Take a drive through just about any in-town neighborhood or backroad in the county, and you’ll find plenty of stunted trees — if you can even call them trees — that have fallen victim to the cut.
In winter, barren of their leaves, they look like work of a lazy arborist who walked away before the job was done. In summer, they bloom like green mushrooms. But there is no escaping them.
“I really don’t know how it got into Haywood County like it did,” said Josh Landt, a Waynesville arborist. “You see it in every town but not like this. It’s out of control.”
Despite all the fun nicknames and colloquial terms to pick from when describing a tree that has been relieved of its top, Landt simply calls it “the malpractice.”
There’s a few theories behind it. The practice could be an attempt to protect houses from dangerous limbs. Or perhaps homeowners think they’re saving future trimming work and leaf raking by cutting the branches back to the nubs.
But the subsequent, unorganized growth that shoots up from the leftover trunk is weakly attached and more likely to break off in high winds. And, new branches actually grow more rapidly than the original set of limbs would, creating even more trimming work in the future, Landt said.
The arborist handbook advises against trimming any more than 25 percent of a trees’ canopy in a given year. That rule of thumb is typically used for small trees, which are more malleable. Most local butcher jobs go far beyond that guideline.
“They’ve just left a tall stump,” Landt said. “It’s a horrible thing.”
Landt has fought against the grain, refusing to perform the popular tree trim; advising homeowners against it with threats of property value decline; writing letters to the editor; and placing educational posters about proper tree trimming techniques at the Waynesville library — but to no end.
“It is established here, and well,” said Landt.
Theories abound as to where the practice came from. Many blame power company workers who haphazardly reduced any tree within limbs’ reach of their lines. In turn, the look became the default cut of property owners trimming their own trees.
Some say that it opens up the view of the mountains and makes the grass grow greener underneath.
Others say the local tradition traces its roots back settler times when tree limbs were hacked back to the base of their limbs to shock the tree into sprouting throngs of new branches, which were cut and used for everything from making broom handles to kindling to livestock feed.
One Hazelwood resident, a neighborhood where the trimming practice has a noticeably firm hold, has her trees cut for practical reasons. In the front yard, she trims them every seven or eight years to keep branches away from incoming utility lines leading to her house. The ones out back, she cuts even closer to the trunk to protect her house, she said.
“Some of the limbs were touching the roof of my house,” said Mazie Gerringer. “And that’s not good news.”
Yet, despite living in Hazelwood for more than 30 years, Gerringer had no good grasp on where the practice originated. All she knew was her husband did it.
And the cost of a “Hazelwood haircut” — another one of the local nomenclatures — runs more than your average shave and a haircut. Charlie Deaver of Deaver’s Tree Service, charges between $300 to $400 per tree for the equivalent of the military buzz.
He said his business gets all sorts of requests for the service, and unlike Landt, he obliges, although he knows it’s not the best for the tree.
“I try to talk my customers into better options if I can,” Deaver said. “But sometimes it’s one of those things where they want that done and if you won’t they’ll get somebody else to do it.”
Maple trees tend to be the most common casualties because of their resiliency to such treatment. Other species, like oak, are more likely to die at the hand of such trauma. Many of the folks asking for the cut are worried about damage to their houses from falling limbs. Deaver said his grandmother, who lives in Waynesville, has two trees of her own that he cuts back for her every year to keep them out of the power lines above.
But some horticulturalists are having difficulty coming to terms with the frightening reality that some people actually do just like the look. That notion gives Tim Matthews, a horticultural extension agent with the Haywood County Cooperative Extension, something to scratch his head about.
“I’ve seen trees out in the middle of someone’s yard, 60 to 70 feet from someone’s house, and they do it,” he said. “I’m like, ‘Why in the world would they do that?’”
Some landowners try to pass off the tree topping as the careful craft of pollarding, which strategically stunts tree growth for either practical or ornamental ends and requires constant attention. Some say the look emulates the manicured trees edging European parks and boulevards.
But Matthews said he’s not buying that.
“I don’t see anything ornamental about it,” he said. “I don’t even want to call it pruning ‘cause it’s not.”
Decades of mutilation is beginning to take a toll on the county. As a traveling extension agent, Matthews also has noticed the topping problem is far more widespread than many believe. He has put on tree trimming workshops and disseminated literature on proper practices. Yet, a row of trees in front of his own house in Canton was recently chopped down with a fresh, spring bob. All he can do is look on in disapproval.
“It’s a challenge to try to find a tree that has not been topped,” Matthews said. “I don’t know what the answer is.”