Yes, engagement and wedding rings do grow on trees. At least they do in the Turtle Rock section of Floyd County under the wizardry of tree whisperer Frank Hyldahl.
Hyldahl — who is also known as the Greenwood Wizard, his business name — has devised a method of tying half-knots into growing twigs on his trees. He wraps the twigs around a ring-sized form, then lets the tree grow. With a douse of his special frankincense oil, luck and a few years, the knotted ends of the twigs ultimately graft themselves into a seamless ring.
“Arborsculpture is an ancient art,” Hyldahl sayid. “People used it to form benches, artwork, keels of boats, all kinds of things. But as far as we can tell, I’m the only person who uses it to make rings.”
Hyldahl has been experimenting with tying knots in trees for the past 15 years, ever since he decided he couldn’t stomach carpentry anymore.
“I’ve always had a passion for trees. I was tired of tearing them apart and pounding them into something. It was getting hard on my body too,” said Hyldahl, 65. “I wanted to do something with living trees, get them to grow into specific shapes — to create things by growing them rather than manufacturing them.”
Hyldahl and his wife, Dawn Shiner, tossed around ideas. Jewelry appealed to them. Bracelets, it turned out, take too many years to grow and don’t fetch an adequate price. But rings could catch on, especially among what Shiner calls the “boho” crowd — creative, nature-oriented people. She said about a dozen Floyd area couples are wearing Frank’s Greenwood Wizard rings.
Hyldahl meticulously carves the rings in standard jeweler sizes in ways that maintain their grafted strength and show the beauty of their growth patterns. Although the distinctive rings make a statement for any occasion, the symbolism of the twigs growing together into a circle draws people seeking unique engagement and wedding rings.
“They are perfect for the union of two people,” Shiner said. “They also symbolize a union with trees and ecology. People who choose these rings aren’t killing a tree; they aren’t contributing to a dangerous or destructive mining process.”
Hyldahl said that the rings are grown on twigs, usually on lower branches of trees. When he prunes off the twig ends holding the ring, the tree lives on. He usually does a little carving to remove the form, or armature, he inserted in the center of the ring, but he doesn’t expose the grain ends. That would make the ring vulnerable to rot and shorten its life.
“The ring is a gift from the tree,” he said. “The growing process is something only it can do. Each one is unique. I try to follow the shape of what the ring needs to be.”
On their wooded property, Hyldahl has about a thousand wooden rings at various stages of growth. Only 45 percent ever make it to the display case. They must have the right strength and beauty before he carves and shapes and sizes them to sell.
Rings do get lost in the woods, even while attached to a tree. Hyldahl loses track of a few, sometimes for months, even on the edge of the forest where he says rings grow best. Then one day in fall when the leaves are dropping, Hyldahl or Shiner will look up and spot a “lost” ring.
Normally, Hyldahl makes the rounds daily, inspecting each ring during the active growing season. He has to make sure no buds form in the rings, no snail invades the graft, and no unruly twig slips out of the ring shape. He manages the ground cover beneath the trees and the tree canopy above his grove to keep the trees thriving. He does a lot of his twig tying in early May when growing conditions are perfect.
Hyldahl’s investment in the venture is mostly time, years and years of it. Six years elapsed between the time he tied his first twig and his first ring sale. At this point, Hyldahl says he’d like to take an apprentice or two. He’d teach them how to carve, how to skip a lot of mistakes.
“Frank is so patient,” Shiner said. “He gets to know the trees, their characteristics as species and as individuals.”
Trees put most of their growth force into top branches, Hyldahl says, so he ties rings mainly on sunny lower branches, where they grow slowly, becoming dense and strong. Some take six years to form solid rings. But a cherry ring on an upper branch can be ready within a year. Sweet birch and cherry grow quickly; locust, hickory, and chestnut are slower and harder to graft. Peach and sassafras are impossible, Hildahl says.
Greenwood Wizard has tied rings in American chestnut saplings that rise from old root systems on the ridge. He donated several rings to the American Chestnut Foundation, hoping to help the trees survive again.
Sometimes he embeds a freshwater pearl or piece of Floyd County quartz in a forming ring. This is a tricky process because the tree could reject the stone at any time. Hildahl holds the stone in place with a metal jig that the tree grows over, creating a setting that resembles an eye in an old face. These rings ring up at the high end of Greenwood Wizard’s offerings, $1,000 to $2000. Simple rings start at around $300.
Shiner, who’s a cranial-sacral bodywork therapist, handles marketing. The rings sell at Heartwood in Abingdon, Chic’s Antiques in Floyd and online at Etsy, but Shiner loves to have people come to out to the studio, see the trees and try on rings. Greenwood Wizard’s first ad will come out in July, in the FloydFest program. The funding for this ad came through a “Floyd Grown” initiative grant to help local small businesses.
But so far, buyers arrive mostly through word of mouth, Shiner says.
One of their most memorable customers was the boyfriend of a young woman who was kidnapped and held two years by Somali pirates. He wanted a special gift for her when she came home, so he contacted Greenwood Wizard about a ring.
“She loved it,” Shiner said. “She said the ring felt warm, alive on her finger. I guess she could appreciate what alive feels like.”