Tiny Twigs

The Importance of Tiny Twigs 

by Curt Andrews

I still remember the first time I was kicked off a prospective client’s property for refusing to give them a price to top the large silver maple in their back yard. Anyone who has a passion for and appreciation of trees, has likely experienced a sense of sorrow when they’ve come across a beautiful tree which had its potential cut off just as it was maturing into its full splendor.

Curt Andrews sitting by river

You don’t have to be an arborist to understand the damage topping can do to the long-term health and structural integrity of a tree.  The request to inflict such damage on a tree is typically out of ignorance, so I took it upon myself to help this property owner understand the long-term ramifications of their request.  It was certainly an eye-opening experience, being called a few select names as I was hurriedly escorted back to the front gate.  

There are times and situations where severe pruning techniques may need to be considered and possibly implemented, but I have yet to come across an instance where topping a tree would properly address the list of reasons people have given.

While topping can often be considered extreme malpractice, have you ever considered the damage we can inflict when it comes to removing smaller branches or twigs?  The little branches which are found along larger branches and limbs.  The ones which snag your throw line or make it challenging to isolate your climbing line into your targeted branch crotch.

Arborists and recreational climbers alike often get annoyed by these small branches.  They seem so insignificant because they pale in comparison to the large limbs which create the structure of the tree.  Whether you are working or simply climbing to enjoy interacting with the tree, these twigs and branches can make things more difficult for you.  They also have a way of finding your eyes!

When teaching students and arborists about tree physiology and proper pruning techniques, many are surprised to learn about the importance of these small branches.  When taken to the extreme by removing all twigs and branches along a limb, you end up with a ‘lions tailed’ limb.  The only foliage remaining has the appearance of a tuft of leaves on the end of the limb.  Like topping, this practice is forbidden by the tree care industry’s governing bodies.  

One of the main issues is that this type of pruning promotes the lengthening of the branch at the expense of diameter thickness and strength.  The result is a weaker branch which is more likely to snap when subjected to wind.  Think of the trees which have developed in the woods.  They are tall and skinny with most of their branches in the upper crown where they have access to sunlight. 

When these wooded areas are cut down to make way for a construction project, the remaining trees are then exposed to winds they had not encountered during their development.  It is common for these trees to lose limbs and even split or snap along the trunk when subjected to wind forces from the side.  When sheltered amongst by surrounding trees, they put little energy in to developing structural growth to strengthen against side-winds.  Their energy went into growing taller.

Compare that to a tree which has grown in an open field.  These trees tend to have more branches along the trunk, have a larger trunk diameter to tree height, and are likely to have a nice trunk taper at the ground.  All of this provides for a sturdy tree which can withstand crosswinds.  The same holds true for the branches themselves.

There are times we may need to remove small branches and twigs in the inner-crown as we prepare the tree for a facilitated climb, or to provide a clean cut on twigs which may have snapped during our time spent in the tree.  If we remove too many of the twigs and smaller branches along the large structural limbs of a tree, we will inadvertently be causing the tree to redirect energy from diameter growth into lengthening the branch.  

We take great precaution to minimize our impact on the trees through practices like the use of cambium savers, so let’s not forget the importance of these seemingly insignificant parts of the tree.  They play a big role in how and where cells are generated and strengthened.  They provide for branch and trunk strength, as well as dampening the effect of winds on the tree.  Giving proper attention to the impact we have on a tree we enjoy today, will help to ensure others can experience its beauty in the years ahead.

Fortunately, I was never run off a property because I refused to lions-tail a tree.  There have been a few times where I was able to discuss the importance of the internal branches when someone wanted the inner crown stripped clean to show off branch structure.  Thankfully, these conversations have remained civil and resulted in a better understanding and appreciation for the structure of the tree, little twigs and all.