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Live Fence Posts in Costa Rica:

A Compilation of the Farmer's Beliefs

and Technologies
Gerard? Budow,ski
Ricardo 0. Russo

ABSTRACT. Live fence posts are widely used in Costa Rica and
other Cenhal American countries as a sustainable agricultural prac-
tice. The Costa Rican farmers' empirical knowledge was compiled
through a questionnaire, field measurements and literature review.
Ninety two species used for live fences were recorded and tabulated.
The management practices (preparation of stakes,planting, attaching
wire, pruning regimes) and the various uses are discussed. The bio-
mass production of a kilometer of one live fence was measured. It is
concluded that this is indeed a very promising sustainable practice
which deserves more research and dissemination.


The construction and maintenance of agricultural fencing has the poten-

tial to become sustainable through the use of renewable resources. In
Costa Rica, as well as in other tropical American countries, many fences
or enclosures are constructed by stringing barbed wire on trees serving as
fence posts. According to the diversity of climates and the corresponding
life zones found in Costa Rica, a great variety of tree species are used for
live fence posts (see Photo 1). They are usually propagated from large
- - -

Gerafdo Budowski is affiiated with the University for Peace, Program fm

Natural Resources and Quality of Life, San Jos6, Costa Rica
Ricardo 0.Russo is affiliated with Yale University, School of Forestry and
Environmental Studies, New Haven, CT.
Journal of Sustainable Agriculture, Vol. 3(2) 1993
O 1993 by The Haworth Press, Inc. All rights reserved. 65
Research, Reviews, Practices ond Tech~tology 67

cuttings or stakes (about 2-2.50 m). Each species has its own particular
growth characteristics, cultivation requirements, management practices,
derived products, and benefits. These trees may provide wood for fuel and
charcoal or for construction (poles, posts, pillars, etc.), edible fruits and
flowers, flowers for honey, leaf forage for cattle and other domestic mi-
mals (e.g., goats, rabbits, and chickens), handicraft (seeds used for beads,
ornamental wood), medicinal products, gums and resins, dyes as well as
various other products. These plants also have great value as ornamentals
and as a refuge for wild animals, notably birds. Additionally, they continu-
ally yield new cuttings for more fence posts. However, their main purpose
is to serve as physical support to attach rows (usually 3, but their number
may vary from 2 to 5) of barbed wire so as to effectively protect houses,
crops, cattle and pastures or differenttypes of gardens. Furthermore,living
fences provide conspicuous and fm boundaries to separate properties or
areas within properties or pastures. When cuttings are planted very closely
and sometimes associated with smaller plants that may be spiny (e.g.,
Bromelia pinguin), or poisonous (e.g., Euphorbia cotinifolia and Hura
crepitans), they can also provide an effective barrier to cattle and people,
even without use of barbed wire.
Many other benefits and services are also provided. The leaves shed by
live fences serve as mulch and release nutrients to adjacent crops. The
periodic pollarding (cutting back the crown of the fence posts) results in
starving and death of roots, leading to small air channels in the soil which
favors water infiltration. Other benefits include nitrogen fixation by some
species, specially legumes, erosion control and better infiltration of water,
provision of shade, use as wind-breaks, niches for insecteating buds,
support for orchids and ornamental plants and many other additional uses.
A fair statement is that they have considerableaesthetic value. Whether as
part of the landscape or from the beauty of their flowers and branching
forms, live fence rows provide a pleasant break to the monotony of many
grass-dominated landscapes.
Many farmers, ranchers and rural laborers are experienced with the use
of live-fence posts; some have well defined criteria concerning planting
practices and the advantages and disadvantages of various species. But
their knowledge is empirical and with the exceptionof a few species, such
as Gliricidia sepium (Baggio, 1982; Beliard, 1984), this has not been
quantified. The purpose of the present investigation is to overview present
technologies and beliefs concerning live fence posts used in Costa Rica
and to support obse~atiofl~ with farmer interviews, some field measure-
ments, a literature review, and other experiences by the authors over the
last 10 years.


