All posts by Jim Abbot

Trees and Lightning

Results from a 10-year investigation of lightning and thunderstorm activity surrounding Atlanta identified increases in thunderstorm intensity, rainfall, and lightning over and downwind of the city center during the summer months of June, July, and August.

Mace Bentley, Tony Stallins, and Walker Ashley, “The Atlanta Thunderstorm Effect” (2010)

Lightning is not something to be taken lightly. In 2020, Georgia ranked second only to Florida for number of homeowners insurance claims due to lightning losses (4,686).

In Atlanta, lightning is common. The urban heat island effect, so-called “canyon” winds (i.e., the lifting of warm, humid air over the city center), and air pollution combine to increase the frequency of lightning events and strikes. Flash “densities” in the northeast quadrant of the city are as high as those found along the state’s coastline (Leanna Shea Rose, “A Spatial Analysis of Lightning Strikes and Precipitation in the Greater Atlanta, Georgia (USA) Region,” 2008). Here’s a map showing lightning events clustered east of the urban core during periods of westerly winds:

Bentley et al., “The Atlanta Thunderstorm Effect”

It may be worth noting, too, that Inman Park is adjacent to the subcontinental divide (Dekalb Avenue and the rail lines). In the map below, the pink areas are higher in elevation than the areas shaded yellow, green, and blue.

Here and there throughout these areas of higher elevation are trees that are somewhat taller than their neighbors. You get a sense of that from this photo taken during Festival, looking west from Poplar Circle.

Which is why I recently asked master arborist Chris Hastings about lightning protection for trees. We were standing at the base of a tall tuliptree (Liriodendron tulipifera) growing within several feet of two houses.

If you have a mature tree that you dearly love, or a tall tree very close to your house, you may want to consider asking a reputable tree care company about lightning protection. Not cheap, of course, but then the cost of removing a large tree in Atlanta these days can be more than $10,000.

I’m 60 years old, and twice in my life I’ve been within a few dozen feet of a lightning strike of a tree. The second time, it killed a century-old white oak growing in front of our then home in Virginia-Highland.

Absolute Torture

I wish I could tell you that walking around our leafy, shady, drop-dead-gorgeous neighborhood is a continual source of unmitigated joy for us tree guys and tree gals.

It ain’t. Not always, anyway. Sometimes it feels like torture.

Here’s the problem. (Cue the violins.) Everywhere a tree guy looks, he sees work that needs doing. And work that should have been done but wasn’t. And work that he did but now needs doing again.


Here’s an example.

That’s a live oak (Quercus virginiana ‘Cathedral’) which Tree Watch planted several years ago, and which one of our neighbors (it seems) has now had “pruned” by his yard crew (I’m guessing), which should definitely be calling itself Jack the Ripper Lawn Care Services.

It’s like a person going for a pedicure and coming home with two bleeding stumps instead of legs.

It’s like that oak tree dissed his mama. Twice.

You know what happens when a person abuses a tree like that? One day, it falls on somebody’s head.

Here’s another example.

You’re wondering where the tree is. Me, too. It was there two days ago, and I well remember the morning that Melissa and her family planted it.

A tree guy thinks, “I should have pruned that live oak again, before the homeowner got frustrated with it.” He thinks, however illogically, “I should have known that there were new owners of that house, and thought to talk to them about the white oak tree we planted in that yard.”


Trees can be like our children. The dad or mom looks at their son and thinks, “I sure love him, but gosh does he need a haircut and a new pair of blue jeans.”

Freedom Park Master Plan

I’ve been living in Freedom Park for 20 years.

That’s to say, not a day goes by when I’m not walking somewhere in the park, throwing a ball for our dog, pruning some trees, removing invasive plants, planning a new tree planting, or supervising a project to plant and maintain trees.

Poplar Circle? There are trees in that section now 50 to 60 feet tall that Tree Watch and Trees Atlanta planted together. The playground is surrounded by our trees. The memorial grove tucked behind the playground some of us boldly created on an ask-for-forgiveness-not-permission model. The serpentine paths leading down to and up from Austin Avenue are shaded by trees we planted in the past two decades. Ditto the other side of Highland. Ditto trees all the way along the Freedom Park Trail into Candler Park.

