So So Sad

I am not sure I should write this post as I am a little emotional and unsure of my own ability to write about this type of thing.
Tragedy struck my little town on Saturday (yesterday) when a tree fell on a mother and teenage daughter. The mother remains in serious condition and the daughter was disconnected from life support around lunchtime today having never regaining consciousness after the first moment the tree came down on them. Apparently they were taking a break from clearing brush (presumably from our overwhelming ice storm in December), when they sat in their hammock and the tree that held the hammock fell. We are all so so sad.
There is nothing about this that isn’t absolutely gut wrenchingly tragic especially when I think about how it might have been avoided. If the tree was so rotten that it fell over, could that have been known and avoided? This is really on my mind. I have alot of huge trees that are around my house and I have, in the last year, become increasingly paranoid about the possibility of one of them falling.
I have been reading about rotten trees for the last hour. Most of the time, you can detect rotten trees if you know what to look for. I thought this excerpt from the Alabama Cooperative Extension was particularly helpful.

…there are three simple rules towards having safer trees—“systematic inspections, treating problems quickly, and removing a tree when its risks outweigh its value”. …
To help you figure out if you have a problem that needs more careful checking by a professional, here are some important key signs that may give away a potentially weak tree. Always remember to examine every part of a tree, especially a large one; from all available angles and different distances to be sure you’ve looked at the WHOLE tree. The major parts to examine are the roots, the trunk, and the crown.

First, identify the tree species. Some species of trees are more susceptible to disease, decay, or structural problems than others. For example, water oaks, silver maples, and black cherries are fast growing and often become hollow, riddled with decay, and often structurally unsafe as they become mature.

After identifying the tree species begin by examining the roots. Root failure is one of the leading causes of a whole tree falling over during a storm. There are two primary types of root failure: first is soil failure, or soils that lose the ability to hold the root system in place. Such as saturated soils, which may be caused by overly aggressive watering or areas with poor soil drainage. Saturated soils when combined with high winds can lead to toppling trees and root failure. Look to see if your soil is continuously wet.

Secondly, there are root defects. While root defects may range from construction damage (roots got cut off) to limited growing space (not a lot of room to spread roots out) this article will focus on identifying root decay. Begin by looking for mushrooms or conks (toadstools or shelf fungus) growing on or near the base of the tree or on the ground under the tree. These growths are the fruiting bodies of decay and are signs of a serious problem within the tree. Decay can spread up the truck of the tree and down into the roots causing large hollows. If conks are seen, contact a Certified Arborist to identify the extent of the decay within the tree to ensure the right management decision is reached.

Pay close attention to leaning trees, while a leaning tree doesn’t necessarily mean it will fall, “it certainly warrants a closer look”, explains Neil Letson. Leaning trees may have decay due to broken roots; if no conks are present a good indicator of a problematic leaning tree is a soil mound at the base of the tree on the opposite side of the lean. This is a common occurrence along Alabama’s Gulf Coast due to hurricane winds. Leaning trees with mounding often indicates broken and damaged roots and should be examined by a professional immediately.

After a careful assessment of the roots, it’s time to move up the tree to the trunk and branches. Decay on trees results from some type of injury ranging from an old broken branch or pruning cut to some type of mechanical injury, such as a hitting a tree with a vehicle. Most trees will have decay or rotten wood somewhere on the trunk, the key is identifying whether it’s impacting the tree’s structural integrity.

The size and location of the decay or cavity will determine if the tree is unsafe.

“The larger the size, the greater the risk”, explains Letson. Additionally, the location of the decay such as near a junction of a large branch or near the base of the tree increases the risk. There are several signs of decay to look for in trees, which include mushrooms and conks, loose or missing bark, dead branch stubs still on the tree, cavities or hollows, carpenter ants or bees, nesting holes, oozing sap or fluids, and trunk bulges.

Decay within the tree trunk can lead to reduced capacity to withstand the pressure applied by tree weight combined with wind. If one of the above signs is identified quantifying the amount of decay is difficult and will require the use of specialized tools Certified Arborists can provide. Indicators of decay such as bulges, oozing holes, and carpenter ants are often all you may see from outside a tree. In assessing your trees, it’s important to realize that you may have to depend on these more obscure signs, because conks or mushrooms may not always be present.

Next, examine the major branches of your tree. The same things you looked for on the trunk look for on the major branches with the addition of crotch angles. The angle at which the branch meets the trunk is extremely important in assessing how strong the attachment is. In general, but not always, a narrow angle means a weak point of attachment; a wider angle means a stronger attachment. The problem with narrow crotch angles is that the bark between the branch and the trunk interferes with how strongly the branch is attached to the tree. Weak attachments could cause branch loss during high winds.

The only tree part we haven’t really looked at is the leaves/needles. These can really give you a great hint as to the overall health of the tree. Generally, lots of dark colored foliage well distributed over the whole canopy, and dense enough that seeing through the canopy is difficult, is good. If you see patchy foliage clustered together or if the leaves/needles are smaller and pale colored you should check the tree over again to see if you missed anything or call on a professional to check the tree for you.

Please take the time to look at your trees and call a professional if you suspect a problem. This is such a shocking and horrible tragedy.
And please keep the Petersons in your hearts.

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rochelle greayer

Hi, I'm Rochelle and for 18 years I have worked as a landscape designer, author/writer, and design teacher. I've designed residential and hospitality (for hotels, restaurants, and spas) gardens across the USA and in the UK, Europe and the Middle East. After many years of teaching garden design topics in person, I launched the PITH + VIGOR Boot Camp series in early 2018. Through my blog, social media, and online courses (Garden Design Bootcamp and Planting Design Boot Camp) I aim to help homeowners learn how to confidently design and create home gardens that reflect their own personal and unique style.
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