Imagine going into your backyard or patio deck to enjoy the fall colors on the trees and the hint of fall in the air. You and some friends plop down onto a selection of lounge chairs to contemplate the changing seasons. A beautiful piece of furniture that chair. Did you buy it at Wal-Mart or Home Depot? What do you mean you grew it? It’s a tree? That’s a conversation you just might soon have given the increasingly popular hobby of arborsculpture.
The Kellogg Corn Flakes Connection
Years ago, while working at California State Polytechnic University in Pomona, I became interested in the subject of flowers, plants, cultivation and more. As the university’s communications director I had a unique perspective on the subject. Cal Poly Pomona, along with its sister university in San Luis Obispo, annually built their own entry in the New Year’s Day Rose Parade in Pasadena, California. I watched as students grew flowers and plants for the float, built and decorated their often award-winning entry. Being at Cal Poly also educated me about agriculture, since the college was founded by W.K. Kellogg (of corn flakes fame) to further his interest in the subject. I was able to see first hand how plants could be bred for different purposes, including examples of arborsculpture.
What Is it?
So what is arborsculpture, or ‘pooktre’ as it is sometimes called? It’s the method used to grow and shape tree or other plants into useful and practical household or community items, such as chairs, park benches, arbors, etc. You might think of it as something akin to bonsai or other plant pruning art that goes back thousands of years. But, arborsculpture – although it is just as ancient – is a whole lot more. It’s growing popularity as an eco-friendly way of building structures is catching on as a great way to utilize what nature already provides.
Recently researchers in Israel are at the forefront of expanded the use of arborsculpture possibilities. They found that certain species of trees could grow in air (aeroponically) instead of the more traditional way in soil and water. Since trees grown aeroponically don’t harden the researchers discovered they could contour them into shapes of all sorts and purposes. The university researchers even talk about the idea of entire homes being built using arborsculpture.
But the notion of building useable items for your home isn’t dependent on a commercial entity. There are several projects you could easily undertake right now with tools you already have on hand or can easily buy (simple, basic tools would include hand pruners and a pruning saw or shears, while advanced work may need a hedge trimmer, loppers, wood board, pipe, rope, wire, string, tape and other items. It might take a little longer than driving over to your nearest patio furniture store, but the satisfaction you’ll get from creating unique and natural items is worth the wait.
Grow Your Own Chair?
How about growing your own chair? Arborsculpture expert Richard Reams of Williams, Oregon has detailed plans and has posted them on his website, arborsmith.com. His book, Arborsculpture – Solutions for A Small Planet, is a popular read for arborsculpture aficionados. One of his items is a homegrown chair. For this he takes up to 12 flexible saplings and plants them in a pattern. He bends them to form a frame around several metal rods in the shape of a chair. The rods hold the trees in place for a few years until the tree takes the desired shape on their own (along with some pruning).
How about something a little less homebound … like a boat that you can take onto the lake during a leisurely fall afternoon? Yes, a boat. Reams has taken long ash trees that have natural arches at their ends. The ash trees form the bottom of the boat. Then he plants other trees between the “ribs” of the boat formed by the ash trees. Eventually (up to eight years) the “boat” can be harvested, some planking attached and it’s off to the lake.
Other ambitious projects Reams describes are a spiral staircase, an artistic “peace symbol,” decorative willow baskets, and more. The forms that arborsculpture can take are limited only by ones imagination – and of course, time.