Tree Notes is about trees -- especially native trees, trees for wildlife, and trees in history.

Friday, July 27, 2007

Wood that is durable underground

Woods with natural resistance to rot

On the Library of Congress American Memory website, I found some old magazine reports of studies done in the 1800s on the durability of wood . It's interesting, but not surprising, to see that those researchers discovered what every fence builder knows -- red cedar and black locust are naturally rot-resistant woods. (Their studies didn't include redwood or bald-cypress, two other woods with excellent resistance to decay.)

If you need modern research on the durability of various wood when used as fence posts, a good study to read is Service life of treated and untreated fence posts. But, just because they're interesting, here are the old studies of rot-resistance that I found in Manufacturer and Builder, a magazine from the late 1800s.

In some tests made with small squares of various woods buried an inch in the ground, the following results, says the Garden, were noted:

-- Birch and aspen decayed in 3 years
-- Willow and horse chestnut in 4 years
-- Maple and red beech in 5 years
-- Elm, ash, hornbeam and Lombardy poplar in 7 years
-- Oak, Scotch fir, Weymouth pine and silver fir decayed to a depth of half an inch in 7 years
-- Larch, juniper and arborvitae were uninjured at the expiration of the 7 years.

Source: Durability of Woods. [Manufacturer and builder / Volume 17, Issue 11, p.242, November 1885]

Here's a five-year wood-durability study that involved wood stakes placed six inches in the ground:

Durability of Various Kinds of Wood.

ACCORDING to the Nautical Magazine, the following are the particulars of experiments made on several kinds of wood, 1-1/2 inches square and 2 feet long, placed vertically in the ground, and about 1 foot 6 inches exposed to the atmosphere, January 1st, 1831; examined at two different times, namely, May 8th, 1833, and February 24th, 1836:

Leaf or live-oak
-- Very good, 1833
-- Three much decayed, the rest tolerable, 1836

Canada white-oak
-- Very much decayed, 1833
-- Very bad, and rotten, 1836

Memel oak
-- Very much decayed, 1833
-- Verybad, and rotten, 1836

Dantzic oak
-- Very much decayed, 1833
-- Exceedingly bad, 1836

Mahogany, hard
-- Good, 1833
-- Tolerably good, 1836

Mahogany, soft
-- Much decayed, 1833
-- Very bad, totally decayed, 1836

Lebanon cedar
-- Good, 1833
-- Tolerably good, 1836

Pencil cedar
-- Very good, 1833
-- All very good, as put in the ground, 1836

Teak, heavy
-- Very good, 1833
-- Rather soft, but good, 1836

Fir, red pine
-- Much decayed, 1833
-- Very rotten, 1836

Fir, yellow pine
-- Very much decayed, 1833
-- Very rotten, 1836

Fir, Virginia pine
-- Decayed, 1833
-- Very rotten, 1836

Fir, pitch pine, hea-
-- Decayed 1/(?) of an inch, the rest good, 1833
-- Decayed 1/4 of an inch, the rest tolerably good, 1836

Fir. pitch pine, light.
-- Very rotten, 1833
-- Very rotten, 1836

Polish larch
-- Decayed 1/4 in the surface, and lost in weight, 1833
-- Decayed 1/4, the rest a little decayed, 1836

English elm
-- Very rotten, 1833
-- All rotten, 1836

Canada rock-elm....
-- Very rotten, 1833
-- Rotten, 1836

American ash
-- Very rotten, 1833
-- Rotten, 1836

Locust tree-nails....
-- Good, and retained their weight, 1833
-- 1/8 inch rottem. time rest, the rest as solid as when put into the ground, 1836

Source: Durability of Various Kinds of Wood. [Manufacturer and builder / Volume 3, Issue 4, p. 74, April 1871]

And yet another report on the durability of various wood stakes when almost completely buried in the ground...

EXPERIMENTS have been lately made by driving sticks, made of different woods, each 2 feet long and 1-1/2 inch square, into the ground, only 1/2 inch projecting outward. It was found that in five years:

-- All those made of oak, elm, aspin, fir, soft mahogany, and nearly every variety of pine, were totally rotten.
-- Larch, hard pine, and teak-wood were decayed on the outside only.
-- Acacia, with the exception of being also slightly attacked on the exterior, was otherwise sound.
-- Hard mahogany and cedar of Lebanon were in tolerably good condition.
-- Only Virginia cedar was found as good as when put in the ground.

This is of some importance to builders, showing what woods should be avoided, and what others used by preference in underground work.

Source: Durability of Different Woods. [Manufacturer and builder / Volume 3, Issue 12, p. 278, December 1871]

1 comments -- please add yours:

wondering jube said...

