Feb. 16, 2017: No, that's not the title of a horror film, but it could be the title of an inspirational "Rockyesque" documentary of a once major tree that has vanished, for all practical purposes, but may have hope of beating the odds and returning. That tree is the American chestnut (Castanea dentata), not to be confused with the Chinese Chestnut or the Spanish chestnut.

Chestnut grove - pre-blightChestnut grove - pre-blightThe American chestnut (hereafter just referred to as "chestnut" to save me extra typing) was never part of the Pacific Northwest forests but was one of the dominant hardwood trees of the Appalachian mountains. There were billions (some estimate 4 billion) of them growing, some up to 120 foot heights and 8 feet or more in diameter. The mast crop of chestnuts produced were a major food source for animals and humans. Its wood was rot resistant and light weight. It was often used for furniture and you can tell a true vintage piece of furniture if you can identify chestnut as its material.

The chestnut is now classifed "functionally extinct" by the USDA. That means you cannot find a live chestnut tree anywhere (except a small handful I'll tell you about later), but you can find chestnut shrubs. So how did it go from being the dominant tree of the Appalachians to a rare to find shrub? Answer: the chestnut blight.

Somewhere around 1904, give or take a couple of years, a load of chestnut logs from Asia came into the States carrying a fungus, the chestnut blight. The Chinese chestnut is resistant to chestnut blight, developed through eons of evolutionary battle between the fungus and the tree back in Asia. Our chestnut though did not have that resistance and in the space of 40-50 years the American chestnut as a tree disappeared.

I used to be a forestry contractor in the 80's based in western North Carolina. Most of my contracts were in the southern Appalachians. What was amazing to me is I could still see in the woods these huge stumps of the chestnut that were still alive. The roots, which are not killed by the fungus, still sent up shoots. They would grow to about as about as big around as my arm and then the blight would kill them and then more shoots would arise. The chestnut would not die, even 40-50 years after the trunk was gone!

The fungus attacks the cambium, the small ring of growth tissue inside the bark, which in turn kills the Blight cankersBlight cankersbark and eventually girdles the tree which kills it. There is no preventative nor post-infection treatment to stop it. It was a killer and it couldn't be stopped. Less than a handful of isolated pockets of chestnut tree have been discovered. One pocket , found in 2006, on the Franklin Roosevelt's Little White House estate at Warm Springs caused a flurry of excitement as to whether these trees might have genes resistant to the blight or were they just isolated.

The major effort to bring the chestnut back from the dead has been focused on hybridizing it by crossing the American chestnut with the Chinese chestnut, which is resistant. This crossbreeding has been taking place since the 1930's with marginal success by the USDA. In 1983, several botanists and geneticists set up the American Chestnut Foundation (ACF)to try a different type of crossbreeding called backcrossing, where a Chinese and American chestnut are crossed and then their offspring are crossed back to the American chestnut for several generations in a row. It's slow work but has finally produced a resistant chestnut that is 15/16th's American chestnut and 1/16 Chinese chestnut. If there was AKC registration for trees it wouldn't make it but it's close.

The latest greatest news is that a genetically engineered chestnut has been developed. I can see you're thinking now, "OMG a Frankenchestnut!" But hear this out. The chestnut contains 40,000 genes. Geneticists have discovered one gene from the wheat plant that produces an enzyme which detoxifies the blight fungus. Gene spliced trees are 99.999% original American chestnut. and if you're still leery, remember that genetic engineering is happening all the time in nature. It's called evolution and it results in gene mutation (different genes) often much more profound than 1 gene out of 40,000. Hybridization leads to more gene manipulation with less control than genetic engineering

Not only are GMO chestnuts so close to being the original in genetic makeup but before these trees are even made available to the public they must stand the scrutiny of the USDA, EPA and FDA approval processes. This will be the first tree approved for genetic manipulation. When you consider all the other huge threats we have to our rural and urban forest such as Dutch Elm disease, Asian longhorned beetle, oak wilt disease, pine beetle and on and on, maybe this is a ray of hope. In a new world where biological threats can't be contained by distances it's time for a new approach to saving the old.

