Growing Your Own Soapnut Tree

The soap nut tree Sapindus Mukorossi aka Indian Soapberry is a very large tree that produces prodigious amounts of a soaponifying nut that you can use as a greywater safe laundry detergent, dish and hand soap. Mrs. Homegrown wants to rip out my beloved Mission Fig tree to plant the one that Craig at Winnetka Farms gave us last year. I’m going to chain myself to the fig.

That being said, I wish we had more room to plant our soapnut tree. Sapindus Mukorossi requires a fertile soil and a frost free climate. It’s a tall tree that can take as long as ten years to begin fruiting. A friend of mine has one growing in Altadena.

Sapindus Mukorossi needs lots of water. Craig has pointed out the perfect permacultural pairing for our dry climate–use the greywater from your washing machine to water your soap nut tree.

It can be a bit tough to get the seeds to germinate. Here’s some instructions on how to grow Sapindus Mukorossi from seed.

If you’re in LA you can buy a tree from the folks at Winnetka Farms.

I vote for Sapindus Mukorossi as LA’s next street tree . . .

How to Remove Bees From a Tree

bees in a tree

The Los Angeles Fire Department responds to the North Hollywood bee incident. Photo: LAFD.

First let’s cover how not to remove bees from a tree. My beekeeping mentor Kirk Anderson described an incident that took place this week in North Hollywood,

What happened was a HUMAN was cutting his tree down. It came down alright, with the bees that were in the tree. The bees didn’t expect or enjoy the trip to the ground. The home owner ran with the bees right after him. The bees found the neighbor’s dog and figured it was the dogs fault. The dog died of bee stings. The homeowner called 911 and the fire department came and foamed the bees. He then called a exterminator who sprayed the bees with some kind of poison. The exterminator told him he had to clean everything up because every bee with in 50 miles was coming to his backyard for breakfast in the morning. The homeowner caused this problem.

Kirk concludes by quoting George V. Higgins who said, “Life is hard. It’s harder when you are stupid.” Amen.

So how could this have been prevented?

  • Preventative tree maintenance. Hire an qualified arborist to keep your trees healthy.  A large cavity filled with bees is generally a sign of a diseased or damaged tree. The bees may be the least of your concerns. You could be looking at a large limb crashing down on your house. Judging from the news footage the tree the idiot homeowner decided to cut down himself appeared to have codominant stems. This probably caused a crack leading to disease which, in turn, led to a cavity to form. Perfect habitat for bees! This was entirely preventable with judicious pruning.
  • Leave the bees alone. If they are way up in the tree and not bothering anyone, take a chill pill.
  • Hire a beekeeper to remove the hive. What Kirk has done with tree hives is to come at night when all the bees are in their hive and wrap a screen around the entrance so they can’t get out. Next day he comes with a chainsaw and saws off the limb with the bees in it. Then he gives the log filled with bees away to someone who wants to put it in their garden.
  • Hire a beekeeper to do a “trap-out.” This is harder to do and takes at least six weeks. The beekeeper comes after dark and installs a one way exit for the bees. Next to the exit the beekeeper places a hive box with some brood comb (baby bees) in it. The worker bees leave but can’t get into their old home. They take up residence in the new box and make a new queen. If all goes well the beekeeper comes in six weeks and takes away the box. I took bees out of a kitchen vent this way and wrote about it in a blog post.
  • Know the difference between a swarm and a beehive. Swarms are how bees reproduce. Often they will land on a tree branch temporarily while they search for a permanent home (like a diseased tree). Swarms are usually harmless and will take off within a few days.
  • Lastly, if you enjoy poisoning and killing things, I suppose you can hire an exterminator. Just don’t try to do it yourself with a can of raid.

