The Tree Doctors Are In

There was the time he went to a call and found a sickly balsam with – mysteriously – blue sprucelike tips. A strapping blue spruce stood nearby. Gary, the tree’s owner later reported to Megan, stood back with his hands on his hips and confronted the sickly tree: “You been fooling around with that blue spruce?”

Recently, a certain high-end golf course called Gary in desperation: prized birch trees were ringed with a mysterious fungus. Was there anything they could do? Anything? Yes, said Gary. Two things: One, understand that the fungus doesn’t grow on living tissue. Two, cut ’em down and grow something else. While their respective bedside manners may differ now and again, the Tree Doctors’ shared approach to the tree-treating business doesn’t waver. Honesty – brutally or gently bestowed – is always their policy. If they can help, they will; if they can’t, they’ll tell you. Theirs is an old-fashioned way of doing business, from the house calls to the handwritten letters of diagnosis and prescription that Megan and Gary send each client after a visit. And in the delicate business of trees and people, it’s the best way they know how.

“People get very emotional about trees,” Megan explains. “Especially white birches and white pines – those two trees signify the North. They are the North.”

She tells me about a client, Carol, who has a giant white pine on her beach along Grand Traverse Bay that she named Moses. “Carol loves that tree. She loves Moses. He’s one of those – ” Megan stops short, purses her lips. “He’s very old, been through a lot of tough times. Water’s up, water’s down, pollution from the highway. We do what we can – nutrients, watering – but when you get too old …” She trails off, shakes her head.

Things don’t look good for Moses.

For all their heft, height and hardiness, strength and sheer abundance, the trees of Michigan haven’t had it easy. Their very virtues prompted their undoing during the lumbering era. And while reforesting initiatives of the Great Depression gave us back thousands of acres of trees that we live among today, despite our best human efforts, the natural world persists. When Dutch elm disease swept the nation in the 60’s and 70’s, it left 77 million dead elms in its wake. The gypsy moth, which the Michigan Department of Agriculture began battling in the early 50’s, still managed to defoliate the largest total area of forest (oaks and pines) in Michigan history in 1992.

These days, the emerald ash borer is in our midst, forcing foresters to bring down dozens of neighboring ash trees for every one afflicted. There’s also oak wilt, a fungus carried in on the feet of hungry Japanese beetles that enter through cracks or injuries in trees to feed. It can kill a red oak in three weeks flat. And in 2000, beech bark disease, working its way northward, was discovered in Luce and Mason Counties. Michigan State University scientists expect it to kill at least 50 percent of the American beech trees in the state.

Not all problems are fatal, of course. Some are just plain ugly – powdery mildew, tar spot, insect galls. And many can be controlled – birch borers, pine tip moths, pine weevils and such. But the most senseless pest, perhaps the biggest pain in our beloved trees’ trunks, is the one proving the most difficult to rein in: us. The folks who love them to death.

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