A few months ago, a colleague of mine asked me to write an article about pruning trees. Not so long ago, there were heated debates on radio talk shows, and in the printed press of our local newspapers about the butchering of the Lignum vitae (Guaiacum officinale) trees in Emancipation Garden in downtown Charlotte Amalie, St. Thomas. These historic trees suffered at the hands of those who knew very little, or nothing at all, about tree anatomy and pruning.
In fact, we have a history in these Virgin Islands of cutting down trees indiscriminately rather than planting trees. However, this was not the case historically because trees were revered by our ancestors. As times changed in our society, we have lost the cultural connection to trees. Believe me, we are quick to blame trees for all sort of things and never take responsibility for our own actions in managing our islands’ natural and cultural resources.
Furthermore, we look at trees as being in the way of what we call progress and never think intellectually about how trees play a major role in the development of these islands’ economies. In my opinion, it all boils down to ignorance and lack of knowledge of how trees improve our quality of life and enhance our economic status.
First, we must recognize that trees are living organisms like us human beings. We fail to recognize as humans that trees breathe like us. Trees have sex, reproduce, are affected by diseases, drink water, take up nutrients from the soil, and die at a ripe old age, depending on the species of the tree. In fact, we are connected to trees nutritionally by the soil a tree is grown in.
We eat plants and animals to get our nutrients. Where do plants and animals get their nutrients? The answer is simple: from the earth. Thus, humans are the dust of the earth. The Bible says, “The Lord God formed the man from the dust of the ground and breathed into his nostrils the breath of life, and the man became a living being.” Genesis 2.7. If we understand that we are connected to all living organisms on earth, then our approach to trees should be different when pruning them.
For centuries, humans have inflicted injuries to trees in the name of pruning. Pruning trees is a science. Therefore, one must have some sort of basic knowledge and understanding of tree biology. The main objective of pruning a tree is to create and maintain a strong structure by guiding the tree’s architecture. In other words, the goal is to produce a healthy tree with a functional, pleasing frame by removing the smallest possible amount of living tissue at any one pruning.
Nevertheless, trees respond biologically in specific ways to pruning and wounding. Over the years, techniques have been developed by tree experts to assure best practices that preserve and enhance the structural integrity of trees, along with their beauty and functional value. The International Society of Arboriculture has come up with basic guidelines in pruning trees. They are pruning techniques, training young trees, and pruning mature trees. Under each of these categories, it gives a specific way of how to go about pruning a tree without damaging the tree’s integrity or making trees hazardous to the public.
Regardless the age of the tree, one should remove branches that are broken, split, dead, diseased, or touching each other. There are correct ways to prune trees that do not involve butchering them in the way that took place at Emancipation Garden. Although trees are organisms like humans, they recover differently when damaged or injured. Trees don’t heal themselves like us humans when we get a cut on our body. Trees respond to improper pruning cuts, wounding, or any other type of injury by walling off or compartmentalizing damaged tissue.
This causes a chemical reaction due to improper cutting that separates damaged tissues from the rest of the tree. For trees to stay healthy during their lifetimes, they must generate more tissue than they lose to the compartmentalization process. Thus, improper pruning can cause large areas of branches and trunks of trees to compartmentalize, which causes the stored energy (starch) in the tissue to become unavailable to the trees.
As a result, this can lead to decline as the tree starves itself by cutting off sufficient energy to carry on normal functions. To the general public, it is just a tree and can be cut any way they see fit. This approach is dangerous because you can lose historic trees like those in Emancipation Garden, or any tree in an urban setting. We are not looking at the broader picture of trees in our urban environment.
Our historic towns are not only attractive because of the architectural style of the buildings. Trees also add to a town’s history and its people. In our colonial history, trees were an important part of the development of the islands’ economies. Particularly on the island of St. Croix, estates’ driveways were lined with trees. For example, Estate Constitution Hill had native royal palm (Roystonea borinquena) trees that lined the roadway. Another example is the University of the Virgin Islands campus in St. Croix’s Estate Golden Grove where the palm trees line the driveway from Queen Mary Highway (Center Line Road) to the estate great house on top of the hill.
Estate Castle Burke was once lined with coconut (Cocos nucifera) trees where both sides of the road were planted with sugarcane. In our society today, we have lost a historical perspective of the value of trees when it comes to the overall development of the islands. We are quick to cut down trees and argue about it. In both districts of the Virgin Islands, we have tree arborists or tree experts who can be called upon by the government or the public to prune trees correctly if the trees need to be pruned.
I hate to say it, but if a tree is not pruned properly it can be a danger to the public and will result in a loss of a tree that is pruned out of ignorance.
– Olasee Davis is bush professor who lectures and writes about the culture, history, ecology and environment of the Virgin Islands when he is not leading hiking tours of the wild places and spaces of St. Croix and beyond.