A new meaning to shade trees

With kicky coats of colorful paint, dying trunks branch out into art.

All gardens, in the grand scheme, are ephemeral, here today, this year or this generation, then gone.

Trees, too, if they haven't been split by lightning, bashed by trash trucks, or bulldozed for houses, have such a cycle. But it's more a slow slipping away, until the signs are too obvious: the craggy features and ghostly arms, the missing leaves and sagging mien.

Homeowners usually worry the tree will fall and hit the house, a car or passersby, so if they have enough spare change on the dresser top, they have it taken down. Depending on the tree's size, that can take a few hundred dollars, or $12,000, or more.

Perhaps it's no accident that artists and sculptors, photographers and poets see beauty in a tree's decay and death.

Patty Redenbaugh designs gardens for a living and has a similar sensibility. She lives in Upper Roxborough, a city neighborhood you might not associate with "country setting," or think is isolated enough that you needn't worry about a dead tree's falling on anything.

But her house sits on an overlook, surrounded by the Schuylkill Center for Environmental Education's acreage. There's no one around. Sure feels like country.

And there, along her driveway, is a decaying Scots pine about 30 feet tall, cones still hanging on. It's painted an eerie white, with a slight green tint, from top to bottom.

This was no easy task. The crew that usually helps Redenbaugh make pretty gardens for clients had to be convinced that it was perfectly reasonable to be asked to build scaffolding atop her red pickup and then spray the dead Pinus sylvestris with paint.

She still thinks they think she's crazy. But they did it.

The job took two guys two days and four gallons of water-based latex exterior primer paint, the kind that has a gluelike texture and would definitely stick.

"It's absolutely gorgeous," Redenbaugh says, and on this warm Indian summer morning, it is - tall, spectrally white with the faintest green blush, lording it over brown fields to the rear and a bank of periwinkle-blue Caryopteris in front.

Why white?

Redenbaugh says that when she lived in Center City, she had a beautiful birch tree in her garden. "I really loved seeing the white against the sky," she recalls.

Bronze birch borers eventually killed that tree, leaving Redenbaugh so bereft, she covered its dying trunk with clear polyurethane to preserve it as long as she could. After she moved to Roxborough, this led her to think her dying pine should be white.

Not pink or powder blue, which she considered for a nanosecond. "I got over that right away," she says, mindful of traditional gardens she'd seen in England that were ruined, absolutely ruined, by a clunky modern sculpture in their midst.

"I didn't want to do that to my tree," says Redenbaugh, whose own gardens are richly colorful.

A blue tree graces the Swarthmore College campus, but it's more a royal blue, sprayed on a Chinese maackia (Maackia chinensis) that died two years ago, just before a perennial-plant conference.

Imagine hosting an event for brainy plant types with a dead tree - a rare member of the pea family, no less - smack dab in the center of the leafy campus.

"We didn't have time to cut it down," says Andrew Bunting, curator of the college's Scott Arboretum, who quickly took the suggestion of arboretum director Claire E. Sawyers to paint it. She'd seen something in a British magazine about an apple tree that was painted blue.

So out came the spray paint the day before the conference, a day that was rainy and windy and not the best for being outside, let alone painting there.

Now, when Bunting leads arboretum tours, he always asks people what they think of the blue tree, which is covered by lichens and likely won't last much longer.

"Fifty percent love it and 50 percent hate it," he says. "I really like it."

Four years ago, Ted Weiant chose sky blue for a camellia in his Southern California garden that wasn't dead or dying, but wasn't thriving, either.

"I thought it worked well with the green leaves," he says, "and taking into consideration the color of the flowers - double camellias that are light pink, white and fuchsia - I felt blue would be the right color."

Weiant, a Hollywood landscape designer whose earlier career was as a theater and film producer, has since painted several more camellia trunks blue, a pomegranate tree canary yellow, and five Kadota and mission fig trees the exact green of their leaves.

And guess what: All his painted trees are thriving, he says, producing fruits and flowers where they didn't before. They also show less damage from insects, which, Weiant says, "don't recognize the tree as a food source anymore."

Sometimes, guests are confused, too.

"People come into the yard and feel that something's different. They don't know what," Weiant says, clearly relishing the mystery. "Then, they ask what kind of trees these are.

"When I tell them they're painted, they flip out," he says with a laugh.

Painting trees, especially the dead ones, is like building a sand castle, says Jenny Rose Carey, garden historian and director of the Landscape Arboretum of Temple University Ambler.

"It won't be there forever, and that's part of the fun of it. They're ephemeral structures that give you joy later in the remembering," she says. "You do it for the pleasure of creation."

One of Carey's favorite sculptors is Andy Goldsworthy, a fellow Brit who creates art using natural materials like flowers, icicles, leaves and mud that draw on the essential character of their environment.

Mimicking the harshness of nature, his works eventually decay and die. But, like a painted tree, they can be extraordinary as they go.

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Contact gardening writer Virginia Smith at 215-854-5720 or vsmith@phillynews.com.