Live fence posts have been recorded in the literature by many authors
and travelers. While barrier and ornamental hedges had been employed
traditionally by native people and by the Spaniards after the conquest of
America, references are scanty, and the practice may not have been as
common as it is today. It was not until the 19th Century that the use of
living trees as fence posts came to be recognized particularly for use as a
support to attach barbed wire. Early and continuing mention of some of
the various species used is found in some treatises of economic plants,
propagation and gardening books, and forestry manuals (Holdridge, 1970;
Logsdon, 1978; Mintz, 1962). Most references on live fence posts species
are found in some national or regional floras on the notes concerning
utilization,or as short descriptivenotes inmanuals and books on ornarnen-
tal or commercial trees in the tropical American region (Duke, 1972) as
well as in other regions of the world (Bond, 1944, Standley and Steyer-
mark, 1946; Howes, 1946; Martinez, 1959). Several of the most common
species such as Gliricidia sepium, Bursera simaruba and Spondiaspurpu-
rea are now widely planted throughout the tropics. Moreover, several
species of genera such as Erythrina are native to both the old and the new
world where they are sometimes widely planted and the knowledge is
often transferable.
Gliricidia has been introduced to many countries, notably in South
East Asia and lately in Africa where it is commonly planted for various
purposes, although less frequently than in tropical America. In tropical
Africa, for instance in Nigeria, it has become very popular as a live
support for yams (Dioscorea spp.), but it has also other uses (Bond, 1944).
Sumberg (1986) cites 143 references for Gliricidia sepium, some of them
annotated, while at the Tropical Agricultural Center for Research and
Training (CATIE) in Tunialba, Costa Rica, a bibliography concerning the
genus Erythrina, widely used for fences has been compiled with about 500
references (Centro Agron6mico Tropical de hvestigaci6n y Enseiianza,
Howes (1946), in one of the first reports specifically concerning live
fences in the tropics, described and enumerated a variety of trees, shrubs
and cacti used in or as fences for a diversity of purposes in Africa, India,
Australia and New Zealand. Crane (1945) reported informal trials to select
the most appropriate species for live fence posts. Specifically mentioned
are Gliricidia sepium, Erythrina berteroana, E. poeppigiana, Bursera si-
maruba and others used at that time in Cuba. Burgos (1952) made recom-
mendations as to species and practices in the humid lowland forest areas of
eastern Peru. Allen (1977) recorded 7 species used for live fence posts in
Research, Reviews, Practices and Technology 69

Southwest Costa Rica making a useful contribution toward elucidating the

multiple purposes which live fence posts serve.
At Tunialba, Costa Rica, many research theses are related to live fence
posts. For instance, de Vastey (1962), included several live fence post
species in an exploratory study to determine the possibilities of vegetative
propagation of small cuttings using hormones. More related to the subject
of fences, Lozano (1962) investigated improved methods for successful
rooting of large cuttings from Gliricidia sepim, Erythrina costaricensis
and E. poeppigiana. This author analyzed which species were best suited
for different conditions, suggested better planting practices and empha-
sized seasonal timing for planting the cuttings. Budowski (1977) included
live fence as a promising line of research for an international research
program in agroforestry. Later, the author brought forth the various advan-
tages and drawbacks of live fence posts over usual (dead) wooden posts
(Budowski, 1982) and emphasized living fences in tropical America as a
widespread agroforestry practice (Budowski, 1987). A more specfic pa-
per on live fence posts used in Costa Rica was prepared by Sauer (1979).
He listed 43 species including not only those planted by large cuttings,but
also those that have been planted by seed or are allowed to grow from
natural regeneration to serve as hedges or fences. He delineated their
climatic boundaries and included various economics and historical notes
and observations.Sauer made a strong plea to maintain diversity as part of
the fence-post hedgerow complex.


An extensive literature review on species used for live fences in Costa

Rica was carried out at Orton Memorial Library, CATIE, Tumalba, Costa
Rica. Species reported in at least one reference, were recorded and tabu-
lated by scientificname, common name, family, life zone, uses and propa-
gation procedures when possible. This data was compiled over a three year
An informal questionnaire was used to int&view farmers who were
particularly knowledgeable and experiencedwith living fences in different
regions of the country. These interviews involved visits to the farms and
conversationswith the fanners. Emphasis was placed on the number and
frequency of species used in each region; thus some areas received more
intensive scrutiny. Farmers were asked about their experiences, practices
and observations concerning the live fence species they used As the
investigation progressed, trials on rooting stakes were undertaken
(Shchez and Russo, 1985). Furthermore, a 100 m fence of Eryrhrina

berteroana was pollarded and measured at Turrialba (Budowski, Russo

and Mora, 1985).


