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The Artful Science of Tree Shaping

Ansel Oommen |
Sunday, 15th September 2013

Ansel Oommen describes how the ancient practice of shaping trees is resurging, providing inspiration for chairs, bridges to whole houses.

©Peter Cook & Becky Northey

Dating as far back as the 16th century, tree shaping has been hinted at in paintings and literature but it was not until the advent of Axel Erlandson, the father of modern tree training, that the art form truly flourished. As a young man, Erlandson was inspired by the sight of two conjoined branches in a hedgerow on his property. As a result, he began experimenting, designing and training over 70 different trees into various stunning horticultural and architectural specimens. He then went on to open a roadside exhibition in Scotts Valley, California in 1947, debuting his curiosities in an aptly named ‘Tree Circus’.

What Erlandson had observed and used to great effect, was a natural form of grafting known as inosculation. Rather ordinary, the phenomenon occurs when trunks, roots or branches in close proximity gradually fuse together; it can arise within a single tree or neighboring trees of same or different species. Over time, as the limbs grow, they exert pressure similar to the friction between two palms rubbed against each other. This causes the outer bark to slough off, exposing the inner tissue or cambium and allows the vasculature of both trees to intermingle; in essence, joining their lifeblood.

Besides grafting, tree shaping also employs pruning, bending, weaving and bracing to create the dramatic loops, twists and knots evocative of the form. Many of the techniques are borrowed from related horticultural practices such as bonsai, espalier and topiary.

Basket TreeBasket Tree

The potential of tree shaping for eco-solutions is promising but much of it still remains dependent on the trial and error projects of a few pioneers. 

Three Main Methods

There are three main methods to achieving a shaped tree. Aeroponic culture, Instant tree shaping (Arborsculpture) and Gradual tree shaping.

Aeroponic culture grows the roots of the tree in a nutrient mist until they reach a length approximately 2-6 meters at which time the roots are shaped as they are planted.

Instant tree shaping (Arborsculpture) is the practice of using mature trees or whips approximately 2-3 m long, which are then bent into the desired design and held until cast with the next 3-4 years growth of the tree.

Gradual tree shaping starts by creating the framing to support the growing seedlings and then planting 7- 30 cm tall seedlings or cuttings. The new growth is trained along the design pathways for the next couple of years. Then the trees just grow thicker with time.

Most species of trees are suitable for tree shaping but not all species are suitable for the creative treatment of the Arborsculpture method, however. Trees to be bent into shape must be flexible, vigorous and easily grafted (thin barks); notable examples being willow, sycamore, poplar, birch and Persian ironwood.

The movement is so recent in fact, that the term Arborsculpture itself was coined only in 1995 by Richard Reames and Barbara Delbol in their book, How to Grow a Chair – the Art of Tree Trunk Topiary. This book gives detailed instructions of the Arborsculpture instant method of bending up a chair and peace sign in an afternoon.

Living furniture is a popular application; so too is the prospect of living houses and landscape architecture. The ability of growing trees to incorporate foreign material such as metal and glass further solidifies tree shaping as a viable green alternative for use in urban design. 

One exceptional instance of this type of urban tree shaping lies in Germany. There, architect Ferdinand Ludwig’s Baubotanik, or Living Plant Constructions, showcases the brilliance of botanical engineering at its best. Among his creations are a three-storey willow tower, an osier willow footbridge, and a silver willow bird watching station. The Plane-Tree-Cube Nagold, a building that incorporates live sycamores, is accessible to the public. Hopefully, future plans of a banyan fig-inspired living air bridge will be too. 

Ludwig's willow tower in 2009Ludwig's willow tower in 2009Ludwig's willow tower in 2010Ludwig's willow tower in 2010

Ludwig explains, “I came in touch with some historic examples of living architecture while I was a student and was immediately fascinated. The vision is a new way of integrating trees in architectural and urban design.”

Ludwig’s vision has paid off, attracting attention at Archiprix International, a competition that judges projects in urban design and landscape architecture. His work has also won awards for ‘Deutschland, Land der Ideen’ (Germany: Land of Ideas) and ‘Übermorgenmacher’ (Creating the Day after Tomorrow).

Unlike their dead lumber-based counterparts, living architecture continues to combat soil erosion while providing oxygen, sustenance, shelter and habitation. An integral part of the ecosystem, trees can convert carbon into biomass, mitigating the effects of climate change. Even when harvested (essentially killing them), living architecture persists as a source of aesthetic wonder.

When asked how he was able to shape trees, the late Axel Erlandson often replied, “I talk to them”. Indeed, when humanity and nature work together, the results can be mutually impressive. Rather than cutting down trees, tree shaping seeks to cultivate a natural passion for the future of our world and our environment. 

Ansel Oommen is an environmentalist, avid gardener and urban forager in New York City. A former student of the Institute of Children’s Literature, he has just finished writing his first book, The Oak Tree, and is searching for a publisher. You can find out more from Absel at: www.behance.net/Ansel

Further resources

For more information on the three main methods of tree shaping see the work of Swati Balgi (September 2009), "Live Art"Society Interiors Magazine (Prabhadevi, Mumbai: Magna Publishing and the book Three Methods of Tree Shaping every aspiring tree shaper should be aware of, Peter Cook and Becky Northey, SharBrin Publishing Ptd Ltd. ISBN 978-1-921571-41-1. You can also view a FREE eBook version of The 3 Methods of Tree Shaping.

For more information about Ferdinand Ludwig visit: www.ferdinandludwig.com 

Treeshapers http://treeshapers.net 

Richard Reames www.arborsmith.com

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