Labelling Trees

Labelling Trees

In order to encourage interest by the general public in trees, it is sometimes appropriate to identify them by means of labels, a method often adopted in arboreta. To many people a tree is just that, a tree, – yet how much more interest could be gained by learning some of the rudiments of nomenclature, even if it is only by the common names? In Nailsea we have been trying out various methods for labelling trees, in the knowledge that the labels must be resistant to vandalism and the elements, and to have a reasonable life despite the changing geometry of the tree.

In an early project, we tried out the labels used at Westonbirt Arboretum, known as ‘Kew’ labels provided by Tony Titchen. These are made of a multilayered plastic into which is inscribed both the Latin and common names, together with the family and probable date of planting. These were fastened to the tree with stainless steel nails driven into the trunk. These labels look good, but they are quite expensive since a special engraving machine is needed to cut the letters into the black surface to show the white layer below. They are easily broken, and when the tree grows, the bark is forced against the label, which being thin plastic, bends and eventually breaks. They are also not vandal proof and the fact that they need to be fixed well above ‘reach height’ means that the names can be difficult to read.

In our next attempts, we made labels from Oak plaques 1 cm thick, about 6 cm x 12 cm with the lettering burnt onto the surface with a poker-work tool. This task was undertaken by the Scotch Horn Group of young adults with educational difficulties in their workshop. We also used a felt tipped pen as an alternative method for writing the names on the labels, which seemed fairly permanent. The oak plaques were quite light in colour initially, but gradually weathered to become darker, and this made it more difficult to read the writing.

The labels were fastened to the trees, with help from the Group, using plastic nails driven into holes drilled into the trunk. We were concerned that the process of drilling holes in the trunk might introduce fungal spores. This method is used at Westonbirt (using plastic screws) where this problem has yet to be encountered. However they found that the squirrels chewed the heads releasing the labels! In our experience the growth of the tree could also break the head from the nail, and if this method is adopted, it might be suggested that either the nail is left very loose in the hole, or that a long length of nail shaft remains beyond the label to accommodate the growth for several years. One particular advantage of this method is that the labels and nails are inexpensive and easy to replace if they are vandalised. It is particularly important that nails will not damage chain saws used to eventually cut the tree when it is felled, and for this reason aluminium nails may be used, though these are difficult to drive into hard woods as they bend rather easily. These problems are also encountered in fixing nesting boxes to trees.

In making labels in this way, an alternative to Oak may be Sycamore, which is lighter in colour, but which may require preservative. Dymo labels appear to be fairly resistant to weathering and may be fixed to the surface of the wooden plaques if the original lettering becomes difficult to read.. Others have engraved the names on strips of stainless steel or aluminium.

Experiments using labels with the names printed on paper using a computer have proved to be encouraging. These are laminated, leaving a margin of sealed plastic around the label to prevent entry of water. Holes can be punched in the plastic for the attachment of the label to the tree. If wire is used, it is best to attach this to the label only loosely so that the tree when it grows is not constricted by the wire. These labels are inexpensive, they can be used to show much information about the tree and they can be printed in more that one colour. They appear to be quite unchanged after one season, so they might last for many years*, and they are easily read even if placed well up the tree.

Recent experience suggests that the labels might be more permanent if they are produced using a laser printer, with carbon toner, rather than an ink jet printer. Also to overcome the need to drill or nail the trunk of the tree, or to use wire, it might be possible to tie the labels using standard nylon fishing line that is quite unobtrusive and is unlikely to damage the tree. The line may be fastened to the label by inserting it into cuts made in the laminated plastic.

* The polyester (PET) laminating film may not last longer than about one year due to UV degradation. After this time the laminate becomes brittle and the seals break. This may be prevented by sandwiching the laminate within two sheets of acrylic plastic (Perspex). Using this modification, no degradation could be observed after 4 years of exposure to sunlight due to the low UV transmittance of the Perspex.

With the trees labelled, the next step is to write a leaflet as a guide to give basic information about the trees and to show a route that can be walked to include significant trees. We have done this for the trees around the centre of Nailsea, including a map, and the text is now available on our website

Terry Smith – 01/06/2016

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