The results of the literaturereview, complemented by the interviews are

summarized in Table 1. It can be observed that some fence species are
quite site specific while others seem to be adapted to broad range of
climatic zones. Caesalpinia eriostachys Benth., for instance, is planted
only in lowland1 regions of relatively low rainfall around 1400-1800mm,
with a well marked, 5-6 months dry season, while Drimys winteri fences
are used at higher elevations (between 1500-2800 m) on the slopes of the
volcanoes, or elsewhere above 1500 m. Moreover, the ubiquitous Clirici-
dia sepium ranges from low elevation in wet habitats to middle elevation
with alternating low and high rainfall and to regimes of relatively dry and
hot climate where it often forms natural pure stands. Bursera simaruba is
employed as a fence tree at low and medium elevation in dry and wet
climates on good to extremely poor soils. In dry habitats it appears to be a
native species on rocky outcrops reaching about 6 to 15 m high, as part of
the climax deciduous forest of the pacific lowlands. But on-the Atlantic
coast. with rainfall usuallv over 2500 mm and sometimes above 4000 mm.
it is usually a secondary species and may reach 30 m height or more, rarely
losing its leaves throughout the year.
he growth of fen& posts: Most live fence posts species, if not pruned
and allowed to grow, will eventually revert to the natural tree form. This
reversion is evident at many abandoned fences throughout the country.
However, most live fences when planted and maintained as fence posts,
usually display a quite different form than that of the same species occur-
ring naturally in the forest or in open communities. The crown shape is
particularly altered by the effect of periodic pruning. The general appear-
ance along a maintained fence is changed enough to cause confusion when
compared with the same species found in the forest in open fields or in
orchards. Bursera simaruba for instance, is an occasion&atural compo-
nent of the upper forest story. However, when planted as a fence tree, its
height is reduced to a rather squat hunk of about 2 m in height with a
confusion of branches originating from the top.

1. For convenience,here the word lowland applies from sea level to about 600m
elevation, middle elevation from 600 to 2000 m and highland further above. The
limits of 600 and 1500 represent approximately the lower and higher ranges
adequate for commercial coffee cultivation.
Research. Reviews, Practices and Technology 71

The harvesting of stakes for more posts always takes place from the top
of the trunk (originally a cutting itself). The top gradually assumes a
swollen bulb or headlike appearance (callus). Owing to the propensity of
fence mee species to sprout vigorously with many new shoots after pol-
larding, the upper part of the stake may be much larger than the diameter
of the stake itself. This impression may be increased by the abundant
growth of epiphytes that find suitable niches between the branches or the
stubs of past pruned branches. Cutting back repeatedly promotes extensive
callus and woody tissue that progressively build up from wound healing.
A typical fence post of Erythrina costaricensis, for example has a trunk
top diameter between one and a half and two times that of the trunk.
Preparation ofposts: The majority of the important fence forming trees
in Costa Rica are propagated by planting large stakes (cuttings), usually
around 4-12 cm diameter at the base, and 1.5-2.5 m in length, depending
on the purpose of the fence and the preferences of the farmer. Cuttings are
derived from branches arising from live fences that are pollarded after one
or two years of growth. The number of shoots produced by each estab-
lished live fence tree varies according to age, vigor and period since the
last pollarding. A living post can normally produce from 2 to about 8
cuttings for planting every two years. Cuttings are easy to prepare and
require no special skill in planting, although handling with care between
cutting and planting is necessary. From early February through early
April, mostly when the weather is relatively dry, the trees are pruned to
obtain cuttings for planting as well as to remove excess or undesirable
growth from the parent tree. Many of the unused branches and leaves form
a mulch around the fence. However, cutting has also taken place at other
periods during the year.
The time-lag between the planting of a cutting and when it begins to
produce shoots for new cuttings of plantable size varies among species but
it is generally six months to two years. Sometimes it is even less as in the
case of the fast growing Erythrina spp. and Gliricidia sepium. Once this
production is initiated, sprouting vigor apparently does not decrease for a
relatively long time (over 20 years, at least, has been recorded for some
well known species with no apparent decline). When in healthy conditions
the trees show considerablelongevity. Older trees of Gliricidia sepium can
display deformationwhere the barbed wire has been attached. Some fence
trees have been estimated to be 90 years old. However, species with
relatively soft wood such as Bursera sirnaruba,and Spondias purpurea are
reported by local farmers to have a shorter life expectancy than species
with denser wood, such as Gliricidia sepium or Diphysa robinioides.
The annually repeated pollarding seems to enhance juvenility. The
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Research, Reviews. Practices and Technology 75

