Tuesday, December 29, 2020

The World of Winter Trees

Frozen trees in a field of snow. Lake District National Park, UK. By Click & Learn Photography.
Winter may seem like a dead time for tree lovers, but there really is a lot going on in the world of trees at this time of year. For trees, this is just another part of their yearly cycle. There are particular trials for winter trees, but also a lot happening out of sight. Evergreens have their own way of doing things in winter, but for the purposes of this blog, I want to explore the cold-weather life of deciduous trees.

Tall silhouettes of trees surround a dark path with orange leaves on wither side of it. By Bernd Schulz on Unsplash.
Trees begin preparing for winter months before cold weather and snow move in. Part of the transition is one that we can all see and appreciate, the magnificence of autumn trees. Green leaves contain chlorophyll, which not only gives them their color, it also feeds the tree through photosynthesis. During the winter trees will live off the food they have stored in the summer, so they will not need their leaves. They stop making chlorophyll, the green color disappears, and latent colors appear. The colorful leaves soon fall off entirely, relieving the tree of the need to provide the water and the mechanics of photosynthesis that leaves require. The tree is then able to focus its resources on its other parts. Losing their leaves is one way trees protect themselves ahead of winter dryness. They also move water around in their cells to protect them from freezing and to keep their nutrients intact. Read more on this here.

Water is a big issue for trees in cold winter climates. They cannot depend on the soaking rains from other times of the year, and when moisture does fall it is often bound up in snow. Moisture is moisture, one might think, but frozen water is very difficult for trees to access. If you are tending trees, water them when temperatures are above 40°F and there’s no snow, and use a product like Hydretain that holds water in the root zone. Here’s an article on watering trees at this time of year from the city of Greeley, Colorado, where they know a thing or two about winter weather. 

A pine branch encased in ice. By Sarah Cervantes on Unsplash.
Water is at the root of another problem for winter trees – the risk of exploding. Although it sounds very dramatic and catastrophic it is only one of those things. Trees can make a sound like a gunshot, which is definitely unsettling, but this phenomenon does not cause the tree to experience a bomb-like phenomenon. They crack (both physically and audibly) instead. This is caused by water freezing and expanding inside the tree (more on the science of it here), creating a rupture in the bark of the tree. This sort of thing happens in sub-zero weather in areas where native trees are winter-adapted, so they are generally able to shake off such cracking (more here). Check out this video, to see an “explosion” for yourself. 

Snow-covered trees in a line on a blue field with a blue background. By Tomas Tuna on Unsplash.
Internal ice is not the only thing that poses a problem for tree bark. Sunscald (sometimes called Southwest Winter Injury) can get them, especially if they’re younger trees. Sunscald happens when there are warm, sunny days and then cold winter nights. During the day the sun heats up the bark, causing the cells to open up and activate in response. Once night falls, freezing temperatures can damage the newly-opened cells. The end result can be bark cracks and even damage to the wood underneath the bark. There’s not much you can do once this happens, but proactive treatments include wrapping the tree or applying protective paint. We carry both wraps and paint

A deer face to face with a carrot-nosed snowman.
Wrapping a tree not only protects it from sunscald, it can offer some protection to the bark from animal damage. During the fall and winter, all sorts of critters want to feed off of, rub onto, or otherwise prey on your trees. Here is a brief article from the Chicago Tribune that explains the most common animal culprits and ways to ward them off. If you didn’t get around to wrapping your tree, or you didn’t want to, or if you did and want more protection, animal repellents can add another layer of care for your trees. We have a variety of great repellent products (see here) that can help with whatever is pestering your trees without resorting to toxic chemicals. 

Close-up of the red and orange bark of a Tibetan Cherry Tree.
Tibetan Cherry Tree 
Damage from weather or animals aside, bark can be a compelling sight on a winter tree. Some trees undress just enough in the winter for you to see the pretty wood they are hiding under their bark. There are those that hide their beauty behind their foliage and there are those that exfoliate their outer bark in winter and surprise you with the beauty beneath. Here and here are some gorgeous examples.

