Tree Envy: When Trees Make the Man

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Of men and their trees: At Burberry Nursery in Amagansett, L.I., fully grown trees make instant trophies for instant Edens. Photographs by Norman Lono for the New York Times.

Of men and their trees: At Burberry Nursery in Amagansett, L.I., fully grown trees make instant trophies for instant Edens. Photographs by Norman Lono for the New York Times.

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Avowing a passion for trees of awesome girth and rarity is a means of gaining social cachet these days. Soaring crimson king maples and golden honey locusts are among the new status symbols, giving a surprising new meaning to "tree climbing."

"It's pretty funny hearing so many wealthy guys bragging about the size of their weeping copper beeches and taxus yews," said Martha Stewart, trowel in hand, weeding among dozens of priapic purple aliums beside her swimming pool in East Hampton, N.Y.

Why the prevailing tree envy? "My theory is it's about midlife crisis," said Stewart, while exhuming a wayward weed. "I've noticed that when they glimpse a rare tree and a pretty girl at the same time, they often look a lot more excited about the tree."

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With the country's leading nurseries reporting annual sales increases of mature trees of 10 percent to 100 percent, trophy trees may be to the 1990s what trophy wives were to the 80s (though the wives were prized for youth). And while trees need not be outfitted in Chanel, they do not come cheaply: specimens cost tens of thousands of dollars.

"Big trees are easy to collect," said Chet Halka of Halka Nurseries in Englishtown, N.J., which specializes in large specimens. "All you need is a lot of money."

At Halka, a wholesaler, prices range from $200 for a 12-foot linden to $20,000 for a 50-foot European beech. Elsewhere, on Long Island, 20-foot globe Norway maples sell for $42,000. The cost of labor and machinery to get them home can add 50 percent.

Buying fully grown trees is a vital ingredient when creating instant Edens. And it avoids the inconvenience of actually having to wait for them to grow before holding a garden party.

Leo Casas, an owner of the Greenwich Nursery in Connecticut, recalled one customer who said it best: " `I can't wait for a banana to ripen. I only buy them bright yellow.' There's no patience for watching a tree grow."

Greenwich Nursery, where large tree sales have climbed 30 percent this year, often has 30- and 40-foot trees trucked in from around the country for clients. A co-owner, Paul Kelly, attributed sales increases to last year's drought and a harsh Connecticut winter. "A lot of people lost large trees," he said. "And I believe it also has to do with instantaneous gratification. People want to immediately replace trees, full grown."

Dorothy Kalins, editor in chief of Garden Design, also credits the urge to "baby boomers traveling and seeing 200-year-old English gardens and wanting that in their own backyards." She adds: They're impatient as hell."

Instant, or checkbook gardening is hardly a new phenomenon. Marc Cathey, president of the American Horticulture Society, pointed out that "the pharaohs moved trees by balling and burlapping."

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Mac Griswold, the garden historian and an author of "The Golden Age of American Gardens," points out that there was even a machine to cut a tree's roots for transplanting at the court of Louis XIV. "It's not a recent nouveau-riche idea," she said. "It's a very old nouveau-riche idea."

Frederick Law Olmsted installed thousands of mature trees in Central Park in the 1870s and on the grounds of Biltmore, the North Carolina estate of G.W. Vanderbilt, famous for his passion for trees.

Size is not the only thing that makes a tree desirable. For Louis K. Meisel, the SoHo art dealer and a passionate tree collector, rarity is prized.

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"I own three of the first Purple Fountain weeping copper beeches introduced into this country," he said with evident satisfaction. "They're very beautiful. Let's face it, everyone has copper beeches, but they don't weep."

Meisel and his wife, Susan, began amassing trees on their formerly treeless farmland in Sagaponac, N.Y., in 1984. They now boast a collection of 200.

Like many tree fanatics, Meisel disdains the notion of collecting trees that are merely green. "I've got a crimson king maple with dark purple leaves next to a golden honey locust that's bright yellow next to a blue atlas cedar with blue needles," he said. It's like a game for us."

David Seeler, the owner of Bayberry Nursery in Amagansett, N.Y., says the game is fairly new. "When I first came out here 27 years ago, everyone was buying yews and forsythia bushes," he said. "Nobody wanted anything like a dwarf conifer or anything twisted or weeping."

"The competition is wild," Seeler said of this spring's rush to snap up and install exotic and oversize specimens. "Everybody wants something unusual. For these people it's like collecting sculpture."

Some collectors favor the helicopter as a means of speeding up the process of literally putting down roots. Neighbors of Ralph Lauren in Bedford, N.Y., say they have seen an arboreal airlift of a Ralph Lauren landscape consisting of hundreds of white pines.

In Ft. Worth, the socialite Mercedes Bass has created seclusion from prying neighbors by copter-planting a phalanx of enormous oaks.

And in Bel Air, Calif., Peter Guber, the Hollywood producer, is refashioning an entire hillside on his property with airborne assistance.

Helicopters are often used when a site is otherwise inaccessible or if the owner shudders at muddying the lawn with the large wheels of a crane or payloader. For large trees, only a military-size Sikorsky twin-propeller helicopter will suffice.

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Just as with antiques or art, provenance adds value. "I'm very proud of these," Seeler said, pointing to eight 10-foot matching purple beeches exhibited in the 1968 World's Fair in Seattle, which he had transported across the country in a refrigerated tractor trailer. The set of eight is ticketed at $40,000.