Thank you for these histrocial notes. I have read somewhere that catalpa was preferred for railway ties/sleepers, because of decay resistance in this role

Click any label...

advice (45) alder trees (1) Arbor Day (1) ash trees (11) Atlantic white cedar (1) atmosphere (2) autumn (1) bald cypress trees (8) bark (8) bayberry trees (1) beech trees (8) big trees (11) birch trees (2) black cherry trees (1) black locust trees (2) black walnut trees (7) Bradford pear trees (2) buckeye trees (2) butternut trees (1) catalpa trees (4) cherry trees (2) chestnut trees (1) Christmas trees (1) copyright (1) corkwood (1) crabapple trees (1) dogwood trees (6) drought (2) Eastern redbud trees (5) Eastern redcedar (5) ecosystem (6) education (5) elm trees (4) emerald ash borer (11) Empress tree (2) fast growing trees (7) festivals and carnivals (2) fir trees (1) firewood (6) foliage (11) forest (14) forest fires (1) forestry (7) freebies (2) ginkgo trees (1) hackberry trees (4) hawthorn trees (3) hemlock trees (1) hickory trees (11) historic trees (9) history (42) holly trees (1) honeylocust trees (2) hophornbean trees (1) hoptree (1) hornbeam trees (2) internet (3) invasive (13) juniper trees (5) Kentucky coffeetree (2) landscaping (3) larch trees (1) linden trees (1) logging (4) maple trees (10) mimosa trees (3) mistakes (14) narrow trees (1) native fruit (9) native trees (16) oak trees (38) old growth forests (5) ornamental trees (6) osage orange (5) pawpaw trees (1) pecan trees (1) persimmon tree (3) pine trees (9) poems (5) poison-sumac (1) poplar trees (10) prehistoric trees (3) quizzes etc. (1) rhododendron trees (1) sassafras trees (3) serviceberry trees (2) Silver maple trees (2) small trees (4) spring (7) spruce trees (4) statistics (2) sumac trees (4) sweetgum trees (4) sycamore trees (10) tall trees (5) tree cavities (1) tree identification (8) Tree of heaven (2) tree planting (11) tree problems (40) tree removal (2) tree roots (5) trees for problem spots (7) tuliptrees (tulip poplar) (2) urban forest (7) viburnum trees (1) wetlands (5) wild plum trees (4) wildlife trees (27) willow trees (6) witchhazel trees (1) woodworking (2) yellowwood trees (1) yew trees (1)

Enrich your life with the study of trees.

"The power to recognize trees at a glance without examining their leaves or flowers or fruit as they are seen, for example, from the car-window during a railroad journey, can only be acquired by studying them as they grow under all possible conditions over wide areas of territory. Such an attainment may not have much practical value, but once acquired it gives to the possessor a good deal of pleasure which is denied to less fortunate travelers."

Charles Sprague Sargent (1841-1927)

Print references I frequently consult

Benvie, Sam. Encyclopedia of North American Trees. Buffalo, NY: Firefly, 2000.

Brockman, C. Frank. Trees of North America: A Guide to Field Identification. Ed. Herbert S. Zim. New York: Golden, 1986.

Cliburn, Jerry, and Ginny Clomps. A Key to Missouri Trees in Winter: An Identification Guide. Conservation Commission of the State of Missouri, 1980.

Collingwood, G. H., Warren David Brush, and Devereux Butcher. Knowing Your Trees. Washington: American Forestry Association, 1978.

Dirr, Michael. Dirr's Hardy Trees and Shrubs: an Illustrated Encyclopedia. Portland, Or.: Timber, 1997.

Elias, Thomas S. The Complete Trees of North America; Field Guide and Natural History. New York: Book Division, Times Mirror Magazines, 1980.

Grimm, William Carey. The Book of Trees;. Harrisburg, PA: Stackpole, 1962.

Hightshoe, Gary L. Native Trees, Shrubs, and Vines for Urban and Rural America: a Planting Design Manual for Environmental Designers. New York: Van Nostrand Reinhold, 1988.

Little, Elbert L. National Audubon Society Field Guide to North American Trees. New York: Chanticleer, 1996.

Martin, Alexander C., Herbert S. Zim, and Arnold L. Nelson. American Wildlife and Plants. New York: McGraw Hill, 1951.

Mitchell, Alan F., and David More. The Trees of North America. New York, NY: Facts On File Publications, 1987.

Randall, Charles E. Enjoying Our Trees. Washington: American Forestry Association, 1969.

Settergren, Carl D., and R. E. McDermott. Trees of Missouri. Columbia: University Extension, 1995.

Sternberg, Guy, and James W. Wilson. Native Trees for North American Landscapes: from the Atlantic to the Rockies. Portland: Timber, 2004.

Wharton, Mary E., and Roger W. Barbour. Trees and Shrubs of Kentucky. Lexington: University of Kentucky, 1973.

Wyman, Donald. Trees for American Gardens. New York: Macmillan, 1965.

Photos and text copyright © 2006-2013 by Genevieve L. Netz. All rights reserved. Do not republish without written permission. My e-mail address is