Despite all the hardships that the season can bring, trees do a lot of work in the wintertime. It’s just doing all the work out of sight underground, so it is hard for mere humans to observe and appreciate their efforts. This article explains (as well as scientists can determine) what’s going on down there in the root world. Basically, their goal is to spread out and strengthen before spring comes so that they have the resources they need for robust aboveground growth. This plan seems to work most of the time, unless there is an exceptionally hard frost that penetrates deep into the soil or the soil is disrupted by frost heaving. Frost heaving occurs when soil freezes and the ice moves towards the surface. This can weaken trees to the point where they are unable to stand. Fortunately, for all this to happen a number of variables have to come together, and for the overwhelming majority of trees, this will never be an issue. So, they are free to keep on developing their roots in pursuit of the perfect rhizosphere

Black trees, black water and snow-covered roots. Walnut Creek by Jeffrey Hamilton on Unsplash.

Trees are our priceless companions on this planet. They are sources of life-giving oxygen, but also life-affirming joy and beauty. As we head into a new year, let’s all resolve to appreciate and protect them.

Stay warm and stay safe out there. 

Submitted by Pam

Snow falling on a white tree in a snow-covered field. There is a wooded hillside in the background.

Friday, December 18, 2020

The Art of the Christmas Tree

Gold abstract drawings of Christmas trees on a black background.

To most people, Christmas decorations are a wonder to behold – the lights, color, and sparkle are simply enchanting. But, is it Art? I believe most people consider theirs to be a work of Art, but Christmas tree images are almost non-existent in the fine art world. Nevertheless, artistically-minded Christmas tree lovers have found ways to be creative and, at times controversial, in their tree creations. And their visions have made their way into the public sphere for all to enjoy or abhor. 

An illustration of an 1848 engraving showing the British royal family around their tree.
There is a very good reason why there aren’t depictions of Christmas trees that date many centuries in the past– the trees as we know them simply haven’t been around that long. The rise of the modern Christmas tree has been credited to Prince Albert, husband of Queen Victoria. He was German, and there they had been decorating evergreen trees since the 16th century. He introduced the tradition to England and, in 1848, an engraving of the royal family around their tree was widely published. Spurred on by the popularity of the Queen and the vastness of her empire at the time, the use of Christmas trees quickly spread worldwide. So, it was a piece of engraved art that was the catalyst for our current beloved trees.

An Art Deco style drawing of a woman in a coat with a large white fur collar standing by a Christmas tree.
Art Deco tree
Even though Christmas trees became increasingly fashionable, artwork depicting them remained mostly limited to kitschy greeting cards and advertisements for many decades. And then came the design explosion that was Art Deco in the 1920s. This was a radical shift from conventional ways of looking at fashion, housewares, architecture, and more. Sleekly modern stylized images were all the rage during this prosperous era. Glamorous people standing by abstract trees became a popular Christmas look. The glitz of Art Deco, however, soon wore off under the hardships of the Great Depression and World War II. Glam gave way to homespun images and all-out Americana as people longed for better times and optimism in the future waned. No one could portray these “All-American” values better than Norman Rockwell. In his lifetime (which spanned much of the 20th century), he painted thousands of images full of homespun humor and affection for the average citizen. They appeared on magazine covers, advertisements, and calendars – they were ubiquitous in pop culture. The world he portrayed might not have been familiar to many Americans, but it was at least aspirational. His Christmas-themed works are full of conventional trees and families, but he includes witty twists that can bring a smile.
Painting by Norman Rockwell showing a man sitting on a step ladder by a tree. He is entangled in Christmas lights.

Traditional tree images seemed to rule the day throughout the 1950s. Until 1959, is. That year, Hallmark cards (in a fit of high-brow optimism) commissioned the famous surrealist painter, Salvador Dali, to make some Christmas cards. When they came out in 1960, there was an audible outcry. It seems the public was not quite ready for his vision of a butterfly Christmas tree. Or comic camels. Or headless lute players. I, personally, like the butterfly tree. 

