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Twisted trees in the Arboretum

by William (Ned) Friedman, Director of the Arnold Arboretum
February 27, 2017

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Twisted trees in the Arboretum

With snow still on the ground, but temperatures rising fast, last Monday I came upon the gnarled and pendulous cultivar of the white mulberry (Morus alba ‘pendula’ 5165*A) on Bussey Hill – acquired by the Arnold Arboretum in 1903. It appeared as some sort of sea serpent (well, snow serpent in this case) emerging from the lower depths. As a follow-up, I decided to scout some of the other wonderful “pendula” or “tortuosa” forms of trees (all of them ultimately derived from natural genetic mutations) on the grounds, especially those with gnarled, twisted, knotted tangles of branches. Two favorites are a small Japanese maple (Acer palmatum ‘dissectum’ 146-68*A; bottom left) along Meadow Road and a weeping Japanese pagoda tree (Styphnolobium japonicum ‘pendula’ 493-67*A; bottom right) in the legume collection.


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A common feature of many of these dwarfed and oddly shaped trees is that as lead branches droop and become arched, a new leader is initiated from a lateral bud near the top of the curve, creating a cascading effect. But, why some forms of trees with pendulous branches are more gnarled and twisted than others (for example, the magnificent parasol European beech, Fagus sylvatica ‘tortuosa’ 14599*A or the weeping Japanese snowbell, Styrax japonica ‘carillon’ 503-82*A near the bonsai pavilion) is a mystery worth pondering.

To find Arnold Arboretum trees that defy the standard rules of growing skyward, go to Arboretum Explorer (click here) and perform a search with “tortuosa” or “pendula.” You will find there are more than a hundred such trees on the grounds, and each one is worth visiting for the defiantly nonconformist sculptural beauty on display.

One thought on “Twisted trees in the Arboretum

  1. greetings,
    I have been watching carefully two very old copper beech trees here in boston. One I helped save and it is at the Holman Boston Library, they built this new branch around the tree. The other is on my front lawn, it is over 100 years old, house was built in 1895, elderly neighbor recalled the tree… It is suffering…the drought, and alot of paving of the street and dirveways which may be limiting the water drainage…I cannot tell what exactly is the matter. However, the tree only has beechnuts on a few branches. The leaves are not full size and get smaller as you go higher. The leaves are not fully blocking sun like they used to do… And there may be more canker as two dark spots seem to be growing… Need help. Someone tried to ‘feed’ it, that was mostly a joke, they did not know anything about beech trees. Is there anyway to get the city of Boston to drill a few holes through their new asphalted street which now has no cracks fo water to siphon through to the roots? I am sure that the new substratted alid with the resurfacing is not helping matters either. Suggestions very very needed and welcome.

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