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  • Writer's pictureShainna M. Callaway

The Marvel of Pruned Plants

Updated: Mar 2, 2020

Witnessing the beauty and horror that can come from pruning intrigues me into learning which path is the right one to take.

There are four examples I want to describe about my encounters with what could be considered a wild natural state compared to a manicured and cultivated effect. In Alabama, where I spent most of my youth, I came across many plants that could be found growing in the wild with which I never really appreciated past its bloom. Three of the examples I want to discuss come from this history. Those plants are wisterias, crepe myrtles, and lantanas. The fourth example, cherry trees, are from the differences I have witnessed here in Italy, but could be replaced with most any fruit tree. I am using them specifically because of how often I have witnessed a cherry tree on display as a celebrity instead of for any fruit it produces.

To begin, wisteria for the most part was always for me just some parasitic vine that showed up dangling some random purple flowers for a few weeks of the year and looking like a nuisance for the entire rest of the time. The blooms didn’t ever “spark joy” because they were normally too far away for me to have a good idea of what I was looking at and they were so few and far between that they appeared kind of raggedy from the ground. I could see they were purple, but it wasn’t regal or anything I felt deserved envy.

The first time I saw a wisteria in full grandeur was in Japan. There they are called fuji which is not to be confused with fuji as in Mount Fuji. It just sounds the same. I would pass by an enormous display of an ancient vine propped up with the help of multiple stands and guides for the runners. This particular one could be found while walking between my house in the small town of Iriya toward the city of Zama to visit Yatoyama Park. Since then, I have found myself admiring pergolas and canopies of wisteria (known as glicine in Italy) as if the whole world has known what to do with these plants, and I was a fool to have ever doubted their beauty.

An ancient wisteria being braced and supported in Zama, Japan
This photo was taken in Zama, Japan, in 2014.
wisterias in Turin, Italy
This particular wisteria was peeking over the edge of a wall near the Fontana dei 12 Mesi of the Parco del Valentino in Torino, Italia in 2019

My prejudices even found me wishing I could rip them down from those tree tops for the littering they appeared to exhibit. Even now, though, when I see a random bunch of wisteria, I wish I could persuade the person to really showcase it for what it could be instead of what it is naturally. Is it unfair of me to want order to what I assume is chaos?

Another prime example of this exact same personal dilemma is the crepe myrtle. For countless years, I felt that the massive amount of unkempt sprigs that eventually held firework blooms of bold pinks were more of a semi-lucky mess than worthy of admiration. I rarely came across one that was pruned to showcase it in a healthy way that appeared to give their trunks any interest. If I did happen to see one that was shaped up to appear more like a tree, it was not enough of a marvel to erase the years where I had seen them in their most natural and obscene states.

The first time I beheld a crepe myrtle that took my breath away, I must admit, began by horrifying me. The only way I can describe the perplexity is that what I saw made me wonder if someone had begun to chop down a tree but then became distracted and just walked away. There are streets in Japan that are lined with these horrid, disfigured crowns on barren trunks that I found uncomfortable to see. In a few more months, though, I was able to observe a crepe myrtle in a way I never would have imagined. The Japanese style of pruning was taking it down to one solid sturdy trunk and allowing that to produce all of the flower heads from the new shoots at its knobby crown as if to make a crepe myrtle into its own bouquet of ecstatic blooms. In a sense, it was like if a tree could be turned into an enormous flower then this is how it is done.

However, I cannot decide if there is too much cruelty involved since the beauty lasts for such a short period and this choice stunts the time that the tree can survive. The one thing I can say is I never would have been able to truly appreciate a crepe myrtle in its more natural state had I never seen it displayed in such an unbelievable way. It’s not that I think everyone should limit the performance of a crepe myrtle, but I do wish they could see them as a giant flower at least once in their lives. Which, I understand, would then require someone to savagely prune them all around the world.

Next on this do or don’t list is the lantana. What has always been a charming plant for the magnificent way it displays its multicolored miniatures, I have always been drawn to them and found myself captivated by their adorableness. There is not much I could complain about either in their natural state or their semi-natural states. They are simply too cute is all that I can say.

One of the lantanas found framing the path in Giardini Botanici Villa Taranto, Verbania, Italia in 2019 (I crudely blurred the begonias to accent the trunk since I have no other photos that showcase it better.)

Regardless, to see the ones I found at Giardini Botanici Villa Taranto, I can only describe the feeling as being dumbfounded. I must have stared at these lantanas long enough to probably make the other people passing by wary of my sanity, intelligence, or both. Someone had nurtured a lantana in a way that it appeared to be a young tree with a spherical top of blooms and leaves as if I was looking at some magical kind of boxwood topiary. I can not even fathom the patience this master gardener must have to produce such a wonder.

Yes. I want to do this one day with a lantana I get from seed. Is it crazy that I feel the desire to take something I already love and make it something else just to show it can be done?

Lastly, the cherry trees around the world and how they have mostly become an ornamental element of beauty and sophistication in how I see them. I had never really ever noticed or known I was looking at a cherry tree until I saw them in all their revered honor in Japan. Having visited the country during the peak bloom season the first time I arrived, I continually assumed that sakura was one to be adored. I have enjoyed hanabi and hanafubuki in reverence of such beautiful flowers and floating petals as a time when anyone and everyone can gather around these treasures and adore them in harmony. Even after returning to the United States of America, my family was able to annually enjoy the parade and festival celebrating the peaceful giants around the Tidal Basin in Washington DC. After arriving in Italy, we have also come to find another such blessed manifestation of these Japanese presents at the Lago dell’EUR in Roma’s notorious Mussolini designed area.

Ancient cherry trees around the Tidal Basin of Washington D.C. USA
This photo is from the Tidal Basin of Washington D.C., USA, during their cherry blossom festival in 2017

After all this grandeur and opulence given to one specific species, it was a jaw dropping surprise for me to finally see them in what appeared to be massive production lines in many of the agricultural areas in southern Italy. Sometimes, the trees appear to be still quite young before they are completely grounded and replaced with a different crop of even younger trees. On some of the orchards, they appear to be pruned back so that only a handful of branches can grow on a few vertical axes on the left or right of the trunk to make them appear as vines with no other branches allowed in an unruly fashion on the front or back of the tree. It makes sense to imagine the ability of harvesting in between the rows this way, but to see the endless farm with the countless trees all rigidly confined in such a way was indeed heartbreaking.

I felt like I was witnessing a torturing of which I was complicit whenever I bought a container of cherries in my lifetime. I fully understand the purpose and the results, but it was like when I first found out about how we get chicken and cows from the store for consumption. It doesn’t begin or end nicely for the cow, the chicken, or the cherry, but I still desire to eat them and have not provided it for myself in a more humane way to make it also palatable to my sensibilities.

Maybe that’s the path to take after all. To learn how to prune plants to adore them, showcase the way they can comply to our desires, show them a kindness when making these requests, all so that they can produce and live in a way allowing them to grow into the best version of themselves for their longest stretch into ancient roots.

I still question the rights and wrongs and which way is the better way for the plant. A healthy amount of wonder to keep me engaged while preparing myself for the eventual oasis I wish to design is what I bring along on these trips to see the world of gardens and the beauties they display. Ever curious, ever questioning, and always observing to see where I was wrong and how I can right myself as I learn about the natural wonders around me.

Much love and kind regards, Shainna 🌼

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