Burls (or burrs in the U.K.) are fascinating works of nature.
In nature, beauty is indeed in the eye of the beholder; some prize a perfect floral specimen, in the Japanese garden, age is the ideal, but for many, beauty is found in the imperfect. When a plant takes twists and turns, fascination abounds. Curly plants like corkscrew rush, contorted filbert and corkscrew willow add whimsical beauty to the landscape, but those traits are normal for the plant.
Beauty is also found in the abnormal. A perfect example of such an oddity is the burl. A burl is an abnormal growth on a tree’s exterior. Burls are found on trunks and branches as well as at the root crown and elicit incredulous exclamations from nature lovers around the world.
Burls are formed when bud growth cells develop abnormally. These dormant bud cells deviate by dividing in many directions to create the spherical shape rather than a limb as was intended. Unlike galls, which form along twigs and leaves, burls develop on trunks and major branches. Because they are a part of the tree itself, growth occurs at the same rate. Bark on the burl often appears coarser than the rest of the tree. Inside a burl the grain is twisted and more compact, thereby producing a harder wood. Occasionally a dormant bud will become active and sprout from the burl itself. Questioning the stimulus of this abnormality will produce many opinions. The United States Department of Agriculture Forest Service reports “Although some stem swellings are the result of pathogens, often the cause of burls is unknown.” Many believe that the abnormal behavior may originate from bacteria, fungi, virus, mechanical wounds, fire damage or a combination of factors.
A tree with a burl formation is not in harm’s way; therefore removal of the burl is not necessary. Attempting to remove a burl can cause more harm than good.
Redwood trees are famous for basal burls, or lignotubers, which serve to generate new trees. Lignotubers form on seedlings and continue to grow with the tree. These formations famously send off new tree sprouts with the swelling is damaged or when the tree dies. The new sprout is a generic copy, or clone of the original. As with other trees, removing a burl from a redwood tree can cause its death. Redwood burls found for sale are cut from privately owned lands in California or found after spring floods. It is illegal to harvest burls in Redwood Natural and State Parks.
Burls are prized for their complex and beautifully patterned wood. You may see solid burls used as table tops or bases, boxes, or simply as artistic pieces. Burl blanks are turned into vases, bowls, pens, peppermills and the like. As the name suggests, burl caps are the outer surface of the burl, or the cap. These caps are often made into bowls or vases, leaving the natural edge of the wood for artisitc effect. Many burls are sliced into thin veneers and applied to other wood or wood composites to create a more affordable piece.
While finshed burl wood is quite beautiful, I can't rate them above the natural beauty of one on a tree. The quirkiness of the growth is pure fascination and I never miss the opportunity to photograph a tree with this gnarly growth.
Burlman's One of a Kind
Glen with his giant maple burl
Sanded and polished, the birdseye pattern is exposed
They grow them big in Candada, eh? Glen McLeod's 6000-pound maple basal burl would be proof of such a claim. Glen (Dave's Garden member 'burlman') was lucky to have this burl growing in his front yard. He was even more fortunate to own a backhoe business! When the maple tree died, Glen began excavating the burl. After three weeks of hand digging, Glen severed the roots with a chainsaw and lifted the burl from the ground with his backhoe. After the burl was moved to the back of the yard, Glen began the arduous task of sanding the outer surface. The circumference measures 30 feet and is covered with birdseye, a tight pattern resembling eyes. Later with the help of a friend, Glen would build a shack to protect his treasure. Glen continued to sand and cure the burl to properly preserve it. His goal is to have the burl complete by the 2010 Olympics in Vancouver, where he'd like to display it. Glen has no intention of selling the burl, saying "I've had a lot of people suggest selling it to a veneer manufacturer. It would probably bring in the most money and be the easiest thing to do. But, to me this burl is about a lot more than money. I spend every spare moment of my life in the burl shack, polishing, sanding, and just admiring the natural beauty." Because so many people are interested in this burl, Glen sees great charity fundraising opportunities, and THAT is just another beautiful thing in Glen's life.
I am one of those fortunate individuals who grew up on rural land that has been in my family for decades. My parents and grandparents were avid gardeners who gladly shared their love of gardening with me. Today I enjoy a small yard in town with my husband, two dogs and a cat who is in charge of us all.