Ed Glassman
Ed Glassman

My Favorite North Carolina Giant ‘Bonzai’ Trees

Gnarled and grotesque Longleaf pine trees grow along a road near my home in North Carolina. When I first saw these awesome sculptures that nature designed, I had a momentary feeling that I stumbled upon the evil witch’s forest in the 1939 movie,“The Wizard of Oz.” They looked that out-of-this-world.

About 15 trees strung along that road looked like a nightmare: swirls of thick, leaf-free branches flowed upward into a tangled mass, the dark brown bark occasionally creating a monster, disturbing and beautiful at the same time. I half expected them to throw pine cones at me, or at least apples as in the Oz movie.

I later saw other pine trees with varying degrees of distortion, and some incredibly gnarled pines elsewhere in our town.

I wonder why they grow that way. What forces manufactured such misshapen trees, haunting reminders of Halloween?

I guessed these trees were forged many years ago when workers cut the tree’s top, probably when installing power lines. With the growing point of the tree gone or harmed, new branches competed to become the leader, growing upwards over the years, thickening, sometimes wilting when a more dominant branch achieves leadership and becomes the growing point.

Nature can, on occasion, react strangely around humans, and alas, these sculpted trees suffer that destiny, growing fiercely toward their twisted fate, surviving grimly.

Scott Hartley, now a retired Park Superintendent, knows a lot about the Longleaf Pine trees that cover the several hundred acres of the North Carolina State Park he once monitored.

So when I wanted expert information about the numerous gnarled and grotesque Longleaf pine trees, I invited then Superintendent Hartley to join me on a car ride through the area where these astonishing afflicted trees reside.

Not all the trees exhibit the same deformity, and I pointed out to Superintendent Hartley the various shapes I had previously observed as we drove along. For example:

The hundreds of stunted trees with thick branches and a bushy crown 20 feet high, instead of the tall, sleek trees with thin branches and a lean crown about 70-75 feet high, the hallmark of the Longleaf Pine.

And the trees that look almost normal, except that they have a thick mess of branches growing halfway up the trunk, like a ballerina’s tutu.

Or the 20 or so enthralling, grotesque trees, tall trees deformed with misshapen trunks, thickening, then thinning, distorted about 8-10 feet from the ground, sometimes flattened with donut-like holes, unbelievable, mind riveting pine tree horrors.

I also showed him my favorite distorted tree (now cut down by developers), a unique, plucky, lone Longleaf pine that had a normal trunk until about twenty feet from the ground where many short branches united to form a bushy crown. From the top of this crown, pushing for survival, grew a straight, thin, heroic, erect branch about 8-10 feet tall, growing out of the crown below.

So how did these shapes form? The answer, according to Superintendent Hartley: if you harm or destroy its growing tip, a deformed pine tree results. So my guess was correct.

Superintendent Hartley told me that the damage probably occurred when workers trimmed the top of the pine trees when installing power lines long ago. Indeed, almost all, if not all the deformed trees grow under a power line. Other possibilities include damage to the growing point by ice accumulation, insects, fungus infection, storms, viruses, defective genes, nutrition, etc.

An active growing point produces a plant hormone that inhibits other growing points in the tree. As a result, the tree grows straight and tall. If the dominant growing point is damaged, one or more other branch tips will assert dominance and grow straight up. Often many branches will exhibit fast vertical growth after the removal of growing point, leading to a bushy crown in these Longleaf pines; the outcome over the years may result in a deliciously deformed tree.

When gardeners trim a plant, they remove the plant’s growing point(s). With the growing point gone, previously inactive growing points on the trunk or stem start growing, and the plant grows bushy. Trimmed pine trees react in the same way and can develop several or more trunks.

Japanese miniature trees, ‘bonzai,’ grown in a pot and trimmed to prevent it from reaching normal size, depend on this process. Despite being decades old, by snipping and trimming, Japanese experts keep ordinary large trees about 1-3 feet high. Those deformed Longleaf Pine trees look like giant ‘bonzai’ trees.

While driving back from our tour, I ventured a guess that we had seen about 200 abnormal trees. Superintendent Hartly disagreed. “We probably saw 1,000 deformed trees,” he said. Superintendent Hartly told me that he knows of no other place with such a large concentration of these deformed trees. Here and there, one or more distorted trees might exist, but nowhere in such numbers.

Superintendent Hartly continued: “It will be interesting to see what happens to these trees over time… They are doing all right now… They are pretty crowded, they have been cut, but obviously not stressed enough to get beetles in them.”

What to do with all these bizarrely beautiful pine trees? Let’s not cut them down. A rare resource and a fascinating treasure, they have a bizarre beauty rarely found elsewhere in nature. They could be used during educational trips in our schools. They could shed light on the shaping processes during the growth of pine trees. In addition, like all trees, they clean the air, take in and store carbon dioxide, and produce useful oxygen.

Ed Glassman is a retired professor from the University Of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, North Carolina, and a former columnist for the Chapel Hill Herald and the (Raleigh, North Carolina) Triangle Business Journal.

About the Author
Ed Glassman, Ph.D., is professor emeritus and former head of the "Program for Team Effectiveness and Creativity," in the medical school of the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. He was also a visiting fellow at the Center for Creative Leadership in Greensboro, North Carolina.