Every tree of ours has a unique personal history. I can tell you the life story of the American linden near the MARTA parking lot. The Harold Saether memorial white oak. The katsura planted by the late Oreon Mann. I’ve watched our longleaf pine since it was knee-high to a baby. You get the point.

Those are my bona fides. And now I’m here to tell you that I am VERY excited about the Master Plan for Freedom Park. Years ago I began discussing with members of Freedom Park Conservancy some ideas for additional tree plantings and projects in the park. They told me, “Sounds great! We’re going to be working on a master plan soon, so let’s make sure that’s considered.” Now here we are, making excellent progress toward the next level of excellence for a park created in significant part by the hard work of people in this neighborhood.

Continue reading Freedom Park Master Plan

❤️ Weed Trees ❤️

Here’s a dictionary definition of a weed: “a wild plant growing where it is not wanted and in competition with cultivated plants.”

That definition leaves out a lot, doesn’t it? You hear the word “weed,” and somewhere in your mind you’re probably thinking “annoying” and “unsightly.”

People talk about “weed trees,” too. They spring up on their own, often in places where other trees may struggle to thrive or even survive. They’re exceedingly common. They may have characteristics that don’t fit the classic image of a tree, e.g., they may be bushy, misshapen, etc. And they’re scrappy: they can out-compete trees that we think of as conventionally beautiful, stately, grand, majestic, noble — all that good stuff.

Boxelder (Acer negundo) comes to mind. It’s a species of maple native to North America. Check out this guy. Talk about scrappy:

Photo credit: Arieh Tal

Here’s its compound leaf with leaflets (7 here but can be as few as 3), to help you identify the tree :

Photo credit: Glen Mittelhauser

Weed tree? Yet entomologist Doug Tallamy says 285 species of Lepidoptera (moths and butterflies) rely upon boxelder to survive their caterpillar stage.

So many bugs! Here’s the secret: boxelder is terrible at doing what many other trees do incredibly well, which is to seal off decay. Which means that boxelder rots. And what loves rotting wood? Bugs!

And birds love bugs, of course. So boxelder indirectly feeds lotsa birds, too.

Can you build a beautiful, long-lasting dining room table out of boxelder wood? Nope. But can you sustain an ecosystem encompassing hundreds or perhaps even thousands of different insect and animal species with boxelder trees? ? Yep.

From Ecology of Center City, Philadelphia by Kenneth D. Frank.

Yes, those are boxelder seedlings, bringing a stone staircase to life. Not bad for a weed.

Memorial Day 2021

In Marietta National Cemetery there lie not quite 19,000 graves of men and women who served their country. One of them is my uncle Robert Northington Hardeman III, known to his family and friends as Bobby.

He died, still a teenager, during the Battle of Saipan (June 15-July 9, 1944) in the Pacific.

Marietta National Cemetery, like many cemeteries, is a tranquil site, where many of the graves are shaded by mature trees.

Those trees are chestnut oak (Quercus montana), which is in the white oak grouping of oak trees.

The leaves of the chestnut oak have many shallow lobes, not unlike the leaf of a chestnut tree.

By the way, you do know how many wonderful trees you can find at Oakland Cemetery, don’t you? About 1,600, in fact. It’s a marvel. I highly recommend a walk there, sometime soon.


It’s that time of the year.

Chinese chestnut (Castanea mollissima)
Spiky flowers of the Chinese chestnut tree, called catkins.

A large Chinese chestnut tree (Castanea mollissima) is in bloom near my house, and it’s once again filling the air with an . . . ammonia smell which is seriously unpleasant.

The culprits are nitrogen-containing volatile organic compounds (VOCs) which include (for you chemists out there) 1-pyrroline, 1-piperideine, 2-pyrrolidone, and phenethylamine.

Chemical structure of 1-pyrroline

What’s the deal? Presumably the tree evolved this smell to attract pollinators. A recent scientific study of Castanea mollissima in China identified the chestnut’s pollinators as flies.

Those researchers suggest that we should add Chinese chestnut to the list of plants that rely upon sapromyophily for a reproduction strategy.

That is, this tree emits a smell that deceives carrion flies into believing that they’re visiting rotting flesh.


