Note: I wrote this more than 10 years ago. I still like it.
I have spent more than 35 years doing residential tree trimming & removal. Most of my work comes by word of mouth. The typical scenario goes like this: a phone call to the effect of “I understand that you cut trees. I have one I need cut down or trimmed.” Usually I go look at the work and give an estimate. Sometimes, people are willing to admit that they really don’t know much about their trees. Frequently however, they have very distinct ideas about what they want done, whether or not it can be justified from an aboricultural perspective. Often they start with a statement like “Isn’t that old tree ugly? It simply must go.”
While I generally have employed a mercenary approach (I do what they pay me to do) I have not been afraid to differ with their opinions. I come at life from a Quaker perspective, with the belief that there is something of the Divine in every person. One of the qualities often attributed to the Divine is beauty. So while a person may be outwardly unattractive, there is still some beauty there if one is willing to look, listen & understand.
Trees, like people are products of their environment. They may be gnarled, bent & broken but like muted colors on a rainy fall day, their beauty is still a part of their form; it may even be their form (for example a bristlecone pine). I started looking for ugly trees. While I found some that lacked aesthetic appeal, there was always something there that spoke to me of how they got that way. I found that their stories earned my respect and awe. The result was that I set out to find & document the “ugliest” trees I could find, barring those abused by people.
We have, here in central Pennsylvania, willow trees which grow near streams & springs. While they can grow in a yard if planted, they out-compete other trees in the wetter areas. They are inefficient in their use of water, and their roots can survive (thrive?) in the low-oxygen soil conditions found where high water tables are present. Still, root systems are shallow and may be undermined by a flowing creek. Even at the best, conditions are less than ideal for roots to perform their anchoring function. The result is that wind storms topple them easily. The wood is soft and rather weak, subject to rot & decay. Large branches are frequently broken off. Rot can become extensive in the trunks. Even if the tree is not uprooted, the trunk can be broken & twisted. Yet they never say die. They are well adapted to this way of life. They grow & fall over. They grow & fall over again. The branches have dormant buds under the bark. So when the tree falls, it reroots and grows some more. (I know where the power company cut down a willow & piled the wood. One of the logs sprouted and has become a tree.) Frequently you can see where the original trunk was; its branches have grown into new trees: many stems from the same tree. By using this method of vegetative propagation, a single tree can come to cover a quarter to a half an acre. It’s all about increasing market share, right?
I guess what appeals to me about these willow trees is their tenacity, persistence & character. They are among the first to turn green in the spring. They might not be what you’d consider the ideal yard tree, but like some wildflowers, they’re sort of cool. Maybe even pretty. At least in the right place.