woody shoot regrowth of live fence trees generally appears to have more
leaves in proportion to the amount of woody tissue than shoots of naturally
growing trees of similar age. They are also said to show higher rooting
success than shoots from non pollarded trees. However replicated tests are
needed to c o n f i i these differences.
Erect, straight, vertical branches are preferred over crooked or lateral
branches. Both are found along fences, sometimes side by side. But it is
also common to F i d entire rows of straight vertical branches, a possible
indication that the same clonal material had been used. Accordine to some
farmers, the progeny of crooked cuttings manifests the curving teidencies,
making for less even fences. Lateral branches reputedly have lower root-
ing effectiveness than more vertical branches. Both these beliefs need to
be confiied.
From the last week of January, throughout February, March and into
mid-April, considerable activity along the fence lines takes place, as
shown by abundant evidence: pollarded pruned fence rows, leafy material
on the ground, stacks of smaller branches piled for fuelwood, cuttings
placed under some shade, with lateral branchlets and leaves neatly re-
moved to produce "clean" poles and of course newly set live fence posts.
The coincidence of this seasonal silviculturalpractice with the major dry
season h u g h o u t Costa Rica is considered quite important. The major
factors in the efficacy of this timing seems to be related to the effect of the
approaching rains and morpho-physiologic periodicity of the species. In
the dryer areas, many cuttings are leafless or have few leaves. Even in the
wetter areas, there seem to be less leaves at that time. The practices which
are followed are predicated upon the fact that planting should precede the
onset of the heavy rains so that root and bud initiation will already have
begun when the season starts.
The cuttings are prepared before the appearance of buds that precede
the vegetative growth flush associated with the rainy season. Flowering
cuttings are reputedly not good propagation material. Even in locations
with adequate soil moisture it is said that lower percentage rooting success
is obtained when cuttings are derived from flowering branches.
It is usually considered unadvisable to plant the cuttings during the
rainy season itself, but many exceptions exist. The reasons given for no
planting in the rainy season are the interruption of active vegetative
growth, lack of time for adequate healing of cuttings and subsequent
susceptibility to fungal infections due to excessive water and poor soil
drainage which limit the production of roots. The seasonal changes in
rooting effectiveness may involve carbohydrate mobility, hormonal fac-
tors and bud dormancy, all of which need to be investigated.Many farmers
76 JOURNAL OF SUSTAINABLE AGRICULTURE important that planting is made at the time of the decreasing

moon phase, (waning moon) to ensure successful rooting.
Pruning techniques: The pollarding or pruning of the parent tree is a
fairly simple task. The woody sprouts are lopped off with a single clean
cut using a sharp "machete" or a bush-hook, leaving as small a stub as
possible. This practice results in less wound covering tissue, the excess
build-up of which is said to negatively influence the vigor and form of the
shoots and the health of the parent tree. The shoot growth arises from
dormant and adventitious buds, whose c o ~ e c t i o nwith the cambium may
be lessened with the build-up of wound tissue. Sprouting may also be
inhibited by excessive amounts of healing tissues. The heavy population
of epiphytes growing upon the trunk top, particularly in moister zones on
regularly pollarded trees of advanced age, often contributes to water reten-
tion. Eventually water will penetrate the trunk,creating favorable condi-
tions for the entry of heartrot fungi. This is particularly true for Erythrina
berteroana in wet areas.
Many landowners practice drastic pollarding by eliminating all shoots
while others leave a shoot or two. It is said that the latter practice reduces
stress and shock, allows reasonable root growth to continue, promotes
rapid healing of wounds and provides better conditions for new shoot
growth. Larger cuttings also result, since the period of growth prior to
harvest would be two or even more years for the uncut branches.
Planting: After pollarding, the cuttings are topped and cleaned of
branchlets, taking care to minimize injury from gashing or tearing off the
bark. The clean poles are then stacked or set vertically under shade and can
be planted the same day or later. Stacking up to one month has been
observed. The importance of allowing specific time to elapse between
cutting and planting is given high priority by some farmers, but not by
others. Variation occurs according to the species and the environmental
conditions. For example, when using Spondias purpurea in some drier
zones in the Guanacaste province, farmers often stack the cuttings verti-
cally in the shade of a tree for two weeks before planting.
There does not seem to be a minimal or maximal time for storage with
most species. The longest storage period is observed in dry areas, while
excessive storage in humid conditionsis generally avoided because it may
result in lateral rooting or fungal growth.
The poles are transported by hand, oxen, horses, or vehicle to the
planting site, always handling them with great care so as not to cause
injuries or impair the rooting ability.
Commerce of live fence cuttings is profitable, with prices per good-
sized cutting ranging in 1991 from US$O.10 in a pioneer farm and cattle
Research, Reviews, Praclices and Technology 77