At the same time that Hallmark was managing its Dali situation, the aluminum tree came into the mainstream. I wrote about this tree’s brief heyday in my blog last week. I haven’t been able to find any artwork depicting this tree, aside from basic advertising renditions. It’s my belief that the best illustrations of these trees are in family photo albums.

A painting by Salvador Dali that shows a Christmas tree made of butterflies.
Dali butterfly tree
I'm going to fast-forward to the 1980s because this is when begin to take an interesting turn. For decades leading up to this time, Christmas decorations were all over private and public spaces. Whole neighborhoods lit up. Stores had elaborate displays inside and in their store windows on city promenades. Hotels were ablaze with lights and shiny decorations. Towns and cities, both urban and rural, had their community Christmas tree, and families came to ooh and ah as they were lit. But these were all usually very conventional decorations – heavy on the Christmas ornaments, snow (real or fake), maybe some reindeer or Santa (or even a Grinch or two), and lights, lights, lights. But, by the 80s, people began to take some risks in pursuit of something new for their Christmas installations. Instead of a standard tree, many places welcomed more conceptual Christmas decorations. 

A Christmas tree hanging in a green room. It has a beam of blue light projecting from its base.
In 1988, the world-renowned Tate Britain museum in arts-rich London decided to turn over their annual  Christmas tree display to a series of contemporary artists. In recent years, the artwork seems to have migrated outdoors, but for 23 uninterrupted years, Londoners were regaled with some mighty interesting trees. Or, more correctly, most of  those years there was some sort of tree – a couple of years the artists’ visions were of no tree at all. Here are pictures of every year. My choice for worst-dressed is 2006; Fairy genitals just don’t say “Christmas” to me. 

Whether the Tate Britain was an innovator or acting in response to a growing movement in the art community, I don’t know. But, since then alternative Christmas tree displays have spread around the world with spectacular results. Interestingly, hotels seem to have taken on the job of showcasing certain artists (like this one in London), while municipalities have embraced Christmas trees made of alternative materials and/or carrying specific messages. This, then, is where modern Christmas tree Art can be found. And, just like Hallmark’s Dali debacle, not all the efforts are appreciated. Back in 2014, artist Paul McCarthy unveiled his bright green, inflatable abstract Christmas tree in posh Plaza Vendome, Paris. Unfortunately (and, purposefully), it bore a striking resemblance to a very particular type of sex toy. The display only lasted two days. I’m not positive, but I’m pretty sure some Parisians are still upset about it. See it for yourself here.

An inflatable iridescent Christmas tree standing by some windows. There are lots of silver baubles hanging from the ceiling.Jack Irving tree 2019.
Jack Irving Christmas tree at the W London hotel

There are so many amazing examples of these Christmas tree installations that I cannot choose just a couple to direct you to, so I’m just going to provide a series of links for you to browse through at your leisure:

Now that we are firmly in the 21st century, it should come as no surprise that many of the modern tree designs are high tech art. Check out some here and here (this one includes a flying Christmas tree).

This article talks about a show in Boston last year by the modern artist Hyman Bloom. It combined Christmas tree paintings with those of corpses (not sure I follow that line of connectivity).

Here are some 2014 Christmas tree installations from around the world.

Santa dancing across a picture of a Christmas tree.
Here are some of the best from 2016.

And this is what they look like for 2020.

No matter where your artistic preferences lie, you can find something to like during the holiday season. And, at this time, when we are all ready to get this horrible year behind us, we need all the beauty (or whimsy) we can get. 

Happy Holidays and here’s to a better New Year.

Submitted by Pam

Wednesday, December 9, 2020

The Tree Cut Down By a Cartoon

Closeup of red and gold ornaments on a silver aluminum tree.
If you think politics are polarizing, try asking a group of people how they feel about aluminum Christmas trees. Whether you like their kitsch factor or find them an abomination, there is no denying that their shimmering sheen is a sight to behold. Aesthetics aside, their place in American culture and their ultimate demise are as interesting as the reflective light patterns they create.

