They're tall. They're totally absurd. And they're everywhere.
Over the past few decades, as cellphone networks have grown, thousands of antenna towers designed to look vaguely like trees have been built across the United States. Although these towers are intended to camouflage a tower's aesthetic impact on the landscape, they typically do the opposite: most look like what an alien from a treeless planet might create if told to imagine a tree.
Still, there are some good reasons why it's really hard to build a tower that actually looks like a tree — whether it's the classic "monopine" or a palm tower.
The bizarre history of camouflaged tree tower
There's a history of clumsily trying to conceal infrastructure that goes way further back than cellphone towers. In the 1950s and '60s, for instance, Canadian electric utilities built hundreds of entirely fake houses throughout Toronto to conceal substations.
In the 1980s, soon after cellphone companies started building antennas in the United States, they sought to hide them, as well, often in response to aesthetic complaints from local residents — as detailed in historian Bernard Mergen's excellent chapter in Analyzing Art and Aesthetics.
Initially, most concealed antennas were simply hidden on church steeples or water towers, but in 1992, a company called Larson Camouflage — which had previously made fake habitats for Disney World and museums — built a "pine" tower in Denver. The world was changed forever.
Soon afterward, companies in South Carolina and South Africa began building similar "trees." In the US, the Telecommunications Act of 1996 restricted municipalities' ability to block tower construction, so as demand for cell service spread, it meant that towers would inevitably be built in historic districts and other areas where locals might object.
Still, municipalities have often tried to block construction, leading companies to offer "trees" instead of towers as a compromise. Some localities even require new towers be camouflaged as part of their zoning requirements.
There's no good data on how many of these "trees" now exist, but in 2013, Mergen estimated there were between 1,000 and 2,000 nationwide. The company Stealth Concealment says it builds about 350 new "trees" per year. They're most often built in suburbs, where residents have the time and urge to war with companies over new towers, and there's enough incentive for carriers to invest in "trees."
Why these "trees" look so ridiculous
There are actually good reasons why these towers seldom actually look like real trees.
One is height. Towers are built to hold antennas higher than surrounding structures to ensure good reception, so they have to be taller than what's nearby. This is why you often see surreally tall "pines" or "palms" towering over normal trees.
Another is cost. These "trees" are normal cellphone towers, which are then sent to companies like Larson or Stealth Concealment for plastic, fiberglass, or acrylic "bark," "branches," and "needles" to be added. This process is customized and expensive: it can add $100,000 or so to the baseline $150,000 cost of a tower.
As Ryan McCarthy of Larson told Bernard Mergen, "A pine tree that has 200 branches will be more appealing than one of the same height that has 100. However, the customer will not only incur the cost of 100 extra branches, but the extra wind load from the branches will also require that the pole be designed more stoutly."
This is also why you so seldom see towers designed as deciduous trees, even in areas where they're much more common than pines — their branching structure makes them more complex and more expensive to build. Pines, palms, and cacti are much easier to approximate in plastic and fiberglass.
In terms of blending in, the most successful towers are probably "saguaros," which can plausibly be built in deserts where there are no trees that they have to tower over — and don't have expensive branches or needles that need to be attached.