History of Tree Shaping

Tree shaping (also known by several other alternative names) uses living trees and other woody plants as the medium to create structures and art. There are a few different methods used by the various artists to shape their trees, which share a common heritage with other artistic horticultural and agricultural practices, such as pleaching, bonsai, espalier, and topiary, and employing some similar techniques. Most artists use grafting to deliberately induce the inosculation of living trunks, branches, and roots, into artistic designs or functional structures.

Tree shaping has been practiced for at least several hundred years, as demonstrated by the living root bridges built and maintained by the Khasi people of India. Early 20th-century practitioners and artisans included banker John Krubsack, Axel Erlandson with his famous circus trees, and landscape engineer Arthur Wiechula. Several contemporary designers also produce tree-shaping projects.

Some species of trees exhibit a botanical phenomenon known as inosculation (or self-grafting); whether among parts of a single tree or between two or more individual specimens of the same (or very similar) species. Trees exhibiting this behavior are called inosculate trees.

The living root bridges of Cherrapunji, Laitkynsew, and Nongriat, in the present-day Meghalaya state of northeast India are examples of tree shaping. These suspension bridges are handmade from the aerial roots of living banyan fig trees, such as the rubber tree. The pliable tree roots are gradually shaped to grow across a gap, weaving in sticks, stones, and other inclusions, until they take root on the other side. This process can take up to fifteen years to complete. There are specimens spanning over 100 feet, some can hold up to the weight of 50 people. The useful lifespan of the bridges, once complete, is thought to be 500–600 years. They are naturally self-renewing and self-strengthening as the component roots grow thicker.

Living trees were used to create garden houses in the Middle East, a practice which later spread to Europe. In Cobham, Kent there are accounts of a three-story house that could hold 50 people.

Pleaching is a technique used in the very old horticultural practice of hedge laying. Pleaching consists of first plashing living branches and twigs and then weaving them together to promote their inosculation. It is most commonly used to train trees into raised hedges, though other shapes are easily developed. Useful implementations include fences, lattices, roofs, and walls. Some of the outcomes of pleaching can be considered an early form of what is known today as tree shaping. In an early, labor-intensive, practical use of pleaching in medieval Europe, trees were installed in the ground in parallel hedgerow lines or quincunx patterns, then shaped by trimming to form a flat-plane grid above ground level. When the trees' branches in this grid met those of neighboring trees, they were grafted together. Once the network of joints were of substantial size, builders laid planks across the grid, upon which they built huts to live in, thus keeping the human settlement safe in times of annual flooding. Wooden dancing platforms were also built and the living tree branch grid bore the weight of the platform and dancers.

In late medieval European gardens through the 18th century, pleached allées, interwoven canopies of tree-lined garden avenues, were common.

Content source: Wikipedia

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