To explain the aluminum tree phenomenon, it is important to look back at where we were in the late 1950s and early 1960s. This was a time of prosperity for most Americans and a time when people were actively looking to the future with enthusiasm. The possibilities must have seemed endlessly golden for the adults at that time. These were people who had made it through the Great Depression, World War II, and the Korean War, and they were ready for something new to look forward to. Combine that attitude with the economic security of well-paying jobs and emerging technologies from the space program, and the market for gadgets and gimmicks was well set. The American people were excited about the prospect of space exploration and wanted to be a part of this new world in some small way. So, they bought Tang and Teflon pans and Christmas trees that looked like something the Jetsons would have. 

Reproduction of an ad for Evergleam trees from Aluminum Specialty Products.
Cultural shifts often have humble beginnings (Microsoft began in a garage, after all), and for the aluminum tree we all think of, the beginning was in the small city of Manitowoc, Wisconsin. For any number of reasons, Manitowoc had been a center of aluminum production since the late 1800s. The factories there provided good incomes for thousands of residents, and by mid-century, there were many new aluminum products on the market to keep them busy. Then, in late 1958, an employee of Aluminum Specialty Company in Manitowoc saw an aluminum tree that another company had created. But that tree was expensive and hard to assemble, so it wasn’t selling. Seeing an opportunity, the dedicated employee took the tree to the engineers at Aluminum Specialty. Within a few months, they had designed an affordable, portable tree that was easy to assemble. By Christmas 1959, the Evergleam model was rolling out and selling big. The innovative employee’s name has been lost to time, but hopefully, he was rewarded handsomely for his vision.

Young woman sitting by an aluminum tree with lots of presents and a color wheel under it.
Aluminum trees quickly caught the collective imagination and they catapulted into mainstream Christmas. But, a hiccup soon developed – it was downright dangerous to put lights on them. Aluminum is an excellent conductor of electricity, so all it takes is a faulty wire or bulb to charge the tree. Fires, shocks, and even electrocution can result. The solution was the now-iconic color wheel that projects color onto the tree; it was introduced in 1962. That same year, rotating stands were also unveiled (later models even played music). Different manufacturers and varieties in sizes, colors, and adornments appeared. The tree was a bonafide hit and in the early ‘60s every hip household had one – the future looked shiny for the aluminum tree.

An aluminum tree lying in the middle of a room. There is a television, folding tray tables and two very guilty-looking cats.
If one looks at the decade of the 1960s, the first half has a distinctly different flavor than the second half. What had been a time of optimism quickly became a time of dynamic cultural changes. The complacency of peacetime morphed into the horror of Vietnam. Fun fashions and music evolved into a counterculture that was fraught with drug use and social unrest. Environmental consciousness was awakened and put a shadow on the unrestrained consumerism of earlier years. All of this had an effect on aluminum tree sales, but it was Charlie Brown who dealt the final blow.

In 1965, A Charlie Brown Christmas was beamed into living rooms across the country. Charlie Brown (and other characters from Peanuts) had been loved by readers of Sunday comics since the late ’40s, but this was their first primetime special for the whole family. In the show, Lucy wants Charlie to buy a pink aluminum tree, but he chooses – and loves - his now-famous threadbare  but real tree. This was seen by many as an overt protest against crass consumerism and a rallying cry to embrace the real, and flawed, natural world. After the broadcast, aluminum tree sales quickly tapered off and then crashed significantly as Charlie Brown’s Christmas became an annual favorite. Aluminum Specialty Products had remained the leader in aluminum trees; but by 1969, they had ceased production of their glittering Evergleam trees. 

Charlie Brown and Linus are in a field of colorful trees and Linus is asking, "Gee - Do they still make wooden Christmas trees?".
Luckily, at the same time that aluminum trees were popular, cheap cameras and film were also available. This means that there is a delicious trove of photographs showing people by their trees. These images capture that short period of time in all its garish glory. Here, for instance, is a collection of every-one-is-better-than-the-next pictures. Some of these have a strangeness to them that is outright hilarious or definitely creepy. Or something else entirely that I cannot name. Enjoy.