region to up to US$0.20 in an intensive coffee growing area. In one area it

was observed that one "pruner" charged nothing for tending the fence. As
compensation, he got free access to the material pruned and was given the
right to sell the usable products of his pruning, that is, the poles, to other
farmers wishing to establish new living fences. Usually he had a contract
to establish a new fence. Among parents and close friends, it is common
practice to provide the posts free. However, it is expected that the person
who needs them does all the pruning of the fence where the new cuttings
are obtained.
Once planted, a reasonable time period from two months up to one year,
is allowed to elapse before the wire is attached. The thicker the live post,
the sooner it is possible to attach the wire. If a fence must be immediately
wired, widely spaced dead wooden posts are often initially used. Dead
posts allow for immediate fencing with barbed wires, serving only long
enough to allow living posts to become established.They will rot in a short
period, usually less than one or more years, depending on natural durabili-
ty. Planting of cuttings between these dead fence posts is done at a 2-3 m
spacing immediately after but without attaching the barbed wire. After a
year or less, barbed wire can then be attached to these well rooted living
posts now. It is also common to see living fence posts planted without the
provisional use of dead posts, but allowance must be made for good
rooting before barbed wires can be attached. A very common practice is to
"flicken" or increase the density of a fence by systematically planting
cuttings from the nearby older live fence posts. These fences with different
age posts often look rather heterogeneousin architecture and vigor.
The holes for planting are dug to a depth of 30-50 cm with a width of
7-15 cm. The poles usually are shaped with a "clean" diagonal cut on the
lower end so to expose more cambial tissue. Sometimes the cutting at the
bottom has 2 or 3 diagonal "faces." They are then placed in the holes, held
vertically, and made as F i as possible at their base by treading with the
heels using full body-weight. All round contact of the soil with the cutting
and absence of voids is considered essential for good rooting. Movement
or disturbance of the posts during the Fist month or so is carefully
Where cattle are present, it is considered desirable to protect the poles
from their reach. Damage from cattle disturbance can be a problem with
some species because shoots may appear below the top and thus can be
reached for browsing. The weight of cattle can also uproot recently
planted stakes. One alternativeis to keep the pastures with new fences free
of livestock while the cuttings take firm root, a period that usually lasts 3-6
months. When living fence posts are planted for cattle enclosure, the

