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VOL. 44 | NO. 19 | Friday, May 8, 2020

Chemicals, not karma, cause sycamore’s ills

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The sad sycamore in question is ‘basically starving,’ says Cabot Cameron of Druid Tree Service.

-- Photo By Joe Rogers | The Ledger

We were sitting on the front porch luxuriating in the budding signs of spring when I saw alarming signs on our senior sycamore.

The vibrant green leaves we had celebrated just weeks earlier were turning brown, shriveling up and giving every indication that they were ready to throw in the towel and croak.

Anxious that the entire tree might decide to follow suit, I called in an expert, Cabot Cameron of Druid Tree Service, for a consultation and diagnosis.

“It’s basically starving,” he said.

Great, I thought. A lifetime of creating bad arboreal karma is coming home to roost.

You’d be hard-pressed to find anyone whose livelihood has depended on the sacrifice of trees more than mine. For decades the family business, in which I was once an active participant, was the manufacture of wood products: Pallets and skids.

Our raw material had at one point been living members of the ecosystem, reaching ever upward toward the heavens, helping rid the atmosphere of carbon dioxide while providing food and lodging for sundry wild creatures. Until the chain saws came.

To make matters worse, our primary customer was the local paper mill, which of course was itself engaged in the wholesale slaughter of pulpwood.

Further compounding the carnage, my entire professional career was spent in a business reliant on roll after roll after roll of paper. Still more slaughter.

Taken altogether, I shudder to think how many trees have given their lives over the decades to suit my purposes, including those reduced to ash in my New York fireplace.

Was the potential death of this proud sycamore payback for all the mistreatment of its kinfolk?

I won’t keep you in suspense. The tree is not going to die, at least not soon. It is in distress, but that distress is treatable, Cameron said.

He told me a lot more than that, too. For starters, if my sycamore had its druthers, it would not be in my front yard. It would be somewhere closer to the Cumberland – in Shelby Bottoms, say – sending its roots out 200 feet and helping keep the riverbank from eroding.

But, he said, people plant sycamores in yards like mine because ... well, because sycamores look good. Never mind that there may not really be enough room for them. Aesthetics rule.

I also got a lesson in root hairs and their constant search for food and water, complicated in my case by a soil base heavily composed of clay.

Most of what Cameron told me went over my head, but the words “phytotoxicity” and “anthracnose” sounded ominous.

He also noted a small sign stuck in the ground maybe 10 feet from the tree, advertising a recent chemical treatment of the grass. That treatment, designed in part to combat broadleaf weeds, may have further weakened the sycamore, he said.

Chemicals, he added, being indiscriminate, might consider a tree to be nothing more than a very tall broadleaf weed.

All of which made my tree more susceptible to the airborne spores of some type that were in fact responsible for the leaficide. (The junior, less distressed sycamore nearby largely escaped the damage.)

I am as a consequence now supposed to speak to my lawn service provider about a possible change in the chemical protocol used on the grass. The arborist also suggested a kind of fine mulch I could spread all over the front yard to help the sickly sycamore recover – with the added benefit of helping the grass thrive.

Beyond that, Cameron’s company – the name Druid pays homage to an ancient Celtic people who considered trees sacred – is to undertake various treatments. They are not inexpensive. But who am I to complain?

I’m just lucky Druids no longer believe in human sacrifice.

Editor’s note: Both trees were undamaged by this week’s storms.

Joe Rogers is a former writer for The Tennessean and editor for The New York Times. He is retired and living in Nashville. He can be reached at jrogink@gmail.com.

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