A room with a real Christmas tree to the left rear next to fireplace and an aluminum tree in the right forefront"
As with everything deemed retro, aluminum trees are cool again. This has led to a batch of companies making new trees that look like the old kind, or new trees that are sort of like the old ones. And all the ornaments and accessories as well, of course. For people who aspire for the ambiance that only an aluminum tree provides, this is a great way to go. If, on the other hand, you are one who demands the real deal you had better be willing to pay a premium price. Vintage trees can cost hundreds and even thousands of dollars. If you are interested in either a true antique or reproduction, this blog has some useful buying tips and this one has some beautiful decorating ideas.

America may have had a short-lived infatuation with aluminum trees, but they have had a lasting effect on a lot of us. They elicit strong nostalgia in many people - they remember the sparkly trees they had or wished they had. Others associate them with a better time, or possibly of a not-better time that embraced the artificial. Some see them as a little of all that - like this man who retains vivid memories of his family tree. However you see them, they sure are an eyeful.
Take Care.
Submitted by Pam

Wednesday, December 2, 2020

Tree Gifts

2 gifts wrapped in brown paper with acorns and leaves on them by a fir tree.
Now that we are done digesting the turkey and are almost sick of turkey soup, it is time to get serious about Christmas shopping. This year shopping, like everything else in 2020, is colored by Covid. Instead of flocking to big box stores and the mall, many people are shopping in the safety and comfort of their homes. But endlessly searching the net can be deadly dull for some people, and rife with a-lot-of-the-same for everyone. So, if you are a tree lover and/or are shopping for one, I have done some of the scrolling for you and curated some cool choices. But, don’t think only of tree aficionados while looking through these choices, anyone who loves Nature in general will enjoy one of these. 

A mother and daughter planting trees with others in the  background. In Addis Ababa, Ethiopia by Eyoel Kahssay.
When you get right down to it, the best present for a tree lover is probably an actual tree and these days there are a variety of ways you can gift one:

Trees that someone else plants: For someone who doesn’t have the place or desire to plant a tree, you can donate to a non-profit and they’ll plant one for you. The Nature Conservancy is not fooling around. This well-respected organization plans to plant a billion trees, much of it funded by small donations. Another option is the nonprofit Donate A Tree To The World. They are fighting climate change and helping disadvantaged communities in Mexico and Colombia through reforestation. They will send you a picture of your tree and follow its growth for you. One of their projects is working to build the numbers of pine nut trees, whose struggle I wrote about in my last blog. Pine nuts are not just important to people around the world, according to this article by the World Wildlife Fund, pine nuts are essential to tiger survival in the Russian Far East. 

Pine nute in a white ceramic bowl with pine cones and branches surrounding it.
Trees to grow from saplings or seeds: It takes real optimism in your recipient’s commitment to give a tree seed as a present. But, should you choose to do so, Seeds of Life has the stuff for you. They sell seed packets, seedlings, and gift trees. Many other outlets, like FastGrowingTrees.com and Bower & Branch, sell a great variety of small trees ready to be gifted. 

The cover of the book The Hidden Life of Trees by Peter Wohllesen.
Still unsure about giving a living tree? This short article has some ideas about why you should, trees for different occasions, and additional nonprofits that plant trees.

If you think having a tree planted from afar seems less-than-personal for a Christmas gift, perhaps you’d prefer to buy a present that you can touch, and still plant a tree. There are more and more businesses that position themselves as eco-friendly and many are getting their hands in the dirt to prove it. Companies like Save Lands offer cute gear and entice you to buy with their tree-planting mission. For Save Lands, it’s twelve trees planted for every item sold. Here is a list of nine other companies that do something similar. This trend of driving e-commerce with feel-good consumerism is not universally accepted. Here is an article from Canada that explains some of the reasons why.

Some retail sites have outstanding selections for the tree lover on your list. Here are some standouts:

A glass sculpture of a green Tree of Life. Available from Wildlife Wonders.
Soul Flower – Their things are very I-wish-it-was-the-60’s, Boho-Hipster Chic. But in a good way.

Popular ScienceI know – Popular Science? This is not really a retail site, but, Eleanor Cummings has put together a thoughtful collection for tree huggers. 