Why You Should Avoid Staking Trees

The correct way to stake a tree. Image from the Vacaville Tree Foundation

To answer the question of why tree staking should be avoided, one can turn to the latest Extension Service advice or to the nearly 2000 year old words of Seneca:

No tree becomes rooted and sturdy unless many a wind assails it. For by its very tossing it tightens its grip and plants its roots more securely; the fragile trees are those that have grown in a sunny valley. It is, therefore, to the advantage even if good men, to the end that they may be unafraid, to live constantly amidst alarms and to bear with patience the happenings which are ills to him only who ill supports them.

Moving from practical philosophical advice to practical horticultural advice, let’s say you have a tree from the nursery that is too weak to stand on it’s own. Or you need to stake a tree planted in a public place to keep people from pulling on it. What do you do? Linda Chalker-Scott, Ph.D., Extension Horticulturist at Washington State University has some advice:

•    If trees must be staked, place stakes as low as possible but no higher than 2/3 the height of the tree.
•    Materials used to tie the tree to the stake should be flexible and allow for movement all the way down to the ground so that trunk taper develops correctly.
•    Remove all staking material after roots have established. This can be as early as a few months, but should be no longer than one growing season

Now, back to the philosophical: Seneca’s tree analogy is a good example of a system that benefits from chaos and shock. This idea is the subject of Nassim Taleb’s new book on what he calls “anti-fragility“.

By contrast, natural or organic systems are antifragile: They need some dose of disorder in order to develop. Deprive your bones of stress and they become brittle. This denial of the antifragility of living or complex systems is the costliest mistake that we have made in modern times. Stifling natural fluctuations masks real problems, causing the explosions to be both delayed and more intense when they do take place. As with the flammable material accumulating on the forest floor in the absence of forest fires, problems hide in the absence of stressors, and the resulting cumulative harm can take on tragic proportions.

For more advice on tree staking see:

North Carolina State University’s Staking Recent Transplants

University of Minnesota’s guide to Staking and Guying Trees

Linda Chalker-Scott’s pdf on The Myth of Staking

Update: Please note an exception to these tree staking rules regarding certain kinds of dwarf fruit trees. See the comments for the details. Thanks C.

Large Tree Supported by Palm Trunk

Photo by Anne Hars. Click to bigify.

This is the stuff of arborist’s nightmares. I’ve been walking by this house for years and never noticed that it has a large tree entirely supported by the base of an 80 foot palm tree. Thankfully Los Angeles’ distinctive palms (Washingtonia robusta) can, obviously, hold a lot of weight.

Thanks to HaFoSaFo blogger Anne Hars for the photo. Extra points for finding Anne’s husband Bill, their Chihuahuas and the house one of our neighbors decided to paint the colors of my alma mater, UCLA. 

Tree Care Disasters

Photo from Weeding Wild Suburbia

A fierce windstorm on the night of November 20 of last year left in its wake the evidence of years of negligent tree care in Southern California. A good arborist and crew cost money, and too many homeowners, landlords and municipalities go the cheap route and hire the first idiot with a chainsaw they can find.

A local blog I just discovered Weeding Wild Suburbia, has a nice summary of things you can do to prevent trees from falling down in the next storm. See her posts, Cleaning Up After the Storm, Tree Care Part 2, and Selecting and Planting Trees for Long Term Success.

One things I noticed after the storm were huge trees with shallow root systems that topled over. It’s the result of combining trees and lawns–keeping the lawn green with frequent light waterings results in trees with shallow root systems. Yet another reason, if there weren’t enough already, to ditch the lawn in a dry climate!

Extra bragging rights if you can name the problem in the picture above.

Thanks to Ari Kletzky for the link.

How to Keep that Christmas Tree Fresh

Photo from WSU

 
Washington State horticulture professor Linda Chalker-Scott, has a podcast “Last minute advice about Christmas trees and other fun stuff” that details more than you’ll ever want to know about how to keep a Christmas tree fresh in the house. And, yes, it’s been studied. Apparently WSU has a Christmas Tree expert: Dr. Gary Chastagner, seen above counting dry needles.