Several thousand hybrid trees have been replanted in the wild, but that's a long way from 4 billion. I hope to live to see Frankenchestnut emerge from the lab to the marketplace . I'll be the first to toddle out and plant one.


Dec 19, 2016: I've just finished a fascinating book, called "The Hidden Life of Trees: What They Feel, How They Communicate" written by Peter Wohlleben, a German forester. He takes some of the latest scientific research on plant communication and delivers it in a very understandable and easily readable fashion. One of the areas of research that was new to me and utterly mindboggling was that plants (or at least some of them) have to ability to taste. And that their taste palettes may be able to discern between the "saliva" of the different insect herbivores that are eating them.

It's been know for a couple of decades that plants have a very complex defense communication system. We know that some trees, such as acacia, will emit a phytochemical (plant chemical) into the air that warns other acacias that there are predators about feeding on their leaves. Other acacias then have time to prepared toxic, bitter substances in their leaves that deter feeding. One of the biggest herbivore threats to acacia in Africa is the giraffe and in the eons old battle between predator and prey, the giraffe has learned after feeding on one acacia to either move upwind of their last target or at least 100 meters away. The defense aroma can't tip off those unsuspecting acacias.

What's more recent is that botanists, or more specifically chemical ecologists, believe that some plants may be able to identify who is attacking them. There are two possible ways they may do that. By recognizing the saliva of the herbivorous insect or by recognizing the vibration patterns of the leaf munching of that insect. Why does a plant care what's feeding on it? This is what is truly evolutionary genius.

The acacia I mentioned above doesn't distinguish between whether it's a giraffe or whether it's a caterpillar. It's reaction and those of its buddies close enough to "smell" is to produce bitter toxins in their leaves. That requires a fair bit of energy to do on the part of the plant. What if a plant could instead enlist others to protect it? Maybe other insects that will feed on the insects that are feeding on them?

That's what some elms and pines . . . and brussel sprouts do. They are able to detect the species that isSawfly parasitic waspSawfly parasitic wasp feeding on them and then secrete a fragrance that attracts a tiny parasitic wasp that then attacks the attackers. The parasite - host relationship is very species specific, so the leaves must produce a very specific fragrance that only attracts the specific parasitic wasp for that attacker. If another species attacks then it has got to produce a different fragrance to attract a different beneficial parasite or predator. The advantage is that the plant is not taking up a lot its time and energy building up defensive chemicals in it's leaves. The disadvantage is that there are a limited number of fragrance options. Over evolutionary time the fragrance palette develop to the most commonly occurring attacking species. Get a new species in the area or environmental pressures cause a minor pest to become a major pest and there's no alarm fragrance for it.

Again, for every plant defense strategy its predators try to develop a counter strategy and it's been found that some species of caterpillars secrete a enzyme inhibitor when feeding that masks the true nature of its saliva. Copenhagen for insects.

For more detailed information, I highly recommend ( and I absolutely love the title of this article!) '"The Silent Scream of the Lima Bean" from the Max Planck Institute of Chemical Ecology. Google it.
As with all good research the attempts to unravel mysteries lead to the exhumation of many more. For instance, if plants can taste the saliva of different predators does that mean they have a memory? Don't ask me. To quote the Great Bard, "There are more things in heaven and earth, Horatio, than are dreamt of in your philosophy."

And hey, the next time your kid turns up their nose when you serve them brussel sprouts . . . there might just be a perfectly good phytochemical reason.


Nov. 30, 2016: I was originally going to write on garden statuary but, when looking at its breadth and diversity, I realized that within the space of a blog it's a bit like covering the history of the Roman Empire on the back of a postcard. Instead I will focus my efforts on two iconic lawn statues , the first and the focus of this article is the lawn jockey.

Jocko modelJocko modelNo lawn statuary has ever generated the strong emotions that the lawn jockey has. Many consider it to be overtly racist. I will leave that judgment to you, gentle reader, and will focus on how the lawn jockey came to be. Unlike the pink flamingo, there is no exact date of when the jockey came into existence. It's past is shrouded in myth. One of the most enduring myths is that the lawn jockey was first erected by George Washington at Mount Vernon.