Warner LeRoy, owner of Tavern on the Green and the Russian Tea Room in Manhattan, has 600 rare trees on his 64-acre estate in Amagansett. "I've been known to drive past people's houses and make an offer for a tree I like in their front yard," he said.

Since he is separated from his wife, Kay, LeRoy must face a distressing prospect for tree collectors -- possibly being forced to divide his collection. "Maybe we'll have to cut them in half," he said Solomonically.

Like many tree aficionados on Long Island, LeRoy traces the beginning of his tree obsession to viewing the remarkable arboretum created for Alfonso Osorio at his estate in Wainscott by Seeler, who has also supplied trees for Billy Joel, Lauren Bacall and Dina Merrill.

"It was the first time I realized that trees are like statues," LeRoy said. While some specimens were sold after Osorio's death by his companion, Ted Dragon, the remainder were inherited by Ronald O. Perelman, the billionaire chairman of Revlon, when he purchased the property in 1994.

Fashions in trees constantly change, dealers say. "For a while there was a rage for Sargent's Weeping Hemlock," said Peter Costich of H.M.S. Farms in Center Moriches, L.I., which found trees for Rockefellers, Fords, Ms. Stewart and Disney. "Some of the hemlocks we had were 20 feet across, and we shipped some all the way to Detroit, with overwidth permits on the highways all the way. But now they're considered passé."

Varieties of the stately beech (weeping, purple, fern leaf and silver) are now the most sought. "They're the Mercedes Benz of trees," Mr. Seeler said. "They're extremely sturdy and able to withstand most storms because they grow so slowly. It might take you 10 years to grow a weeping willow tree to 25 feet, but it takes 25 years to grow a beech that high. That's why they cost twice as much. What you're buying is time."

Golden evergreens like the Crippsii hinoki false cypress, which maintains a yellow hue year round have gained in popularity in the last five years. Nurseries on Montauk Highway in the Hamptons are famous for placing fashionably golden trees close to the road, the better to inspire millionaires passing in limousines on Friday afternoons to grab their cellular phones. Pam Lord, a local garden designer, called this woody bait "the jaune du jour."

Chet Halka recently succumbed to pressure from wealthy clients to install a helipad at his tree farm in New Jersey. "They seem to love walking around and picking out the exact trees they want," he said, "but they don't want to waste any time getting here."

Nursery owners interviewed also said that many who purchase trees are impatient for them to flower. Mac Hoak, the owner of Mecox Gardens, a new garden shop in Southampton, L.I., said, "A lot of people come out here for just the weekend, and all they want is something that's going to bloom nonstop on their patio."

Not everyone lauds the idea of extensive mature tree planting. Perry Guillot, a fashionable Manhattan-based landscape designer, said: "I think it's a mistake to have too many oversized or exotic trees that are just show pieces. It looks too much like a circus. Right now, I'm encouraging a client to buy one beautiful large $25,000 beech tree to stand near her house, but it's the one showpiece of the garden."

Peter Wooster, a landscape designer, whose Roxbury, Conn., garden is open to the public, agrees. "I'll never forget seeing one garden where the owner put in a bunch of enormous trees on Thursday, then rolled in fresh sod and gave a party on Saturday," he said. "That's easy. All it requires is money, which doesn't impress me. What's wonderful about growing a garden slowly is pruning your own trees, so their shape is fashioned by you, and watching it evolve. It's much more satisfying, and for me that's what real gardening is about."

12 in Fashion

FOLLOWING is a list of the 12 most fashionable trees from David Seeler of Bayberry Nursery in Amagansett, L.I. Dora Galitzki, the plant information specialist at the New York Botanical Garden, looks behind the glamorous names:

PURPLE BEECH (40 feet, $35,000): Refers to several beeches with red foliage. Reds range from dark red to black-red.

WEEPING BEECH (30 feet, $25,000): No two are alike. Don't squeeze it into a corner. Give it lots of room.

FERNLEAF BEECH (30 feet, $25,000): Out of the ordinary, finely divided green foliage with fine texture and delicate appearance.

ZLATIA GOLDEN EUROPEAN BEECH (25 feet, $20,000): Comes out golden-yellow in the spring, then turns light green in summer.

SUNBURST HONEY LOCUST (30 feet, $10,500): Very golden in early spring like a school bus in the yard; do not plant pink azaleas near it. Becomes green in summer. CRIMSON KING NORWAY MAPLE (25 to 30 feet, $12,500): All the rage -- about 30 years ago. Large leaves and very dark purple.

JAPANESE RED MAPLE (10 to 12 feet, $950): Large number of cultivated varieties, or cultivars, varying in color, leaf shape and even twig color. For the collector who can pronounce Japanese and Latin names.

PURPLE LEAF PLUM (20 to 25 feet, $2,250): Several cultivars with pinkish flowers against dark purple. Overused, but when in flower they draw oohs from passers-by.

DAWN REDWOOD (35 to 40 feet, $18,900): A deciduous conifer -- don't be surprised when it drops its needles in the fall.

CRIPPSII HINOKI FALSE CYPRESS (12 to 15 feet, $1,250): Grows slowly, to about 15 feet. Needles are golden where exposed to the sun; otherwise not very exciting.

AUREUM FULL-MOON MAPLE (20 feet, $22,500): Yellow foliage. A slow grower, popular with those who are patient. Needs some shade or the leaves will burn.

DWARF CONIFERS (8 to 10 feet, $1,500 and up): Name for cultivars of spruce, pine and false cypress, often used in rock gardens.

Published in the New York Times on Thursday, June 13, 1996

Christopher Mason