Weeping Trees: The Hard Way

Bad to the phloem! I’m not sure where I stand when it comes to contemporary art- but when contemporary art includes plants as a medium?

All aboard!

I went on a field trip last week to Western Massachusetts and while I was there, I visited the Massachusetts Museum of Contemporary Art (AKA Mass MoCA). I did not care much for what I paid $15 to see inside, with a few super groovy exceptions. But out in front, to be viewed for free, was this funky installation that some might call “art”… but I’d call a kick-ass science experiment.


Topsy Turvy Trees



Art or Torture?

What do you think? Art?

While I was there I was told, and there was clear evidence that, a few of the trees have already been replaced. Some were curling up like the Wicked Witch of the East’s toes apres house and some were still stick straight.  The museum offered a blog post about this here.

If you read the post about replacing the trees, read the lone comment. I LOVE the indignant commenter ranting about how trees aren’t supposed to grow upside down. Um, it’s “art”…. and trees grow all sorts of dumb places on their own, if given the chance….

And really, it’s nothing to get blood pressurey about, dude. It’s not coming out of your pocket…

(And if he was this upset about the trees outside, I’d like to hear how he felt about the mass taxidermy that was going on inside)


But I’ll tell you what. I may be a nincompoop 9/10th of the time, but if there’s anything in the WORLD I’m qualified to talk about, it’s why things in containers, grown in cold climates, die.


These trees aren’t dying because they are upside down. They are dying because…

1. They are growing in tiny metal containers with no insulation, as far as I can tell. Not that I’d be able to tell, but they just don’t look big enough for roots, soil and insulation.  It was WAAAAY below zero when I was there and there’s only so much a tree can take. They become rootsicles. If they were in bigger containers with some insulation in them, so that there is enough room for the roots and they don’t have to touch cold metal? They’d have a fighting chance….

2. Irrigation? HELLO?? They are growing in metal cylinders, when the sun hits them it’s like growing in an oven. How do they get enough water to combat this? I’m betting they don’t.  Who likes extremes like that? No one.

3. No container planted tree is going to live in a tundra zone like this forever, regardless of it’s upsidedownness. Root pruning  is the best PITA action to take. It keeps the roots from hitting those cold sides again. It helps make sure there’s enough soil in the container to hold water, instead of the water just rolling right off…  And don’t forget, it would stop the roots from busting up those rad, industrial cannisters the trees are planted in.

Enough from me, I’m dying to know what you think…. A cool way to see trees weep? Or are these trees literally weeping?

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About Amanda Thomsen

Big, loud and fun- Amanda Thomsen landscapes by day and blogs at night. Her blog, Kiss My Aster, on Horticulture magazine's website has alienated/enraptured dozens. She co-authors a blog called Plants That Suck that is about plants that suck. And she is the less popular half of the podcasting team, Good Enough Gardening, which makes her feel like the "Roy" of of Siegfried and Roy, but without the mauling. She lives in Chicago and does not EVER put ketchup on hot dogs.

5 thoughts on “Weeping Trees: The Hard Way

  1. I studied both art and horticulture for several years now, so this is very interesting.

    This may be a new art piece but it is not a new experiment. The same thing has been done to test plants tropisms (this is mentioned on any search for Natalie Jeremijenko: Tree Logic). Tropisms are how the plants respond to certain stimuli. In “Tree Logic”, gravitropism (gravity) and phototropism (light) are being exhibited.

    What past experiments like this show is that the roots inside of the metal containers are probably growing down towards the earth. If the artist knows about containerized plant growth she may have lined those metal containers with copper. When the roots grow into the copper siding they slough off or in other words, self root prune.

    I could go on forever about this . . . So in short, I see it similar to you Amanda, a kick-ass science experiment!

  2. I have observed the MoCA trees since the museum opened in 1999, and I have to say that they continue to fascinate me. I enjoy stopping by to take a look at them when I’m in the area. It may surprise you to know that the trees are not gasping for life and dying before visitors’ eyes. Sure, growing in containers outdoors through the varied conditions of 4 seasons is stressful to the trees, but they have endured, far longer than I would have expected. Yes, some have been replaced when they began to show unhealthy signs (which they might have regardless of where or how they were planted), but like the same tree planted in the ground, the upside down trees at Mass MoCA go through their life cycles – stark bones in the winter, budding and leafing out in spring, gloriously green in summer and dressed in fiery foliage in the fall. They are a wonder to behold as they reach for the sun. And they never fail to make me smile.

  3. Great catch here Amanda! Very interesting experiment indeed. You certainly hit the mark for why these weren’t doing well. But, I don’t think that correct culture for the trees was in the artists brain as the main goal to be sure. :-)
    What I DO think is kinda humorous is that the artist built this SO high up off the ground that they had quite LARGE expectations for how low and wide those trees were going to get. Optimistic!!

  4. Agree’d! You hit the nail square on the head with your observations as to why the trees were dying. Laughed out loud at your comment about how trees will grow anywhere they can and often in forms that are totally against what horticulturist will say is normal. They are opportunistic…the circle of life demands it.

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