(This story, including its headline and photo, is by Tom Bartley)
As a revered town treasure, when the Bedford Oak is ailing it can count on attracting a swarm of tree doctors. But their prescriptions for wellness may sometimes be at odds.
So it was this month, as town officials heard conflicting approaches to treatment—selective pruning vs. an alternative, non-surgical regimen—after the iconic landmark abruptly and without obvious cause lost a limb this summer. In the end, at the town board’s urging, both sides agreed to compare notes with an eye to finding a consensus treatment approach.
The centuries-old white oak, on Route 22 at Hook Road, has inspired folklore of its own, blending fancy and fact. Its age is a matter of conjecture, ranging from a couple of hundred years to 500 or more. It’s stately enough that some residents are said to tip their hats when passing by. And it’s important enough to merit its own line item in each year’s Bedford town budget.
Doug Erickson of SavATree, a national tree-care service with an office in Bedford Hills and a charter to nurture the prized arbor, spoke to the town board at its meeting Tuesday. He said his company’s specialists, using an MRI-like tool, had discovered the onset of rot.
Their multi-step, $6,000 approach to preserving the oak recommended a 10 percent pruning, now and in three years. It also included removing much of the grass that surrounds it, replacing it with hardwood mulch to mimic the biology of a more-natural forest setting.
Erickson acknowledged a “potential risk for another limb failure.” But he said that possibility, while troubling, was “not nearly as great a concern to us . . . as the overall stress of the load on the entire central system of the tree.” The Bedford Oak’s branches, majestically outstretched, span 120 to 130 feet.
“Ultimately, trees this large will start to lose extending limbs,” Erickson said. “We’re suggesting that we do that in a controlled fashion over time, trying to reduce the overall size of that tree so it’s more in line with the capacity to maintain itself.”
But Michael Serio, chairman of the town’s Tree Advisory Board, called surgery “a mistake.” He said the recent mystery limb loss was the result not of decay but a “phenomenon . . . called sudden branch drop.”
“That’s something that . . . may never happen again to a tree,” Serio said. “And it cannot be predicted when it is going to happen. But it usually does occur somewhere out on a branch, [when] the weather is very calm, very humid. Conditions have to be exactly right for it to occur.”
Serio gave board members a letter from the Cornell University Extension Service. In it, Nina Bassuk, director of the Urban Horticultural Center at Cornell, endorsed mulching and narrowly targeted fertilizer. But, like Serio, she opposed any cutting, saying the tree should not be pruned or its branches lopped off.
“Let’s not cut off a leg or an arm,” Serio said, “[when] it might only need a stitch.”
SavATree’s Erickson said, “Look, we don’t really want to do this if we don’t think it’s what’s really needed.”
He suggested that some of his company’s Bedford Oak findings, made possible by a tool called TreeRadar, might persuade Bassuk. “Let’s show her some of this data and see if she says, ‘Wait a minute, given that . . . ’,” Erickson said. “That might actually change her opinion. . . . Let’s try to get everybody on the same page.”