Drive down practically any street in Winston-Salem and you will find an ever-increasing number of weird trees. These trees are not naturally or inherently weird. They did not grow to be weird or desire to weird. Most of these trees were intentionally planted to be "normal" trees, a term I will use to distinguish natural tree forms from those trees intentionally made weird. Nature's intent is that trees have trunks, upwardly growing branches and leaves that seek the sun — a normal tree. Evident locally, human intent for trees is sometimes at odds with that of nature. A large majority of Winston-Salem's "trees of weirdness" are crepe myrtle trees. A relatively small, flowering tree native to China, there are many crepe (also spelled crape) myrtle varieties planted throughout the United States. When cared for properly, they are really fine, attractive trees that are highly suitable for city living.
One of the finest examples of a boulevard lined with amazingly beautiful crepe myrtles is on a city street right-of-way, along both sides of a block on 11th Street in Winston-Salem. Another good example of crepe myrtle excellence is the trees within the median along Reynolda Road between Polo Road and Fairlawn Drive. These trees, by virtue of city right-of-way protection, represent what is possible when trees are pruned properly, cared for and allowed to grow in a natural form without hampering the movement of people or traffic. This, however, is in marked contrast to the quickly spreading epidemic of weird trees.
Statewide, the Triad area lags behind the Triangle and Charlotte areas for adhering to more sound and modern tree-care methods. This article is an exploration into the proliferation of tree weirdness in our fair city by a practice commonly referred to as "tree topping." Tree topping (tree mutilation) is nothing new or unique to Winston-Salem. However, there is growing concern by local residents about the increasing number of trees adversely affected by crown reducing, topping cuts that has resulted in visually blighted properties throughout the city. Our community is increasingly becoming a showcase for weird and wacky trees in front yards, in parking lots, at shopping centers, gas stations, banks and burger joints. Once potentially stalwart and beautiful, many of our community's trees are now pitiful remnants of what could have been. I am not referring to trees that the electric utility has carved out or side-trimmed to accommodate power lines, but perfectly good trees that are intentionally shortened and stunted by an outdated practice called tree topping or crown reduction.
Here is a brief overview of why tree topping is weird for Winston-Salem:
- Topping creates structurally weak and unhealthy trees. Where the cuts are made, the trees decay from the top down, producing weakly attached sprout growth that is more subject to breaking. Many trees die from topping cuts, some die slowly, some die quickly.
- Topping to control height does not work. Re-sprouting topped trees can quickly outgrow the trees' original height. The shortened trees block the view of commercial properties more so than were they simply allowed to grow up as healthy, attractive trees.
- The monetary cost to top trees far outweighs any perceived benefit.
- Topping trees is biologically, environmentally and psychologically unsound and uninspiring.
- Cities need healthy, normal trees for greater air and water purification.
Some people strongly object to trees taking up vital space as they grow up and out. When combined with people who seek to make a living dwarfing trees, the tree-topping dynamic can result in the large-scale obliteration of normal, natural, viable trees; subverting them for a less-than-healthy urban forest that is literally falling apart. Nowhere is this more evident than the storefronts of many prominent local businesses. Topped and barren, inverted wooden forks that once were fully flowering crepe myrtle trees stand as a tragic comedy that those "in the know" refer to as "crepe murdered."
The practice of tree topping is making an alarming comeback from its heyday and is affecting many types of ornamental trees and native shade trees such as oaks and maples. Many trees have been damaged by carelessly and unprofessionally wielded saws and beliefs fueled by misinformation. The damage is significant in many ways. The image of our city of the arts, a city of medical ingenuity, a city of vibrant universities, is greatly enhanced when trees are treated well and with respect, rather than as simply objects in the way.