Connected \\ May 10, 2021

Efforts underway to assess health of copper beech tree in Ropes Mansion Garden

For more than 100 years, a towering copper beech tree with an expansive canopy of lustrous red-wine leaves has sheltered visitors to the Ropes Mansion. “It is truly the star of the garden,” says PEM’s Head Gardener Robin Pydynkowski, standing a few feet from the base of its smooth, elephantine trunk. “Everyone loves this tree. For a surprising number of people, this is the first copper beech they have ever seen.”

Salem botanist John Robinson first planted the tree, believed to be a transplant from the Arnold Arboretum in Jamaica Plain, on the west side of the Ropes Mansion in 1913. It has grown into the stately beauty that graces the property today.

It was during a routine inspection of the tree last June that crews noticed an ominous sign, a fruiting body referred to as a conk protruding from a section of the bark. It was the first evidence of a possible fungal infection that plagues older trees like this one. In consultation with PEM’s longtime arborist, initial concerns were validated — the beech tree had been infected with a ganoderma fungi. It’s a deceitful invader as there are often no external signs of the irrevocable damage happening inside.

PEM gardening team member Katelyn Sponholtz documents the size and location of the conk.

PEM gardening team member Katelyn Sponholtz documents the size and location of the conk.

“The sad truth is there is no cure for ganoderma. What we are trying to do is hit it with everything we’ve got to prolong its life,” explains Pydynkowski, who has cared for the garden since 2008. Over the last year, an aggressive treatment of fungicide and pesticides was applied to limit the growth of the tree while also promoting the health of the root system. The tree can no longer be pruned to avoid creating open wounds that would compromise its health.

Additional measures include adding a protective layer of aged fine mulch and compost around the base of the trunk, and installing a rope fence to keep people off the gnarled roots and discourage anyone from carving their initials into the bark.

A new sign will remind people to not carve their initials into the tree, which creates a gateway for harmful pathogens.

A new sign will remind people to not carve their initials into the tree, which creates a gateway for harmful pathogens.

In late May, Dr. Nicholas Brazee, a plant pathologist from the University of Massachusetts Plant Diagnostic Laboratory, is scheduled to come to Salem to perform two tomography tests to better gauge the extent of the damage. The technique is akin to performing an ultrasound or CT scan to inspect the interior health of the tree.

Dr. Nicholas Brazee will use tomography equipment like this when he comes to PEM next month

Dr. Nicholas Brazee will use tomography equipment like this when he comes to PEM next month.


“In the majority of the cases with ganoderma, there are no visible symptoms and the tree otherwise looks healthy,” explains Brazee. “We know this tree has been infected, now we need to determine how severe it is. It’s not uncommon, just a natural process as trees age they develop decay in the roots and trunk.”

It’s possible the upcoming tests will determine that the decay is in its early stages and the beech tree could remain in place and continue to be monitored closely. However, if the examination reveals evidence of significant decay in the heartwood, the recommendation will be to remove the tree.

While the tree may appear fine on the outside, the stem could fail without warning and pose a threat to public safety and the adjacent Ropes Mansion, particularly in the event of heavy winds. “It’s all very sad to think about, but I think you have to prepare yourself for that possibility,” says Pydynkowski. “We have always taken very good care of this tree because of its maturity and proximity to the house and we are proud of that. Still, it does not make any of this easier.”

A recent photograph of the copper beech tree shows its close proximity to the Ropes Mansion.

A recent photograph of the copper beech tree shows its close proximity to the Ropes Mansion. Photo by Kathy Tarantola/PEM

In the meantime, the demands of the spring season keep Pydynkowski busy and her mind occupied. “One thing about gardening is that it’s ever hopeful,” she says. Come May, she will oversee the planting of 4,500 colorful annuals, including a new 5-foot-tall “crazy orange” amaranthus and several new varieties of salvia.

“The hummingbirds discovered us last year, finally, and they love the salvia,” she explains. The black swallowtail and Eastern tiger swallowtail butterflies are also frequent garden visitors, and many of the plant selections are made to deliberately entice these pretty pollinators.

Plants are deliberately chosen to draw butterflies and hummingbirds to the garden. Photo by Kathy Tarantola/PEM.


This spring, PEM has expanded its crew of garden volunteers, and will once again invite families to sign up for shifts in May to help plant flowers and dig in the dirt as part of the Little Green Thumbs project.

As a result of the pandemic, more people have embraced the healing properties of the outdoors, a scenario that has certainly played out within this little haven tucked off Essex Street that welcomes visitors 365 days a year. Pydynkowski says she’s particularly enjoyed seeing all the new puppies and their families discover the garden.

“It’s just a riot; we’ve met Nessie and Harper, Booker, Freckles. We’ve had such a great time meeting all of them and seeing this newfound joy,” says Pydynkowski. “Everybody in the neighborhood takes such great stewardship of this special place. It’s just wonderful to see.”

A neighbor and her dog Tupelo enjoy an afternoon walk in the garden. Photo by Kathy Tarantola/PEM.


A blue sign in front of the beech tree

Photo by Kathy Tarantola/PEM.

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