What is Arboriculture?

Old Arboriculture

What is arboriculture? That is the question I am asked nearly every time I mention the word. This question often presents in the form of a moment-of-pause or a blank expression on a client’s face after using the word. Upon noticing the quiet or facial question-mark, I feel compelled to quickly explain the word to the best of my ability (with pride). However, recently I started to feel as though my traditional explanation is missing something. As an arborist, one would think the explanation very simple. After all, it is just a word, a word that we use regularly amongst ourselves. We (arborists) know what it means (in our heads), don’t we?

Arboriculture Definitions from the Web

Tree Cavity Drain Tube
Drain tubes were once installed to allow water to drain from tree cavities. Studies show that this practice is far more harmful than allowing the water to remain within the cavity.

Arboriculture (commonly pronounced arbor-culture) is defined by Merriam-Webster as the cultivation of trees and shrubs especially for ornamental purposes. This definition seems overly basic and implies that the work of arborists is strictly for outdoor decorative purposes. I would not recommend suggesting that to any tree service here on the Main Line, Pennsylvania (especially one that just spent several days with heavy equipment carefully rigging down and removing a hazardous tree over a historic home in a town like Wayne or Radnor, PA).

Encyclopedia Britannica expands upon the definition of arboriculture (slightly) by asserting that arboriculture is the cultivation of trees, shrubs, and woody plants for shading and decorating. Adding the word ‘shading’ implies that the work that we perform as arborists can be on something a bit larger than just Rhododendron or Ilex (holly).

Britannica then moves beyond its simple definition to emphasize culture and care of individual woody plants (such as trees) versus large groups of plants (such as forests) and provides some great historical information behind the practice and the word itself. Although accurate, this definition also seems to fall short of the responsibilities and work performed by arborists on a daily basis, especially here among historic neighborhoods and communities of the Main Line.

The Wikipedia article on arboriculture does a rather good job at expanding on the topic through the use of terms such as study, science, risk management, and tree hazard surveys. The addition of these terms and phases implies that arborists are not simply renamed gardeners (although trees are indeed the largest, longest-lived, and most valuable plants in your garden). Through the introduction of the words risk and hazard, arboriculture (thus, arborists) suddenly has more importance, purpose, and duty beyond the maintenance of amenities. Through the use of the words science and study, the implication that there is an underlying discipline behind our actions can be correctly inferred.

An Arborist’s View

Indeed, assessing and maintaining a 100 year old, 30 ton tree over your historic home in Gwynedd or Villanova requires specialized training, knowledge, skills, insurance, and equipment (not to mention, athletic ability and nerves of steel). These large woody plants deserve a tree service that employs one or more professionally trained and preferably certified arborists. (Tip: consumers should always ask for and verify an arborist’s certification with the International Society of Arboriculture.)

Tree topping
Tree topping is an extremely harmful pruning practice that usually results in disease, structural instability, and ultimately the premature loss of the tree.



Personally, I find the answer to the question, “What is arboriculture?” to be beyond a single, literary definition. In my opinion, it is an evolving practice, science, art, and philosophy. As arborists, we have a duty to our clients, to the trees, as well as to the urban forests and communities in which they reside. Ultimately, it is how we conduct ourselves that defines what arboriculture is.

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