A Magazine About Food, Art & Exchange In Midtown Kingston, Published By The Hudson Valley Current.

Tree Varieties: Labeled and Loved

by Lee Reich
Outside, the garden is deathly still except for an almost life-like rustling. This rustling is the wind playing on plant labels. I have affixed labels to many of my trees and shrubs because I can’t always remember what variety I planted. I also have this nagging fear that the next person to live in my house will one day wander out to the garden, pluck an apple from a tree, bite into it, and not know what variety it is.
I need permanent labels, not the temporary plastic ones that last only a season or two and come with purchased trees and shrubs. One year I bought aluminum labels from a nursery supply company. With a pencil, I embossed the plant names on the thin metal strips and attached each to its appropriate tree or shrub.
What attractive playthings these labels became for my cat. The tags, dancing in the slightest breezes, made what I suppose to the cat were mouse-like, scratching sounds. Needless to say, many of those thin aluminum strips were torn to shreds.
Looking through some good, old-fashioned gardening encyclopedias, I found whole discourses under the subject heading of “Labels.” For instance, here’s an idea for eking a few extra seasons out of a cheap, wooden label. Instead of writing a name on a single label, you write it on two labels, then wire the labels flat together with the writing facing the same direction. When the writing on the outside facing label weathers away, the writing that was sandwiched between the two labels still will be legible.
Years ago, sheets of zinc were commonly used for labelling; the metal cuts easily with scissors, and it resists decay. One suggestion for a long-lasting label was to coat a zinc strip with paraffin, scratch the plant name through the paraffin, then immerse the strip in dilute hydrochloric acid to etch the zinc.
Any one of a number of permanent inks could be used to write a plant name on a strip of zinc. There was the once well-known concoction developed by the French chemist Brainnot in 1837, consisting of verdigris (obtained by scraping the green crust from copper “weathered” in vinegar), sal ammoniac (naturally formed ammonium chloride), lampblack (soot), and water. Copper or mercury chloride also made good inks. One of the blackest inks for zinc was made from platinum chloride—an indication of the low price of platinum and/or the high importance of labelling in times past. In spite of my quest for permanent labels, I wouldn’t mess around with any of these inks because of their toxicity, trouble, and, especially the last one, their expense.
One suggestion I particularly liked was writing a plant name on a stiff piece of paper, then inserting the paper into a stoppered glass vial or test tube. Such a label potentially could outlive most plants. And the idea of those vials hanging one per tree seems almost as fanciful to me as a stoppered bottle, message enclosed, bobbing in the ocean.
Any label—no matter what type—has to be attached to the plant to be identified. One problem with a nail is that the bark of a tree eventually will overgrow a nailed label. I have seen more than one old apple tree whose bark had just about swallowed up its metal label, leaving exposed only a two or three letter hint of the variety name. Attaching a label with a wire loop around a branch is satisfactory as long as the loop is occasionally loosened so as not to girdle the limb. Of course, decay-resistant wire such as copper or aluminum is needed.
My old gardening encyclopedias even have some clever suggestions for attaching labels. Instead of nailing a label to a tree, why not affix it with spring-held screws to allow for bark expansion? Or, instead of a wire loop needing constant adjustment, why not use a wire loop part of which is wound into a spring that expands with plant growth? At any rate, no matter how labels are attached, they are easier to find if put at the same height and facing the same direction on all trees.
Lee’s beloved Dymo-Mite Tapewriter labeler. Photo by Lee
Nowadays my young trees start out with labels attached with thin copper wire wound into a spring. Once trunks get some girth, I drill the skinniest possible hole in the trunk, just wide enough to slide in the opened end of a thin copper wire. As the tree grows, it clings tightly to the wire and when the bark grows out near the label, I just twist on another length of wire.
As for the labels, I graduated to homemade ones cut from disposable aluminum trays, such as those used for frozen foods—a suggestion from an old Popular Mechanics magazine. More recently, I graduated again and my labels became more elegant. I purchased an inexpensive, “vintage” Dymo-Mite Tapewriter labeler (itself a work of art) that embosses the variety names into 1/2” wide stainless steel cut from a spool. These sturdy labels should survive as long as the trees they identify, and they’re thick enough to be cat-proof.
Lee Reich, PhD is a garden and orchard consultant; he hosts workshops at his New Paltz farmden, which is a test site for innovative techniques in soil care, pruning, and growing fruits and vegetables. For more helpful gardening guidance visit leereich.com.