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The Art of Tree Shaping

In Wirksworth, England, chairs grow out of the ground in neat rows. This isn’t some kind of kitschy art installation—these “chairs” are live willow trees. Over the next few years, they’ll be carefully tended and shaped by the workers of Full Grown, the only company in the world using the art of tree shaping to cultivate harvestable furniture.

By definition, tree shaping uses live trees and woody plants to create structures and sculptures. It’s been practiced for hundreds of years, but that doesn’t mean you’ll be able to find a tree shaping class at your local rec center. For the most part, this art form has largely been practiced in small pockets of the world.

In Meghalaya, a state in northeast India blanketed by tropical rainforests, the Khasi people braid bridges with the aerial roots of the rubber tree fig (or ficus elastica). The area is one of the wettest in the world, and its many rivers and frequent flooding mean that their bridges need to be able to handle a lot.

These living bridges can span over 100 feet and hold up to 50 people at once. The process takes around 15 years to form a usable bridge, but instead of weakening with age, these grow stronger. Indeed, many are already over 100 years old.

Tree shaping has been used for more than just practical ends. In the 1920s Axel Erlandson, a Swedish immigrant who owned a small farm in California, took up the hobby after coming across a case of natural grafting. Over several decades by trial and error, he became adept at growing trees in fantastic, sculptural shapes like ladders, double helixes, and cubes.
In 1945, his family convinced him to open a roadside attraction featuring his creations. It was called the Tree Circus, and though it was never particularly successful, Erlandson’s trees were unique enough to catch the eye of Robert Ripley, creator of Ripley’s Believe It or Not. They appeared in the original newspaper column 12 times.

Erlandson died before teaching anyone else his techniques, and when asked how he got the trees to grow like that, he tended to reply, “I talk to them.”

His techniques aren’t quite such a mystery anymore. Whether the end product takes the form of a chair, a bridge, or something more abstract, tree shaping starts in more or less the same way. Only new growth is pliable enough for the methods required, so tree shapers typically start with seedlings.

An important technique early on is framing the young trees with guides, stakes, forms, and ties made of all manner of materials, ensuring that the plant grows in the shape you need. Living root bridges, for instance, are made using hollowed-out logs to guide and direct roots in the early stages of the process. Grafting is another indispensable technique. This involves cutting a branch or stem and adding another, which is then held in place until the connection becomes

permanent. Erlandson’s famous “basket tree” (pictured at right) is really 6 separate sycamore trees grafted together in a latticework tube. As the tree grows, careful and selective pruning helps control and direct growth.

Though arborsculpture has remained something of a novelty and likely always will, modern growers are keeping this art alive. Increased environmental awareness over the last 50 years has created the perfect environment for artists and designers to start reconsidering the way we create our objects.

Artists Peter Cook and Becky Northey of Australia have been experimenting with tables, chairs, mirrors, and sculptures since the 90’s, while British furniture designer Christopher Cattle has perfected a technique for growing stools.

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