Repairing damage (or not)

When a tree is damaged or injured in some way, various responses happen, but none of these would be characterised as ‘repair’ in the same way one sees the human body repair itself. Trees create new growth to compensate for damage, and seal off damaged areas to prevent infection or further damage occurring. I like the way Wayne K. Clutterbuck put it in his article about tree wounds – “trees don’t heal, they seal”.ref

If leaves detect high wind, excess UV or frost, they furl up which protects them from damage. Similarly, they can respond to insects or other invaders by producing defensive compounds or thickening their leaves; defence is an important part of plant survival. But if eaten, ripped, scorched or frostbitten, leaves have no repair mechanism, as they do not have a meristem with active stem cells which could initiate new growth. Instead a tree will rely on other leaves, or grow new ones to replace the damaged ones. Deciduous trees simply drop their leaves every year, along with any damage they have incurred, and grow a new set in the spring.

If a stem or shoot is removed, the tree grows another one from a bud, it cannot replace the one which was removed in exactly the same place. The same principle applies to roots. As outlined in ramification of roots the act of cutting roots causes more lateral roots to grow to compensate.

The wounding of a tree’s trunk or major branches has more important consequences for the tree than just a leaf or stem.ref The tree detects that it has been injured because pressure changes within its cells, and the normal flow of hormones through its phloem and cells is interruptedref. This articleref (admittedly from 1985 but has some nice illustrations) explains what happens – first the cells nearest to the wound adjust their biochemistry to become antimicrobial, then a barrier zone is formed around the wound which prevents microorganisms from breaching the zone. The tissue around the wound is discoloured by these compounds – a good illustration is below. The tree has been damaged by drying cracks in the bark and boring insects. It has reacted by creating a sealed-off dead zone indicated by the darker wood, to repel and prevent further ingress by insects. You can also see that the cambium has generated new xylem and phloem annually which has curled over the edge of the wounded area.

Cut paste is a product which is sometimes advocated by bonsai enthusiasts, but there isn’t much to be found in the way of evidence for its effectiveness. Most research papers on the topic come from the 1930s or before, but there are a few – seemingly all from Korean researchers – which identify positive effects from a fungicide called thiophanate-methyl which was found to improve wound closure on Acer palmatumref. The mechanism wasn’t detailed in the study but presumably it worked by protecting the wound from fungal pathogens. I couldn’t recommend this though, partly because you risk dripping it into the soil and onto your your friendly mycorrhizal fungi but also because this substance is toxic to inhale, carcinogenic and causes birth defects.ref

Research shows that wounds are easier for a tree to respond to in warmer weather – in one study at 15 degrees C wound response was strong but at 5 degrees C during dormancy, wound response was minimal.ref

What all of this means for us bonsai practitioners is that when we do major carving or trunk/branch chopping on live wood, we should give the tree the best chance of sealing the damage off and preventing pathogens from entering. To do this we can do it in warmer weather, when the tree is in active growth.