Nov. 14, 1997

University gardener's invention makes trees look bad for their own good

spraying pink ugly mix
Robert Barker/University Photography
Gerardo Sciarra, veteran gardener at Cornell Plantations, applies some of the Pink Ugly Mix he developed to discourage evergreen theft during the holiday season.

ITHACA, N.Y. -- Eleven months a year, grounds workers at Cornell University's arboretum strive to keep the greenery attractive. Then, a month before Christmas, the arborists make some evergreens unappealing to potential thieves by coating boughs with Pink Ugly Mix, a Cornell invention that has saved countless trees from tinsel in Ithaca and across the United States.

Along New York's Long Island Expressway, for example, state Department of Transportation (NYSDOT) workers this year are spraying don't-wannabe Christmas trees with Pink Ugly Mix, using a four-part recipe that any landowner can follow.

Pink Ugly Mix was devised by Gerardo Sciarra, a veteran gardener at Cornell Plantations, the department that cares for the university's arboretum, natural areas and specialty gardens. Sciarra despaired at coming to work at holiday time and finding jagged stumps where magnificent evergreens lived the day before. Many of the stolen trees were planted as memorials by families and classmates, and none deserved the Yule ax. So the gardener perfected a nontoxic solution that makes trees look bad for their own good:

-- 1 gallon of water

-- 15 ounces hydrated lime (not agricultural lime)

-- 4 ounces Wilt-pruf (or other commercially available tree protectant)

-- 2 ounces red food color

Mix ingredients in a large pail or other container. Stirring the solution is extremely important, both before and during use. Apply with a tank sprayer, broom or large brush. Conditions at time of application should be dry and above freezing, otherwise the mix freezes before it dries and slides off the tree. More food coloring may be added to make the mix a brighter shade of pink.

Cornell Plantations workers apply Pink Ugly Mix to susceptible trees after the Thanksgiving weekend. The substance, which enhances the soil and does not damage trees, lasts through December -- unless the season is unusually rainy -- then dissolves with exposure to the elements.

Coating trees with Pink Ugly Mix, said NYSDOT landscape architect Gary Gentile, makes them look "like a 3-year-old sprayed them with something putrid. Think vomit."

"Better yet, think about buying a living tree," suggested Cornell Plantations Director Donald Rakow, "and plant it after the holidays."