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Nature vs Nurture - Tree Life & Longevity

Updated: Nov 21, 2019

Written by: Certified Arborist August Hoppe WI-0477A

A mighty oak tree may live 350 years, while an aspen reaches old age at 35 years.  Some shrubs like yew bushes can grow and thrive for 65 years while other bushes like purple leaf sandcherries are lucky to reach 10 years of age.  As you can imagine, there are a myriad of reasons why some trees live longer than others.  Here we will dive into a couple of the factors that influence longevity in trees, some factors are controllable, while others are built into the genetic fabric of the plant and can’t be influenced. 

Genetics (Nature)

Trees and shrubs are not all built the same.  Some species grow rapidly, putting their energy into getting established quickly and putting on fast growth.  As a rule of thumb these species have shorter lifespans and thinner fiber cell walls.  Thus they have a lower wood density and less strength than harder wooded species.  Lower wood density means weaker wood, making limb breakage more likely in storms and high winds.  Decay and rot can set in and move relatively quickly thru these fast growing trees.  This can spell trouble for the tree, causing decline or making it more inviting for insects or disease to finish the tree off.  Some of our fast growing trees with lower density and weaker wood include: poplars, willow, and box elders.  When a storm blows through town, these are the most common trees that fail and one ones that our chain saws and wood chippers are most likely to encounter. 

Longer lived trees allocate more resources into developing dense wood fibers, rather than rapid growth.  When planted, these trees typically take a longer time to get established and often you wonder if they will ever start growing.  Eventually they do, and often as the saying goes, “It’s  worth the wait”.  Trees such as oaks and gingko’s are prime examples of slower growing trees that have longevity.  It’s rare to see these trees fail in storms and they are largely resistant to decay and insect damage. 

Proper Care (Nurture)

Lots of things that we do to trees can influence their longevity, for better or worse.   It starts with planting.  Picking the proper place is just as important as how the tree is planted.  So often we see trees that need well drained areas planted in wet locations.  Planting at the proper depth and removal of wire baskets and strings holding the root ball together is equally important.  Pruning is a big factor in a trees lifespan as well.  Proper pruning can make a tree live longer, while improper pruning can shorten the life of a tree.   Grade changes and soil compaction largely can go unnoticed to the casual eye, but over time can severely stress the health of a tree by weakening it’s root system. 

Trees are a long term investment.  Picking the right tree and practicing proper care will influence the lifespan of trees in a positive way.  Hoppe Tree Service performs both planting and tree care.  Our arborists can advise you on the best species for your situation along with aiding in proper care throughout the lifespan of the tree. 

- Originally posted 23 Jan 2017

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