Get to Know Your Trees

©. K Martinko -- The magnolia tree earlier this spring, before it got sick.

Knowing their names and needs, you'll be more inclined to protect them.

I’ve been thinking about trees recently (and not just because I work for TreeHugger). A magnificent magnolia on my property has become diseased this summer, infected with a white scale that covers the underside of every branch. Apparently, this scale houses an insect that feeds on the tree’s sap and leaks honeydew onto the ground below. This has led to black moldy growth on all the hostas and cedar hedges beneath the magnolia. It’s a big mess and a heartbreaker for me, since I love this tree. It’s 75 years old and a glorious sight in springtime.

After getting in touch with an arborist at Davey Tree, however, I was told that the magnolia could likely be saved. A worker spent six hours scraping off the scale by hand, then sprayed the tree with dormant oil and fertilized the ground around it for an extra boost. He treated two smaller magnolias in our front yard, too. Now we’ll have to wait and see what happens over the next year.

While the arborist was here, I had dozens of questions for him about the various trees on my property. We have an impressive array, planted by the previous owners, but not all are in optimal health. We discussed the viburnum, the pear tree, the harlequin maple, and the three magnificent Austrian pines at the back property line that my neighbor wants to cut down – and I’m rather embarrassed to admit that I learned many of their names for the first time during this conversation.

For all of these trees, the arborist had detailed suggestions for how to boost their health or save them outright. Not once did he say, “That one will have to go,” despite this being a common refrain from Town staff and acquaintances.

The Austrian pines, for example, the arborist told me, could be helped by adding acidic cedar mulch or flowers like rhododendrons and azaleas around their base, instead of planting grass seed, which my neighbor has done. The viburnum is being hurt by a Japanese beetle, which can be caught with a pheromone trap in early summer next year. My pear tree does not require pruning if I’m not aiming for fruit production, and the harlequin maple has mildew on its leaves and needs more acidity.

Our conversation has made me realize how little I – and many others in my town, it seems – know about trees. There’s a tendency to view urban trees as being either healthy or slated for cutting, with no middle ground for treating and healing trees. Why this is the case, I do not understand, especially considering the investment of years to grow a tree and the property value and beauty they offer. Perhaps cost is a factor, but surprisingly it cost less to treat the magnolia than it would have to cut, remove, and plant another species in its place.

Over the past week, I’ve been looking at my yard with new eyes. The trees that surround my home and shade my children’s play spaces have needs and desires; it’s as if they’ve acquired personalities, now I’ve spoken with the arborist. I am more inclined to protect and fight for them, instead of fretting about the gap they would leave in the yard.

elm tree

Flickr -- An American elm tree in winter/CC BY 2.0

It makes me think of Gabriel Popkin’s article in the New York Times last week, “Cure Yourself of Tree Blindness.” He has embarked on a mission to get to know tree names, which is valuable for many reasons – from marveling at the wonders of tree reproduction in springtime to understanding the tragedy of their deaths by invasive species, from the practicalities of foraging for food to revealing how well we’re managing today’s forests.

“When you engage with a tree, you momentarily leave the human-created world. Look at an American elm in winter, its limbs waving like Medusa’s snaky hair. The elm may grow along streets and sidewalks, but there is nothing tame about that tree. In cities, where animals feast on human gardens or garbage and most landscape plants are domesticated cultivars, native trees are the last truly wild beings.”

The arborist’s visit has inspired me to get to know trees better, too. There are various ways to do this, such as the respected vTree app from Virginia Tech that lists regional species based on a zip code and the Arbor Day Foundation’s tree app that Melissa wrote about. Arborist Now has a good list for teaching kids to identify trees, starting with a few basic species. But nothing beats going for a walk with someone who knows what they’re talking about. See if you can arrange that for your family or a group of friend.

The magnolia is not out of the woods yet, but this inspired mama will be keeping a very close eye on it now.