Naturally, I cannot help but imagine what it must have been like to be out in the forest when the mighty American chestnut (Castanea dentata), erstwhile queen of the mountainous forests in the eastern U.S., was in bloom.

And, hey, I’d happily cope with a couple of weeks of that yucky odor to have those trees back, safe and sound from the chestnut blight.

Contact Info for Tree Services

This is a list of tree services that have done work in Inman Park, to my knowledge, or with which I am otherwise familiar. I do not warrant their work. Always get more more than one quote, and make sure that anyone doing tree work on your property has an arborist on staff who is certified by the International Society of Arboriculture and that the company has up-to-date insurance coverage. (May 27, 2021)

AKA Tree Removal 470-881-8853

Appleseed Tree Service 404-378-2774

Arborguard Tree Specialists 404-299-5555

Arbormedics 770-715-1713

Bartlett Tree Experts 770-496-9848

Boutte Tree Service 404-647-0558

Caldwell Tree Care 770-992-1973

Casey Tree Experts 770-498-7000

Davey Tree Service 866-235-7422

Gunnison Tree Specialists 404-351-8929

Murphy Tree Service 770-944-7498

SavATree 404-288-8733

(Featured in the photo is Chris Hughes of Brookwood Tree Consulting.)


The next time you’re in the Poplar Circle area of Freedom Park, pause to admire this beauty.

Katsura (Cercidiphyllum japonicum)

Katsuratree comes to us from Asia — Japan and China to be precise — and we have this gentlemen to thank:

Thomas Hogg, Jr. (1819-1892)

Beginning in 1862, Thomas Hogg, Jr. was stationed at a new U.S. consulate at Kanagawa, south of Tokyo. The man knew plants. His father, an emigrant from Scotland to New York City, had operated a nursery on the site of today’s Madison Square Park (Broadway and 23rd) in Manhattan. Thomas’s brother James took over the business after their father died.

Immediately upon arriving in Japan, Thomas Hogg started sending home seeds of plants entirely new to North America. In the 1870s, he made a second trip to Japan and continued his collecting.

Everything from our wonderful Japanese maples to our evil, evil kudzu vines can be traced back to the industrious Mr. Hogg.

Inman Park is simply full of Hogg’s legacy, good and bad: fragrant snowbell, Japanese snowbell, Kousa dogwood, varieties of camellia, ‘Limelight’ hydrangea, oriental bittersweet, Japanese knotweed, and more.

He was justly proud of having introduced the katsura to these shores. Its botanical name is Cercidiphyllum japonicum (because its heart-shaped leaf is similar in shape to our redbuds, the genus of which is Cercis).

Katsura leaves (note the reddish color of new leaves)

In its natural habitat, katsura can grow quite large and live a long time. A man named Charles Sprague Sargent, who was the first director of Harvard’s Arnold Arboretum, had a photo taken of this tree on his trip to Japan in 1892. See how older katsuras tend to develop multiple trunks:

In fact, there’s a katsura on the grounds of the Arnold Arboretum with just such multiple trunks. This tree was grown from seed collected by another 19th-century botanist, a man named William S. Clark, during his 1876 expedition to Japan:

Arnold Arboretum katsura

There’s lots to love about katsura. Check out this fall foliage:

Katsura in autumn

Also in fall, the leaves emit a smell similar to caramel or cotton-candy, though not everyone can smell it. It’s generated by a chemical compound called maltol, which is also emitted by such items as bread, warmed butter, chicory, and cocoa.

Tale of An Oak Tree

When Jeanne and I moved into our Waverly Way home, back in the year 2000, there stood a huge water oak (Quercus nigra) between our house and our neighbor to the east.

Several years later, that oak died, and so our neighbor had to take it down. But it left some acorns behind!

In 2010, you can just see a sapling poking its head out of the bushes, in front of the flowering dogwood:

The next year, it’s making a bit of progress, though it’s hard to pick it out among all the other volunteers.

By 2014, with its root system just the way it wants it, the oak has leapt up.

Here is the tree now, on May 22, 2021. Roughly a decade of growth. It’s more than 60 feet tall. Look to the left. That’s a white oak (Quercus alba) that I myself planted probably five years before that water oak even thought about germinating.

Sixty feet tall in 10-12 years!