planting of species especially sensitive to disturbance is avoided. Here the

planting of longer cuttings with greater diameter is favored, since the
growth of new sprouts at the top is out of the reach for cattle. Moreover,
the formation of sprouts and branches originatingbelow the top section of
the planted cutting, is carefully avoided by systematic pruning. Cattle
relish the leaves from the sprouts of some species and can cause consider-
able damage to the cambium by pulling on these shoots and tearing off
considerableportions of the bark.
Attaching barbed wire: A basic function of living fence posts is for the
attachment of barbed wire to contain livestock, protect crops from human
and animal intruders and to demarcate property boundaries. The interac-
tion of the living trees and barbed wire merits discussion. The barbed wire
is not attached until after the live post has rooted solidly and has produced
normal branches, generally 3-6 months after planting. If the staples that
hold the wire are nailed too early, cambial damage can result in necrotic
zones. Posts of small diameter show a higher mortality from nailing than
thicker ones. Development time, often up to one and a half years, is
usually allowed before proceeding with nailing. For most species, six to
twelve months are considered adequate. As already mentioned, it is com-
mon to plant dead fence posts at relatively wide spacings and attach the
wire to them. Live posts are then planted in between and when they take
root firmly the wires are attached.
After attachment, several species show poor wire holding properties
owing to the low density or softness of the wood, or heavy sap exudation.
Another problem is that of the tree "swallowing" or engulfing the wire,
which becomes progressively embedded in the trunk rather than remain-
ing on the surface of the bark. Gliricidia sepium, Spondias purpurea,
various Erythrina spp., and particularly Bursera simaruba, occasionally
exhibit h i s tendency. The consequences of engulfment are: (1) accela-
rated corrosion of the wire in some species, (2) loss of marketable value
of the wood, such as in the case of Bombacopsis quinata and Tabebuia
spp., and (3) minor but sometimes important issues of questionable prop-
erty lines between small, intensively cropped vegetable farms in the
highlands, caused by movement of the wire as the trees grow.
Severalstrategies are used to avoid engulfment. One of them consists of
not nailing deeply into the tree. This serves two purposes: the fence staple
is not embedded in the heartwood and a space is left between the tree and
the staple, both of which provide a margin for wire movement with in-
crease in tree girth. Another practice is to place a small strip of metal sheet
between the wire and the tree. This helps to keep the wire on the bark
surface. A third practice is to nail the staple through a small piece of wood
Research, Resiews, Practices and Technology 79

as a backing, thus enabling the wire to move above the bark and not to
penetrate into it.
Other management practices: During the first year, leafy side branches
from the trunk are carefully pruned off. This practice serves to direct
growth to the top shoots and to train the tree by promoting corollary
inhibition of lateral shoot initiation from the trunk. At the same time, any
undesirable lateral, weak, or excessive top branches are removed.
The gaps between the living fence posts are gradually filled with new
cuttings to reach the desired density. Densities range from 1to 3 posts per
meter up to 6 posts per meter in very dense fences around coffee and
vegetable fields and gardens to prevent animal entry as well as to protect
against strong winds. Most common is a density of 2-3 trees per meter.
Another variation is the planting of widely spaced, well-rooted posts 4-5 m
apart, with living posts planted in between. The latter may or may not be
attached with barbed wire. In dry areas the spiny Bromeliapinguin (which
has edible fruits) is a common candidate to fill in the lower portion of the
Cuttings for reinforcement usually are of smaller diameter than those
used for the establishment of the original fence. The cuttings are some-
times tied to the barbed wire to train them during the period preceding
nailing of the barbed wire. W~ththe planting of new cuttings to fill in an
older fence, other welldeveloped fence trees are sometimes harvested for
firewood, or for construction posts and occasionally lumber and cabinet
wood This practice allows a gradual replacement and harvesting without
depleting the area of support for barbed wire.
Shchez and Russo (1985) reported preliminary results of a survey by
questionnaires carried out in Costa Rica by the Nitrogen Fixing Trees
Project (NFTP), CATIE, Tunialba on uses of Erythrina spp. including
management practices. Table 2 details the findings in relation to fence
posts. Later, Shchez and Payne (1987) communicated results of another
survey done by the NFTP on Gliricidia sepium. The authors found that
95% of the interviewedfarmers use the species as live fence posts.
Uses: For most species both the main stem and the cuttings produced
by branches provide a much needed supply of firewood,although the latter
is considered of lesser quality since insufficient time is allowed to produce
heartwood. The quality varies by species, those with the highest density a

are considered better quality for firewood or charcoal. A self-sufficient

supply of fuelwood is much more than just an economic benefit. A nearby
supply also relieves the pressure and thus provides a margin of protection
for the existent, natural primary or secondary forest nearby, as well as
other trees found in nearby fields.

T a b l e 2. Hanagement p r a c t i c e s o f E r y t h r i n a s p p . f o r f e n c e p o s t s
I n C o s t a R l c a (Sanchez a n d Russo, 1 9 8 5 ) .


