When the call came in that a spruce tree was ailing in a way that baffled the local nursery, I was intrigued. Garden center staff see a lot of strange plant things, and in order to stump them, the problem is usually a puzzler.
Any time a tree behaves badly I rush out to see it, like an ambulance chaser following a crew armed with chainsaws and chippers. To avoid the disappointment of arriving to find the tree is normal, I’ve learned to ask for a description of the problem over the phone first.
“It defies description,” said the kind man on the other end of the line, “I honestly don’t know where to begin.” Now, normally people have no trouble putting their plant’s distress into words, usually relying on such phrases as “bugs are eating my tree,” “weird oozing,” or the popular “I just woke up this morning and it was dead.”
Here was a man who was speechless to describe it, and because he was referred to me by the nurseryman, I drove over.
That nurseryman was right; one had to see this to believe it. Under a mature spruce tree, thousands of small twigs littered the ground, falling from a tree towering more than 30-feet tall. They were short tips of the branches, still green and succulent with life, covering the ground and lower branches.
The rain of twigs had been happening since mid-December, and to keep up with it, the couple had been sweeping up the twigs, collecting bushels full to take to the tree mulching yard.
I did the reconnaissance a tree diagnostician should do when coming upon a new patient – stood back and looked at the tree. There were no obvious signs of stress – it looked healthy, top to bottom. Stepping closer, the twigs scattered across the ground showed no signs of insects or disease. But there was one, odd thing: A pattern to the cut ends. They were all clipped at an angle.
I’d seen this before, just not on such a large scale. That angle was familiar, and slowly my eyes lifted to the fence line, upon which two squirrels were sitting and giving me the stink eye. “You’ve got squirrels,” I said, “nipping your branches.”
Squirrels will do this, in winter or spring when food is hard to find. They also do it at random times of the summer too, for no apparent reason. Some foresters have suggested boredom. And because the squirrels aren’t stripping the bark or eating the wood, I believe them.
There’s nothing to be done to stop the problem, but the good news it that the tree will be fine. Although the damage seems alarming, a healthy tree can take a bit of twig loss. If you find your tree suddenly losing its tips, check the discards closely for the tell-tale angled cut; if you find it, you’ll know it’s those squirrels, and not a disease.
This post was previously published in the Longmont Ledger.
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