In my backyard stands an American beech (Fagus grandifolia), 20 years old.
I know it’s two decades old because it was a gift to my wife from her sister on her 40th birthday in 1991. It’s meant to remind her of the copper beach (Fagus sylvatica f. purpurea) that grew in front of their childhood home near Philadelphia.
On any given day, American beech is my favorite tree. Why? Well, obviously, it’s that smooth, gray bark that draws the eye in a forest of furrowed, ridged, warty, and scaly trees.
The UK arborist I mentioned there, Dr. Duncan Slater, has done extensive field work to document the conditions under which bark inclusion appears common.
It shouldn’t be a surprise.
If we start from the premise that, in the same way that our physical strength is developed by the strain we put upon our muscles, tree “strength” is developed in part by the strain that gravity and wind put upon wood, it makes total sense that anything preventing a tree from experiencing that strain can be detrimental to it.
And often it happens that a tree will be naturally deprived of that necessary stress or strain.
Slater calls these “natural braces.” For example, a branch from one of two equal-sized trunks of the same tree — these are called “co-dominant stems” or “double leaders” — may fuse with the second trunk. Obviously, the two parts of the tree are more nearly frozen in place. What Slater has discovered is that under such conditions, the junction between the two trunks is more likely to be weak due to bark inclusion.
So if that’s true, it’s obviously very important to eliminate a natural brace when a tree is young, but if a tree with a natural brace is older, cutting out a natural brace may be a recipe for disaster, i.e., a tree service may be increasing the chance of the tree splitting and falling on someone.
And look what I found recently in this Freedom Park oak with co-dominant stems:
If you happen to be a tree, one of the bigger challenges you have is this: I need energy to grow and reproduce! So I’m gonna reach for sunlight, water, and nutrients. But how far and fast can I reach before something like this happens?
The photograph above shows an American elm (Ulmus americana ‘Princeton’) planted years ago by Tree Watch and Trees Atlanta in Freedom Park.
American elm is really great at reaching. It can grow fast. When it’s at home — ‘home’ being rich, alluvial soil in a forested floodplain along a river or stream — a tall American elm will have channeled so much of its energy into growing upward, in order to reach that lovely sunlight at the top of the forest, that it may have no branches at all until the 50- or 60-foot mark.
Of course, an American elm growing in an open, grassy section of Freedom Park has no difficulty at all accessing sunlight. It’s like a kid left alone in a candy shop. (Think of that poor elm tree in Freedom Park as a kid with a terrible tummy ache.)
“The City of Atlanta owns them, Jim. That’s obvious. After all, they’re in the public right-of-way. You’re forbidden by law from removing or injuring those trees, but the City itself can do whatever it wants with them. Clearly, the trees belong to the City.”
“You own them, Jim. After all, you’re the one who’s legally responsible for maintaining that strip along the street (e.g., keeping it level with the sidewalk, keeping it free of holes and weeds, pruning the trees themselves). If the City has to step in and do the maintenance for you, it can charge you with the expense. If the City abandons its right-of-way along the road, you’re the one with the reversionary right. And so on. Clearly, the trees belong to you.”
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:
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.
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.”
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.
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:
Here’s its compound leaf with leaflets (7 here but can be as few as 3), to help you identify the tree :
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.
Yes, those are boxelder seedlings, bringing a stone staircase to life. Not bad for a weed.