E. b e r t e r o a n a 50 % Large c u t t i n g s 96 %
2. fUSCd 5 % Direct planting by seed 4 %
Other Erythrinas. 45 %


Diagonal 10 % Diagonal 82 %
Tvo f a c e s 10 % ConicaI 4 4
Three faces 10 % Flat 14 %
Conical 19 %
Flat 51 %


Up 7 days 18 % Dry p e r i o d 35 %
8 t o 15 days 41 % S t a r t of rainy season 22 %
Without r e s t 41 % During t h e rainy season 22 %
Throughout t h e y e a r 17 %


Rising 0 - 1 m
Wanin? 1.1 - 2 . 0 m
2 . 1 - 3.0 rn
3.1 - 4.0 m


< 49 % 6 % NO
50 -
69 % 12 % Yes
1 0 - 79 '1 23 %
8 0 -. 8 9 % 6 %
90 -100 % 53 %

. .

Diphysa robinioides, a handsome tree with numerous yellow flowers

during the dry season, is highly valued for its dense and very resistant
wood It is in great demand for piling foundations,dead comer fence posts
and railroad ties. This tree, similar in appearance to the black locust (Robi-
nia pseudoacacia) of North America, will grow from a cutting of 6-7 cm
diameter to a tree with a diameter of 20 cm in 5-6 years. It thrives in dry
and wet soils. Even though the trunk is usually not straight, fences have
been observed with a sizeable percentage of trees with good form charac-
ters. Ample possibilities for genetic improvement exist for this species.
GIiricidia sepium, probably the most extensively used live fence tree in
Research, Reviews, Practices and Technology 81

the American tropics, yields a wood of similar qualities but its diameter
growth is slower, although it produces cuttings at a faster rate. It has
durable wood which is used for cabinets, for artisanal work and for poles
in contact with the ground. A workshop on management and improvement
of this species was recently held in the Tropical Agricultural Center for
Research and Training (CATIE), Turrialba,Costa Rica (Withington et al.,
few other fence trees are often allowed to grow into adult trees
because of the value of their wood. Among those Bombacopsis quinata,
Tabebuia rosea and Tectona grandis stand out in the lowlands. In the
highlands, Cupressus Iusitanica and Alnus acuminata, both propagated by
seed, are most common.
The leaves, flowers and fruits of several live fence trees are an impor-
tant source of fodder for domestic animals and food for humans. Little
research on this subject has been done, especially in the lowland humid
tropics. The leaves of Gliricidia sepium are commonly fed to cattle, but
are said to be semi-toxic to horses. The flowers, however, are edible when
Spondias purpurea, a cosmopolitan tree, bears red or yellow plum-like
edible fruits appreciated by livestock as well as humans. The leaves are
also eaten when young. Some varieties, particularly with large fruits are
often seen in markets. The tree shows surprising variation in appearance
and growth form. There is great variation in the quantity and quality of
fruit, but the highest yields and the best quality come from rather dry
areas. The names of some particularly productive varieties have been
reported from Guatemala (Standley and Steyermark, 1946).
Eugenia jumbos bears a crisp fruit, the rose apple and is grown from
polyembryonic seeds which produce multiple fast growing shrub-like
stems. The tree is often planted for windbreaks to protect coffee planta-
tions and other crops at middle elevations. Erythrina berteroana responds
to regular pollardiig with a great volume of large leafed shoots in only 3
weeks to 1 month. These shoots are often used for rabbit feed and are also
palatable to livestock. Goats are particularly eager to eat these shoots.
Production: At CATIE (elevation 610 m, mean annual temperature
22.3"C and annual rainfall 2700 mm), a 100 m fence of E. berteroana
after pruning and carefully measurements showed the following produc-
tion (Table 3). The posts had an average spacing of 0.6 m and the lopped
branches were 4,6, and 8 months old after being pollarded.
A member of the Liliaceae, Yucca elephantipes Regel, with long stiff
dagger shaped leaves is notable for its large paniculate, whitecreamish,
bell-shaped flowers.These are sought out as a delicious vegetable which is
. - - - . .. - .
Table 3: Biomass production (dry weight) of one kilometer of fence
of Erythrina berteroana pruned every 4, 6 and 8 months.
Average distance between posts: 0.6 m.

