Monday, January 14, 2013
On a Thanksgiving visit to Giles County, Va., we met Allen Neely, a true mountain man who shared his passion for tree burls.
A burl is an abnormality in which bud cells have grown in a chaotic manner, dividing in many directions to create a spherical shape. Burls are commonly found in the form of rounded outgrowths or bumps on a tree trunk or branch.
Other burls grow attached to roots beneath the ground, and may not be discovered until the tree dies or falls. Almost all burl wood is covered by bark even if it is underground. Burls can occur on many tree species and range in size from lightweight specimens a few inches across to those measuring several yards wide and weighing thousands of pounds.
Growth rings inside burls are wider and more uneven than those in the rest of the tree, indicating that burl cells grow more rapidly and erratically. The ring patterns are contorted, with swirling, twisting, wavy or curly grain that gives every individual burl its own unique character.
This peculiar grain is prized by artisans and cabinet makers. Its rarity also adds to its cost. The highly valued burls are sliced into veneers for furniture and classic car trim and turned into one-of-a-kind objects like bowls, boxes, briar pipes and gunstocks.
While enjoying breakfast in Allen Neely’s Blue Moon Café we were shown his latest burl find, an amoeba-shaped slice taken from a sycamore. Sanded smooth and awaiting an oil finish, the slab would make a handsome tabletop or base for an oversize wall clock.
Although there has been little conclusive research, it is believed that burls result from a tree undergoing some form of stress or environmental assault. Trees hyper-stimulate cambial growth as a way to isolate and contain an injury. Virus, fungus, insect infestation, certain types of mold, pollution and genetic predisposition are other possible causes of burls.
Tree burls are a natural phenomenon that normally should not give property owners cause for concern. Attempting to remove a burl would probably kill even the healthiest tree. Unless the burl reaches a size and weight that begins to cause severe breakage, the tree will usually live a normal life.
Joanna Angle is a Master Tree Farmer and 2012 South Carolina Tree Farmer of the Year.
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