The legend of Jocko goes something like this. When George Washington was crossing Delaware to attack the British at Trenton, he had a young black horse groom by the name of Jocko whom Washington had told to stay behind and take care of the horses. Jocko wanted to come but George said he was too Chinaman Jockey 1910Chinaman Jockey 1910young. It was very cold that night and Jocko froze to death while holding the horses. GW was so distraught that he erected a statute of Jocko at his homestead and named it 'The Faithful Groomsman". It's a pretty touching story however there is no written evidence from Mt Vernon or anyone visiting it that such a statue existed. Maybe it was hidden away behind that cherry tree.

Another legend has the lawn jockey adorning residences just prior to the Civil War. Some lawn jockey owners that were part of the Underground Railroad, helping slaves to escape to the North, would tie a red ribbon on the arm of the jockey to indicate it wasn't safe to approach the house and a green ribbon to say it was safe. Again, no historical evidence exists to support this legend either.

Cavalier modelCavalier modelLawn jockey historians (yes there are some! A great site for further edification is ) somewhat concur that sometime during or shortly after the Civil War the first documented lawn jockeys appeared. There were several models of lawn jockeys but the most prevalent were the Jocko model and, in the 1940's, a Caucasian version called the Cavalier. There was once even a Chinaman version. Legend has it that a Chinaman accidently blew himself up while making gunpowder for George Washington's army and a distraught Washington . . . .actually I just made that up, but I think it has the bones of a good legend, don't you?

You can still buy both the Jocko or the Cavalier models today either in aluminum or concrete. Older cast iron models can go for thousands of dollars.

I myself do not own a lawn jockey but I believe it's time for a new lawn jockey. One without the taint of racial or ethnic bigotry. One that holds forth the lamp of progress while at the same time hearkening back to a more simpleton era when America was great. And so, I am developing my own new lawn jockey I call the Billionaire model.

Die makers, here's your chance to get in on the ground floor of America's newest and greatest phase of lawn statuary. Billions await!

Billionaire modelBillionaire model


Nov. 15, 2016: There are so many things when it comes to kitsch on sticks, I don't know where to begin. I'm thinking it'd be a book instead of a blog. But I've got to start somewhere and to me, there is no better place than the quintessential kitsch on a stick - the bottle tree.

Take a small dead tree, cut off the branches leaving 6-12" long stubs and jam bottles on those stubs and you've got a bottle tree. If you're handy with a welding torch you can make some fancy and realistic looking bottle trees with rebar. You can even buy premade or DIY kits for bottle trees. Colored glass wine bottles look best and it's also best to take the labels off. Otherwise people might mistake you for a drunk who can't recycle rather than the chic artist that you are.

I can't recall seeing a bottle tree in the Pacific Northwest but I have seen plenty in the Southeast. The bottle tree concept came to the Southeast with African slaves. I would often times see them at the rural homes of older African Americans in the South Carolina Lowcountry.

The bottle tree did not originate as a landscape design feature. It was employed as evil spirit defense. Evil spirits could be enticed into the colorful glass bottles (usually at night, when evil spirits are about) and then could not find their way out again. When the sun came up in the morning, it would then cook and kill the spirits, kind of like my yellowjacket trap on the porch. Cobalt blue bottles are reputed to be the best at catching spirits.

There is even an outdoor bottle tree museum located in the desert outside of Barstow, California called Bob's Bottle Tree Ranch. I've not been there, but it's on my bucket list. So when it comes to evil spirits in the garden, let's be frank - you got them, I got them, we all got them. What's it going to hurt to try a bottle tree. It'll be a great conversation piece plus save you all the embarrassment of sticking your recycle bin out on the curb filled to the brim with wine bottles.

At some point, when kitsch becomes camp is it still kitsch? Not in my opinion and nothing is more campier kitsch than pink flamingos. First produced in 1957 by Union Products it marked the beginning of plastic lawn ornaments. Back then, there was a certain utility behind the tackiness. In a time of Levittown like subdivisions where all the houses looked the same, you might just be able to differentiate your home from the neighbors by the pink flamingos in the yard particularly after the office Christmas party.

