What to look for to diagnose weak branch unions…

Weak branch unions are one of the most common hazards we see on clients’ properties. This hazard is easily identifiable and, thus, easily avoided. But what are the signs that tell us a weak branch union likely exists?

weak branch union

A tree with two tops – or co-dominant stems – indicates a weak branch union and, thus, a hazard.

The most frequent weak branch union we see is called a co-dominant stem. This is where two stems of roughly the same size arise from the same point on the tree. (This is also known as a “schoolmarm” in forestry circles…but it’s up to you to learn the backstory on that.) The junctions between co-dominant stems are often considered the weakest portion of a healthy tree. They are widespread in forested areas; you’ll often see them on cedars, ponderosas and hemlocks. It will look like the tree has two or more tops. This creates a weak branch union because the two stems, or leaders, are growing so closely together that the bark on each leader interferes with the formation of a proper, strong union. This is called included bark, and it doesn’t have the structural strength of a normal branch crotch. Furthermore, included bark can act as a wedge, forcing the weak branch union to split apart.

During last summer’s windstorms, we saw countless trees lose one of their co-dominant stems. Wind will point out any weak branch unions you have, if you’d rather not pay a professional to investigate. The problem doesn’t stop with the toppling top of the tree, though. Once one of the co-dominant leaders is gone, a wound remains and leaves the tree vulnerable to infection. The best approach is to be proactive about trees with co-dominant leaders so that you lose one of the leaders in a controlled environment – and save the tree in the process.

Another example of a weak branch union is when epicormic branches (also known as watersprouts or suckers) are allowed to grow into sizable limbs. Epicormic branches grow quickly – often in response to poor pruning practices, injury or some kind of environmental stress – and they always display weak branch unions. It’s best to tend to suckers when they are newly formed, before they pose any real hazard to structures and people.

Finally, any branch that comes off the trunk at a very acute angle or doesn’t display a ridge of raised bark at the crotch is of potential concern. If you have trees on your property that exhibit any of the signs of a weak branch union, call us for a free consultation and estimate. Considering the widespread impacts of last year’s windstorms – and the fact that weak branch unions are especially susceptible to failure in wind – a call to us will at least provide peace of mind.