Ernest Borgnine Oak Consult


King of Splices
Mar 30, 2005
Snowless California
Earilier this week I was honored to have the opportunity to check out a tree at the home of Ernest Borgnine, an actor probably not recognized by todays teens and twenty year olds, but has had a decades-long stellar acting career. Over 90 years old and he's still acting to this day. If you don't know who he is, you might recognize his mug:


Well, though he has several large trees on his property, the purpose of this trip was one young coast live oak Quercus agrifolia in particular. The tree is about 30' and spreading maybe 20'. For reference, a mature tree of this species could be 40-50' tall, but spreading easily 100' if given the chance. This tree was probably not much more than 50 years old.

First thing I noticed was codominant leaders. Closer inspection showed included bark, as you'd expect. My quick thought was to cable it. Then I looked down. Check out the pictures:


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  • #3
So in the second and third pic, you see that the gardener noticed some rotting bark, then cut it all away. In one well intentioned act, he may've changed what fate held for the tree.

The fourth picture shows a girdling root following along the rock. There is a gap between the root and a decaying part of the trunk.

In the front edge of the tree on the second picture, you can see a little decay pocket that I was able to stick my (gloved) hand up about 4".

At first, the talk was about, "what can I do to save this tree?"

I explained that the outlook wasn't good for this tree. I suggested (and he was happy to pay for) a full excavation (with air spade) of the basal flare to see if it was worth keeping and to remove the girdling root. His heart was set on keeping it. I then went on to mention stabilization of some sort and talked about guying the tree via ground anchors to the side, then also a tree-to-tree guy to a nearby, large, healthy Pinus pinea.

He didn't like the idea of a maze of cable around the yard, and who would?! In the last picture, you can see how the tree was growing at the top of a ledge. If it were to fall over the ledge, it'd go right into a busy, tiny street.

We talked a little more, but I strongly suggested removal. Eventually he turned to his assistant (a nice lady) and said, "yep, we'll just have to cut her down."

He asked why it may've happened. My guess was that the tree was planted too deep and that was never remediated. There is also the chance of armillaria root rot, but I don't know enough about it to confidently mention that one to him.

The removal is going to be done later. I'm coordinating with woodworker to turn a couple bowls out of the wood. Most he'll keep, but one will be gifted to Ernie.


He seemed bummed about it, but acc
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  • #5
Only targets were the road, the house, and the fence. Who cares about the fence, though. If it hit the house, it might've busted a window.

We all agreed that the best thing would be to pull the tree and replant a new one (maybe a 36" box tree), do it right and let the new tree grow to be what an oak like that should be.


Have you given him the best advice?

The cuts are not into the cambium from what I can see.

Why not investigate further by air spade and uncover any potential armallaria or some other root decay?

Just because you dont understand the signs and symptoms of root disease does not mean that you should recommend removal.....

Sounds like a nice guy who is all too willing to take your advice, so just make damm sure it is GOOD advice.
If you dont know, then for heavens sake get someone in there who does know...

I sure like that actor!

Just my .02 cents
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Frans, you ask a good question. I guess the answer is that I gave that best advice I could give. I hate killing trees, but this one really seemed like a no-brainer to me. I don't know the hard and fast rules about how much decay can exist at the base of a tree and still be considered safe, but I don't see this tree growing up to be large and healthy, the the canopy looked very good.

I know several Registered Consulting Arborists that might be able to have a look. I'll see if I can arrange that.

Nick, was that area of discolaration that you show in the pics a result of removing soil from around the tree or is there a picture missing... I'm wondering if there was a root encircling around the base of the tree, that was removed and then a picture taken?

In that situation, I would not be surprised at all that there would be root damage from armillaria (Lawn within inches of the base of the tree....:|:)

If the client was willing to do excavation to determine the state of the root crown and surrounding roots, why not go that direction before recommending removal? If there was little evidence of decay found, there might be hope for cabling/bracing this tree and continued monitor (depending on what level of risk the client was willing to assume --> as has been discussed extensively on these forums).

Great case study, thanks for posting!

Frans, you ask a good question. I guess the answer is that I gave that best advice I could give.

I disagree. As an arborist you have contacts and resources which can provide the answer that your customer has no idea of.

They come TO YOU for answers, and our customers (IMO) deserve the very best effort.

Imagine going to the doctor with say, a weird disease of some sort. Your doctor, being a general practitioner, does not know what the heck is going on with you. So the doctor says, hey just take it easy for a year or so and it will go away.
You die a week later.

You would expect that doctor to call in a specialist to figure it out.