Uncommon Goods – This site has an uncommonly good selection of tree-themed gifts.

A clock with a picture of misty mountains on it.
Misty Mountain Clock
Wildlife WondersTheir goods can be pricey, but they're clever and beautiful. Even if you don’t have deep pockets you should take a scroll through this site just to admire what they have. And there are some deals to be found.

Large retail sites like Etsy have seemingly endless items under their tree-themed sections. If you’ve ever been on Etsy, you know the stuff ranges from the sublime to the ridiculous. For not-expensive gifts, I particularly like the pinecone key chains, the misty mountain clock, and the handmade fir tree soap. The tree wall art is also very nice if you have the right person with the right space to give it to. Another potential Etsy gold mine of tree presents is the multitude of Tree of Life designs – jewelry, art pieces, textiles, you name it - I think I even saw a knitted cap in there.

As I’ve been looking at tree-centric gifts, I’ve noticed all the family trees that keep popping up. They are clearly wildly popular these days, and with good reason. As more and more people do their DNA, interest in ancestors has grown and family trees are a great way to showcase all that. But, the variety of styles and cost-points is nearly overwhelming. You can get a kit from Family Locket that can be done with the kids and makes a felt family tree. Or you can get a pretty black metal tree that you add engraved magnetic leaves to from Personalization Mall. Or you can get a wall hanging that shows your family fanning out in a beautiful tree from this Etsy vendor. Or you can go to Branches and get a fully custom family tree made, including framing. Or (my personal favorite) get your family tree put on an actual piece of wood from Foxbairn. If this is something you think you want to do, you should act fast as custom pieces take extra time to create.
A family tree on a slice of a log.

Finally, I’d like to recommend an ARBICO Organics gift certificate.  While it’s true that we don’t sell trees or tree-themed merch, we do cater to people who care for trees. So, if your tree lover walks the walk by growing trees, we have something they can use. And, of course, we have something for anybody who loves to grow anything. 

Christmas is meant to be a happy time of year, but this year is bound to be challenging for many. If at all possible, try to make the one thing you can control –your gift-giving – as simple and enjoyable as possible.

Take Care.

Submitted by Pam

A cartoon Christmas tree with a gift.


Tuesday, December 1, 2020

Local Organizations Gardeners & Plant Lovers Can Support On #Givingtuesday

Photo by Elaine Casap on Unsplash

In the spirit of giving and gratitude one fosters during Thanksgiving, we at ARBICO Organics wanted to share information about local organizations you can consider giving to and becoming involved with in honor of #givingtuesday!

Photo by Zoe Schaeffer on Unsplash 
Local urban gardens are a great way to get involved in growing, especially if you lack your own garden space! You can get some dirt under your nails and fulfill your gardening aspirations all while helping the community! You can locate urban gardens in your area by visiting the international database available at Urban Farming
Your local cooperative extension is also a terrific place for resources about growing in your specific area and may offer many ways to get involved in the local garden community scene! You can find your location by visiting the Pick Your organization’s website! 

Photo by Kelly Sikkema on Unsplash
Another fantastic way to support and give back to your community is to get involved with your local school system’s garden program. Working to teach children gardening skills and the importance of nutrition is a very valuable part of growing our community’s next generation! To find out more, visit your local school district’s website!

If you are more of a hands-off gardener, who prefers to find fresh produce from local farmers, consider joining a CSA. Not only is this a great way to diversify your fridge’s inventory, but it supports local growers and guarantees that you have the freshest and most in-season options! In many areas where farmer’s markets are closed due to COVID-19, this option will also help support farms that relay on these markets. To find a CSA in your area, visit Local Harvest
Local gardens and farms are just one place to start, don’t forget about local food banks and other organizations that help protect your local region’s biodiversity!
In Tucson, where our company is located, in addition to gardening and farming organizations,  we support the Community Food Bank of Southern Arizona, the Center for Biodiversity and the Sonoran Institute!
Let’s keep the spirit of giving going at this time and continue to support our communities! 

We are better together! 
Submitted by Aurora @ ARBICO Organics

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