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Lighting Historic Trees
Illuminating a Canopy Without Damaging a Tree

by Alli Rael, LC/DBM


This home in Miami Beach, Fla., has five historic banyan trees that are more than 100 years old. Tom Crowley of Paradise Landscape Lighting was tasked with their illumination, given the challenge that local ordinance dictates that these historic trees cannot have nails or staples in them. "The city doesn't mind them lit," said Crowley, "but they came and inspected the trees to make sure that nothing was connected to them."


This tree sits in the middle of the home's motor court - "literally in the center of the driveway," according to Crowley. "I had to make it look beautiful from all angles." To do so, he mounted 14 lights at 13.5 watts each on 30" extensions that are mostly concealed within the hedge that surrounds the tree.


The extensions used for the lights were custom made by the manufacturer to meet Crowley's specifications. "Vista will make an extension in any size," he said. He used 5' long lead wires for the extensions - usually the wires are only 3' long, but when using a 30" extension, the extra length is necessary. Also, he notes, the extensions are the same color as the fixture, giving a clean look.

When asked to light historic trees that are protected by local ordinances, such as the 100-year-old banyan trees at this Miami Beach, Fla., home, there are few options available. LC/DBM talked with Tom Crowley, owner of Paradise Landscape Lighting, to discuss the two options: junction boxes strapped to branches, or extensions aimed at the canopy from the ground.

Installing a tree-mounted junction box is just like putting on a bicycle helmet. Two nylon straps support a junction box where a light is installed, and quick-locking fasteners secure it around the tree branch. The nylon straps should be adjusted to fit tight around the branch or trunk.

Once the box is strapped to the tree, a liquid tight connector (provided by the manufacturer) is secured to the box, and the main supply cable is fed through. The luminaire is installed and secured with screws. Then connections can be made and wires inserted into the box. Turn on the power to the junction box, and make sure it's working properly - and that's all it takes to get the light running.

The aesthetics are another facet.

"The wire goes down from the box onto the trunk of the tree," said Crowley. "You hide the wires coming down the tree in the least viewed area."

He added that the straps come in different lengths, and depending on the situation, he finds it beneficial to trim the excess nylon.

Works Well With Others

According to Crowley, the biggest challenge for lighting this property was that the historic home was under renovation, and he had to work around several crews doing different tasks on the property, including the crew that installed this marble paver path in grass along one side of the house.

Normally, Crowley would have used above ground spotlights to light these hedges - "I don't like people to see the LED," he explained - but due to the size and layout of the space, the lights would have been practically in the walkway. To prevent tripping, he used in-ground well lights. The timing of this installation had to be coordinated with the paver installer.

"The pavers were evenly divided, so I told the hardscape crew to let me put the lights where I want, and you put your pavers around it," Crowley said. "I wanted the hedge to have a perfect, even look, and that's what ended up happening."

By working with the hardscapes team, both the lighting and the marble installations met the homeowner's expectations.

Extensions are Crowley's preferred method for lighting trees such as this, and the primary method he used to light the five banyan trees.

"One tree sits in the middle of the main motor court, literally in the center of the driveway," said Crowley. "I had to make it look beautiful from all angles." Fourteen fixtures placed around the tree on 30-inch extensions did the trick. Each light is 13.5 watts and 725 lumens.

"In Florida, many trees have a level of lower foliage around them," he explained. "I take a measuring tape and measure how high the foliage is, and have the extension made."

If the foliage around the tree is 25 inches high, a good estimate is to get an extension between 23 and 25 inches tall. The fixture will stick out slightly above the hedge, but the foliage won't grow over it or obscure the lighting over time.


The other option for lighting trees without puncturing their trunks or branches is to use a junction box mounted to two straps that connect together like a bicycle helmet. The straps wrap around the branch snugly, and connections are made inside the box. The wire goes down the trunk of the tree through the ring on the bottom of the box. Different sizes are available, and each comes with adjustable straps - Crowley sometimes likes to cut off the extra material, depending on the situation. He used junction boxes from Vista Professional Outdoor Lighting, but they are also available from several other manufacturers.


Following several trips to the property to plan the lighting, the installation itself took a crew of six just two days to complete. The biggest challenge they encountered was working around - and sometimes working with - other crews who were renovating different parts of the property.


In addition to the massive trees, Crowley was also tasked with illuminating the hedges that surround the property. For these, he used an assortment of 4.5 and 5.5-watt in-ground fixtures from the same manufacturer.

A common mistake Crowley sees with the use of extensions is the unintentional creation of hot spots on tree trunks. This comes about when the light is too close to the tree, and is solved with a little pullback.

"For the banyan trees, the lights are a good eight feet out from the trunk - that's why you have this whole big canopy so well lit," said Crowley.

"Of course, it's also a huge tree," he added. Smaller trees will require less pullback for adequate canopy lighting.

The concept of pullback also applies when lighting other landscape elements, including, for example, hedges. In this case, Crowley was tasked with lighting hedges along the side of the house, but in order to properly light them, he had to place the fixtures practically in the walkway. He was able to successfully illuminate the foliage with in-ground well lights and a little cooperation from the hardscape installation team.

After six or seven site visits to plan, Crowley estimated his crew of six would need two days to complete the lighting installation. His estimation turned out to be just right, which he chalks up to experience.

"I look at the level of difficulty and what we have to do to conceal the wires or make it clean," said Crowley when asked how he estimates the time he spends on a project.

Lighting maintenance is not an issue for Crowley. "If you install the lights correctly, the quality lasts so long there's no need for a maintenance program," he said. "Six months, eight months later, the property looks as good as the day I did the installation."

All About Banyans

Banyan trees are members of the genus Ficus, and are hardy to zone 10 and above. Established trees are drought tolerant.

Also known as a "strangler fig," banyan trees form by enveloping and choking out a host tree. The host tree can decompose inside the banyan, leaving a hollow central core. The tree's distinct trunk is created when roots from the banyan spread down from branches and root into the ground.

While native to India and Pakistan, the first banyan tree in the United States was reportedly planted by Thomas Edison in Fort Myers, Fla., in conjunction with Henry Ford in an effort to make tire production more cost effective, as some species are a source of rubber.

The largest banyan tree noted in the Guinness Book of World Records is over 200 years old and in the Indian Botanical Gardens. Its canopy reportedly spreads over eight acres. In contrast, banyan trees are sometimes cultivated as bonsai and grown indoors in small pots.

As seen in LC/DBM magazine, April 2017.

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January 22, 2019, 12:00 pm PST

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