To protect the Paca garden's 65-foot bald cypress tree from lightning, a copper wire has been installed along the length of its towering trunk.

Spare the rod and it might spoil the tree

July 26, 2006|By JAMIE STIEHM | JAMIE STIEHM,SUN REPORTER

The bald cypress stands by a fish-shaped pond and white footbridge at the William Paca House and Garden. A 65-foot specimen with refreshing shade, it looks as old-fashioned as its surroundings in Annapolis - except for the slender copper wire neatly climbing its trunk.

The new lightning protection system adorning the 30-year-old tree was a gift last week to the nonprofit Historic Annapolis Foundation, which runs the garden.

Installed by employees of the Care of Trees company, it's potentially a lifesaver for a tree that is vulnerable, visible and hard to replace.

"The tree's a rarity in a garden, and it's in the open by itself," said arborist David DiPietro of the company's Annapolis office.

"It would be 60 years before you could re-create something like this," he said. "Given that we have a long thunderstorm season ahead of us, this is about being good stewards."

Bald cypress trees flourish farther south, often near watery habitats such as swamps, with the Mid-Atlantic forming the northern edge of the tree's climate zone. They are called "bald" because their branches are bare of foliage in winter.

Because the Paca garden tree stands exposed in a grassy expanse, Mollie Ridout, the foundation's horticulture director, said she feared for its safety when summer lightning strikes.

"We lost a tree to [Tropical Storm] Isabel from the wind a few years ago," Ridout said. "So this seemed opportune."

The system's simple logic of conducting electricity is something that might have met with Benjamin Franklin's approval.

It consists of a copper cable, which runs along the trunk from a terminal affixed to a tree's tip down to a rod buried deep under ground about 10 feet from a tree's base. The effect is to divert and dissipate the charge of a lightning strike, DiPietro said.

He estimated that similar jobs for homeowners cost $1,500 to $3,000. Although lightning protection for trees was devised long ago, the technique isn't well-known around the region.

"It's greatly underutilized," DiPietro said, noting the measure can prevent serious danger and damage. Trees struck by lightning are treacherous - a rare few even explode, he said.

The bald cypress was planted as a sapling about 30 years ago, Ridout said, after the asphalt parking lot that dominated the backyard of the historic site- used as a hotel for much of the 20th century - was torn up to beautify the land. An ambitious reinvention of the property's Colonial garden followed.

The 1760s-vintage brick mansion retains a whiff of pre-Revolutionary grandeur, with both interior and exterior designs in the English Georgian manner, which emphasizes lines, arches and symmetry. The period garden, featuring displays of flowers, fruits and herbs, has a rare pomegranate tree and a white-petalled Franklinia tree, named for Ben Franklin.

On July 18, the mercury had reached the 90s before noon when the lone climber, Flint Anderson, got ready to scurry up the garden's bald cypress.

Athletic and bearded, Anderson, 27, shrugged at actuarial risks of climbing and rigging trees for a living. "When I found out I could get paid for this, I was a little amazed," the tree company's district foreman said.

Hacking dead branches out of his way as he ascended the bald cypress, Anderson made the rope climb seem easy.

"I'm moving my line up as I go," Anderson explained, "as straight as possible."

Within 15 minutes, Anderson had disappeared into the uppermost reaches of the tree. A company apprentice sent a Gatorade supply up when asked.

Less than an hour later, Anderson touched ground, drenched in sweat. The last step, burying the ground rod, was done as quick as lightning.

"That's just about it," DiPietro said.

jamie.stiehm@baltsun.com

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