Playing possum … when trees play tricks on us

Mysterious are the ways of plants, and when it comes to trees, we wait until they are well and truly dead before we cut them down.

Live bark will show green when nicked with a fingernail. PHOTOS: Kim Mellon

Last spring was an odd one for us … As bloom time approached, we watched for swelling buds on our apple trees. We saw some, but many trees kept us in suspense. As the pink petals poked through the ends of the buds on the trees that were coming out, we began to get a little concerned at those that were still sleeping.

When the petals on the awoken trees spread wide to reveal pollen-studded stamens and sticky pistils, we started to worry. By June, many trees had followed blossoms with leaves, but there were still some holdouts. We nicked the bark and it was green. The buds and the stems showed no sign of desiccation and there was no damage to the trunks. The trees looked healthy—except that they were still perfectly dormant as mid-summer came and went. Some of these eventually did bloom, and leaf out, as late as July. While no good for producing fruit, at least it assuaged our fears for their survival.

This year, many of those same trees bloomed and set leaves on the same schedule as

everyone else and are well on their way to ripening a crop. What did we learn? Patience, young grasshopper. Mysterious are the ways of plants, and when it comes to trees, we wait until they are well and truly dead before we cut them down.

We dug up a couple of the smallest trees that exhibited this strange behaviour, to try and learn more about it, and discovered that some of the roots had died, presumably during the course of the winter. Our working hypothesis is that, in the spring, the trees were so focused on root repair and regrowth that the blooms and shoots were put on the back burner. Ironically, we have seen the same behaviour in a severely over-fertilized tree. In that case, we think this is because the tree doesn’t need leaves—the function of the leaves, remember, is to turn sunlight into sugar. If the tree has enough food in storage, why put energy into growing leaves?

When a tree fails to “wake up” in the usual course of things, the first thing to do is to assess “how dead” it is. Is it really, like the parrot, just resting?

Nicking the bark with a fingernail will ascertain if that layer of cells is alive (if it isn’t green, there’s a problem). Healthy buds are plump and glossy, as are healthy twigs. Given our climate, winter damage, here and there, is part of growing fruit trees and often can be seen on the tips of branches.

Prune dead branches back to a healthy-looking bud, as you would any tree in the spring. Poke around in the soil at the base of the tree: healthy roots are solid, with the outer layer firmly attached to the inner, while in dead roots this sloughs off or is brown and watery. If the top of the tree looks good but there is some root death, letting the tree come around in its own time (no heavy feeding) is often the best course, especially for a mature tree. A very small tree can be lifted, the dead roots removed, and replanted. We suspect that dead tissue can have the effect of poisoning live tissue, just as it can in the human body. Any tree that has lost a substantial portion of root should have its top pruned back to limit demands on the recovering roots.

If the roots are healthy and strong, shoots are coming out from the base of the tree, but the upper branches are dead, a failure of the grafted portion (which gives the fruit) of the tree is likely.

See if you can determine the graft line (often a change in size of the trunk or a visible change in bark colour), usually four to eight inches from the ground. If there are any shoots above that line, cut the dead tree back to them and remove suckers from below the graft line, gradually, to promote regrowth of the grafted portion. Remember that berry and cherry bushes, in contrast, are not grafted, and so can come back from the roots just fine.

A Yukon apple tree may not look like the trees we drew as kids; but, let’s face it, neither do the ones in modern orchards, grown to fit as many trees to an acre as possible. And with our trees, each kink in a branch tells a story that we can laugh over a little in the years we get to watch the harvest succeed.

Reaping that harvest in the years that it comes is a sweet reward for patience and a bit of work … mostly patience. In the years it doesn’t, we shrug and know that following the snow, spring will come again—and with it, blossoms.

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