Tree shaping uses living trees and other woody plants as the medium to create structures and art. There are a few different methods used by the various artists to shape their trees, which share a common heritage with other artistic horticultural and agricultural practices, such as pleaching, bonsai, espalier, and topiary, and employing some similar techniques. Most artists use grafting to deliberately induce the inosculation of living trunks, branches, and roots, into artistic designs or functional structures.
The oldest known living examples of woody plant shaping are the aeroponically cultured living root bridges built by the ancient War-Khasi people of the Cherrapunjee region in India. These are being maintained and further developed today by the people of that region.
Tree branches and trunks have the unique ability to unite together by grafting. The new shapes are retained when fresh layers of wood grow over the older ones. So a tree sculptor winds two or more parts of a tree together by cutting off the bark and then binds the wounded parts together so that the contact is secure. This promotes the tree parts to grow together. These stems and branches need to be wound together for at least a year depending on the amount of resistance they need to overcome. Additional layers of wood grow during this time, acting as a natural cast and retaining the new desired shape. Once the shape is able to hold itself, the bracing is removed.
Some of the contemporary tree sculptors include ‘Pooktre’ artists Peter Cook and Becky Northey. They are known for their ‘People’ trees – trees that are made to look just like humans with arms and legs. Furniture designer Dr Chris Cattle is known for his ‘grownup furniture’ such as grown stools. The term ‘Arbosculpture’ was coined by artist Richard Reames. He owns and manages a nursery and design studio in Oregon, where he grows chairs as well. ‘Peace in Cherry’ is one of his famous works, which is a Cherry tree that carries the universal logo for peace.
What’s wonderful about tree shaping is that it’s not just a freaky art project, but structurally more advanced than constructing from lumber. This is because live trees and plants are more resistant to decay. While any tree species can be used for shaping, most designers prefer to go for trees that grow well in that particular area and are less prone to insect damage or disease. Some of the commonly used trees are Maple, White Birch, Willow, Fig, Poplar, Oak, Cherry and Guava.