Every Every Every

4 months 6 months 8 months

(kg d. w. /prunning)

Leaves 700 780 750

Branches 500 1050 2440
Total 1200 1830 3190
.. . - - . - -. - -. . - .. .

cooked with eggs. The stigma is usually removed to avoid a bitter taste.
Flowers are sold at US$0.50-1.00 her cluster in Costa Rican markets. Each
stem produces one cluster per year. It is rapidly propagated from cuttings
in most types of soil under dry and wet climatic conditions from sea level
to about 1500 m altitude. The plant is also used to stabilize terrain along
roads, particularly when there are landslides. Anacardium occidentale, the
cashew, will grow on very degraded soils in relatively dry climates. Psi-
dium guajava, the well known guava fruit, is used for jellies, canned for
juice or eaten raw, although usually the latter is infested with larvae when
ripe. This tree also does well on poor and compacted soils. The fruits like
those of various Ficus spp. are relished by cattle ,and other domestic
animals and in fact the seeds are spread through excrement. The wood is
frequently used for fuel.
Bursera simaruba exudes on oleo-resin called elemis. This aromatic
essential oil played a role in commerce in the past and provided a sticky
base for varnishes, printers, inks and in some ointments where stimulant
and antiseptic qualities were required. Home use is made of the gum as a
cement for mending crockery and as a crude varnish. The thick colored
sap exuded from wounds in Spondias purpurea is used in medicine.

The maintenance and other management practices of living fences vary
with the species, the ecological conditions, the local markets and the
cultural backgrounds.
Living fence posts are of relatively low cost, in comparison with normal
wooden "dead" posts, particularly when live fences from which cuttings
can be obtained are found nearby. They are also more durable, and rows of
live fence posts well over 50 years have been recorded.
Research, Reviews, Practices and Technology 83

But there are also drawbacks when using live fence posts in comparison
with non-living wooden, metallic or cement fence posts. They require
much more care for their establishment and maintenance, such as careful
handling of the large cuttingsprior to planting, and their possible replace-
ment if they do not take root. Periodic pruning is required and often
constitutes a main management problem, as can be witnessed by many
abandoned live fences. Some of the advantages and drawbacks concerning
live fences were previously presented (Budowski, 1982).
Live fences may become weeds and grow tall when they are not main-
tained. They can, and sometimes do, harbor pests. They may also be
considered as obstacles to the use of machinery and even for small air-
planes that spray pesticides. Under certain conditions, they compete for
water, nutrients, and light with adjacent crops, although over limited sur-
faces. Some of the fruits, and even the fofiage of some species, can be
toxic if ingested by livestock. And once planted live fences are difficult to
move or to eradicate because of their rooting systems. They are not easily
relocated, such as with electric fences or even dead fence posts.
Despite the important role of live fence posts in the rural landscape and
the vast amount of empirical knowledge accumulated, information is
scarce. More needs to be known about the cultural, edaphic and climatic
requirements of the many species used and the anatomical and physiologi-
cal basis of propagation from large cuttings and the various factors affect-
ing their regenerationand rooting.
Certain superior varieties among fence post species seem to exist, in
terms of growth habits, vigor, desirable architecture, sprouting behavior,
absence of spines ( i what would be normally spiny varieties), quality of
edible fruits and flowers produced, protein content of foliage and resis-
tance against drought or swampy conditions. Local people speak of vari-
eties and races, but these are tittle known since the information has not yet
been validated, much less quantified. The same may be said about the
ability of living fence posts to contribute to soil stabilization, to serve as
windbreaks or to supply sources of animal feed or forage. For the latter,
additional data about their protein content, digestibility, drying require-
ments or their pelleting capability is needed.
There is no doubt that a great potential exists for the development of
improved strains through the application of known selection and varietal
improvement techniques. Much potential exists for commercialization of
some of the multitude of derived products obtained from live fences and
the subsequent generation of additional income, particularly for the small
Finally, the living fence is indeed a very promising practice to be

considered in sustainable agriculture. For that reason it deserves more

research and dissemination of knowledge. A first step in this direction
would be the retrieval of all the empirical information accumulated, not
only in Costa Rica but also in the rest of Central America, the Caribbean,
and northern South America, where the practice is most widespread. Un-
doubtedly, much of the value remains to be found.

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RECEIVED: 5/14/91
REVISED: 6/5/92
ACCEPTED: 6119/92