feel like fall. Though the bright jewel-tones of autumn … Continue reading

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The other day I was asked to identify a plant by a verbal description. Now as a horticulturist and an educator, this is nothing new. Sometimes I am lucky enough to be able to decipher the clues and come up with an answer. Most other times, however, I need some assistance in the form of a visual.

The question was “I have a plant in my yard that looks like it has tiny little pumpkins growing on it. Is it a weed?”

My answer to any “is it a weed?” question is almost always – do you like it where it is? And if they do – well then it is not a weed (with some invasive plant exceptions) because a weed is simply a plant you do not want growing where it is. But rarely is this a sufficient answer for the asker. They want to know: Is this a weed? Should I pulling it out? Would I be mortified if a horticulturist stopped by and saw this growing in my yard? DOES IT NEED TO BE ELIMINATED IMMEDIATELY?

In this case I needed a visual. Could it be the ornamental pumpkin on a stick (Solanum aethiopicum)that is popular around the fall holidays (and, incidentally, actually an eggplant)? Or perhaps even Chinese Lanterns (Physalis alkekengi)? Or maybe even the  bur cucumber (Sicyos angulatis)? These all ran thorough my mind but I couldn’t answer the question based on the description alone – I didn’t have the right mental picture.

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Summer Blues

Photo by Kathleen Salisbury, Director, Ambler Arboretum

Asiatic Dayflower (Commelina communis)

I will be the first to admit that I am not the greatest fan of summer. Give me snow and mountains and a chill in the air any day over 95 degrees and 95% humidity. But… the flowers and fruits of summer are hard to beat and I have never been a fan of air conditioning. I am so lucky to live in an area where I get to experience all the wonders of each season.

As I begin here as Director of the Ambler Arboretum of Temple University this summer I get to learn more about the University, the College, the faculty, the staff, the students, the facilities and the gardens.  There is a lot of learning I must do. But that is just fitting isn’t it? I now have the privilege of leading this garden of learning.   So I head out into the heat and explore, and meet with people and listen and examine. I brainstorm and I listen some more. And I discover each nook and cranny. I try to spend time working with the volunteers, so generous with their time each Tuesday morning.  I observe how this space is used. Who is visiting? When? Why? How long? I am learning who is passionate about this space – about its amazingly rich history and the excitement over its potential. I am learning who is involved and who would like to be involved. At times it can be overwhelming. Other times it is inspiring. And sometimes it is possible to find the calm beautiful spot in the garden to reflect on all I have learned.

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