Having said all that, it IS a Coastal Live Oak, Quercus agrifolia, and considering it's growing zone, and condition, it prob. is not worth too much effort.
It wouldn't take a maze of cables. Only one above the primary crotch would be enough to keep it from splitting.

The root flare is atypical I'll grant you that, but not enough to warrent removal. By the pics the tree appears to favor towards the slope, away from the house. It's young and vigorous, the cable plus a minor limb tip reduction on the house side could ensure many years of safe co-habitation with the tree.

God save the Borgnine oak!
Nick, it pains me greatly to say this, but I agree with Frans 100%, except for the apparent species bias.

It looks from the picture that the crown has been reduced--what is the mtc history?

The bark just looks scuffed--don't see where the landscaper hit cambium.

I think I see one buttress root, but the soil may be still too close to the trunk to see what is really going on. Gotta dig some more, but I would NOT remove that circling (not girdling) root yet. It looks like the trunk is dented where it hits that root when the wind blows. You have made a good start, and maybe it's just the pics, but it does not look like you have not yet examined the entire root crown (RCX).

Quoth Dendro: "No Rx without an RCX".

O and guy wires can be functional and attractive, supporting bird feeders, wind chimes, wind socks... And the tree could be (further?) reduced, if stability is a concern.

Borgnine's best role was Marty. O and don't be so dazzled by stardom that you don't get paid well for your time. Think royalties. As with untangling vines from branches, the most important part of the job is to think before giving a firm quote, and go on the clock whenever possible. After all, the object of the job is out of sight, and it takes time to avoid injuring the trunk or removing too many roots at one time.

if you choose to call in an asca person i'd recommend mark porter. That tree is a long way from condemnation. O and how is our friend Pitt?
Was that sarcasm Frans?? :X

Q. agrifolia are royalty IMHO. 8)

Aye aye!


Very honestly, No that was not sarcasm.
If you thought that I do not like them, then you are wrong. Often my written word comes off wrong.

I say this based on the fact that coastal live oaks are VERY fast growing trees, and the one in question is fairly young.
I would probably say removal....airspade if they want to pay the bucks. The lack of root flare is a bit sketchy....:/:
I can't see any good reason for keeping the tree. It has major genetic defects in the trunk structure and major root issues. John is right about the lack of root flare. It was probably planted too deep. Why would you keep it? "Oh, it looks pretty and provides shade".

Or leave it until it falls over. Who knows, it might not fall over. Then you can say that you were right and that you 'saved' the tree. :|:
jon i have a soft spot for agrifolia also. this tree doesnt have enough pics to make a decision imo, nick is very tree huggerish and if he says remove it i doubt i would try and save it, but till your on site you cant say for certain
I can't see any good reason for keeping the tree. It has major genetic defects in the trunk structure and major root issues.
Brian, how can you sit in Orlando and diagnose "major root issues" in LA? :what: Only 1 and a fraction of the roots are visible in the pictures. I see a lot of codom trunks and a lot of buried flares, but only a small % of those need removal.
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  • #21
The tree has been heavily pruned, maintained at that size for as long as Ernest and his assistant could remember.

The splitting trunk is of little to no concern to me. Simple cable, maybe through-rod would fix that. Probably just the cable.

jp- there wasn't another girdling root circling the whole tree. There was some rotting trunk tissue and the gardener removed it all, perhaps with a machete or little hoe of some sort.

I'll see if it's not too late to get in there and try to see more and perhaps do a proper excavation.

Guy- Pitt gets done tomorrow afternoon. I can't wait!

I think its kool someone with a million $'s gives a darn about a tree. Right on Ernest!
I would put 1 Cobra cable in it, I would not trim it now. Give it the nuke juice called Cambistat and call it a day. In the dead of winter Dec/Jan punch a few holes in the canopy to allow wind/light thru. Remove no more than 5 % the first and second years. On the 5th year of its pruning schedule a final 5% if needed to allow more light/ wind thru. Its not large enough to cause much considerable damage so I wouldn't remove it.
I think your right Nick the thru rod wouldnt help it much because 1. It would look bad(beings the bolt would be knee high) and 2. Its not gonna support much beings the crotch is so low.
Because it is a forest tree in a urban location? I'd want the tree to anchor down with its roots and slow the growth process (elongation) up top in its crown. It is small and pretty. Keep it that way with the dwarfing effect of Cambistat. I'm sorry his past treeman did not put a cable in it already. A self-adjusting Cobra cable not a metal/wire one.
Robert I would check for yourself the long term effects of Cambistat.

You might be surprised