Like much lawn art, pink flamingos faded in popularity until Sears, the major vendor of them discontinued sales in 1971. But then, like a phoenix rising, they were rediscovered by the baby boomers as a symbol of non-conformist rebellion. Pink flamingos began sprouting back up again as statement of chic bad taste. Flamingos became campy birthday and wedding gifts. They began showing up in art museums and galleries. They showed up at campsites! Just go to any Airstream camper gathering and I guarantee you'll find an armada of flamingoes. There is even a fundraising company that will "flamingo flock" a lucky neighbor for your charity. Evidently friends can choose another friend and buy a flock of plastic flamingos that they will secretly, at night, festoon their friend's (the victim) lawn with and the victim must then pay a daily ransom until they are removed. It's called "flocking a friend".

Pink flamingos are not native to the Pacific Northwest nor should they be when it comes to lawn ornaments. When it comes to Pacific Northwest lawn ornaments you can't get much local than the Garden Yeti (Sasquatch). From 2' to a lifesize 6' tall this hand painted all-weather plastic lawn ornament starts at only $117 and is available from most Bigfoot product vendors. Nothing says Northwest kitsch and you can always paint it pink, if you've a mind to.

There is so much more garden stuff on sticks I'd loved to cover such as Granny Fannies, Curious Squirrel, and my personal favorite and creation Edvard Munch's The Scream on a stick (Special web price: $1199.00). I'll just have to save it for the book.
Edvard Munch's Scream-on-a-Stick, $1199.00 website specialEdvard Munch's Scream-on-a-Stick, $1199.00 website special


Oct 16, 2016: It's the morning after a big storm here in NW Oregon. This early in the fall and with many of the deciduous trees still in leaf, there's going to be a lot of downed trees and branches. If you're one of the hapless souls in Oregon that has had tree damage in your yard, you may be looking for emergency tree work.

A WORD OF CAUTION, only hire LICENSED tree services. Major storms not only mean lots of work for tree companies but it also spawns a small host of what I call "pirates with chainsaws' that troll storm damaged communities looking to stop and offer their services. It's often a "great deal" they're offering because they just so happen to be in your area doing other work.

So why is it important to hire a licensed company in Oregon? By "licensed" I mean a company that shows a license number on their truck with the prefix "CCB" or "LCB". Those prefixes stand for Construction Contractor's Board and Landscape Contractor's Board respectively. Companies licensed by one of the two agencies are required to post their number on all their advertising (truck, business cards, ads, etc) and to be licensed they must annually post a bond and show proof of current liability and worker's compensation insurance. It is illegal in the State of Oregon to perform tree work (unless its logging) without licensing.

Now before you get your libertarian hackles up about yet more government interference with the free enterprise system, let me tell you that licensing is in place to protect the consumer. Since a company is required to post a bond, it means that if you have a claim against that company for negligent or non-performance or breach of contract, you can submit a claim to their licensing agency and it will be reviewed by a board and, if the claim is warranted, monetary damages from their bond is awarded. The claims process is a free service to consumers (paid for by licensee fees). Without it you would be forced to go to court, which we all know is not a free process.

The fact that all licensed companies must have liability insurance means that if a tree company is trying to get a tree off your roof and drops a chunk of wood through the window of your Porsche or Yugo, then the insurance will cover the damage.

All licensed companies must have worker's compensation, the insurance that covers workers injured on the job site, which might be your yard at the time. Worker's injured without worker's comp in your yard can sue you, the homeowner, for their medical bills and any subsequent support. You may end up selling your home to pay for the care of a pirate without a chainsaw in a wheelchair.

If you google Oregon CCB or Oregon LCB, their websites have license search pages by which you can search for licensed companies or if a company is licensed. Most tree services are licensed with the CCB, a few with the LCB. A note: CCB licensed companies can do everything when it comes to trees except plant trees. LCB licensed companies can do everything. But when you're tree is resting upside your house, you're probably not thinking of planting right away.

Now you know the difference between licensed tree companies and the unlicensed pirates. If you choose the pirate, beware the financial plank you walk.

F & P