Could I use branches from these trees?
I am finding these branches all over, and they have cool branches on them. Could I use branches from these? And what type of trees are these?
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They look like Crape Myrtles ( Lagerstroemia indica). I am in Raleigh as well. :-P Right now they have a little round black seed pod that look to be around the size of a cranberry. I can't see enough of the first tree but the second pick is a classic example of a poor pruning job on a crape myrtle.
I have always purchased drift wood so I dont know about using branches from local trees. I would just suggest that you take the branches from a location that is not heavily maintained to reduce the chance of pesticide exposure. The pesticide Imidacloprid is commonly used in our area to kill Japanese Beetles. It remains active in the plant for 9 months or more and can be toxic to fish.
Some wood should never go in a fish tank. Coniferous for example, but there are others; not knowing anything about this particular tree, I can only caution you.
Oak is fine, and beech. There may be others, but these two are frequently mentioned so I know they are safe, as far as the wood itself. But, they must be thoroughly dead/dry. Never cut branches from a live tree; the branch has to come off the tree and lie on the ground or wherever until it has completely dried out. If you cut a branch off, leave it in the air until it is completely dry/dead.
Aside from the above, one has to be sure the collecting site is safe. Pesticides, fertilizers, oils, chemicals... always collect wood from a forest where there is no chance of any of these. Again, I can't say the named tree is safe, no matter where you get it.
Other issues with wood are pathogens, parasites and fungi.
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