Why are the City Trees Sick?

Went for a little drive on Thanksgiving to mom’s house. I couldn’t help notice that the trees in her back yard didn’t look right anymore.

I stood staring at an oak, a willow, and a mulberry tree that have been growing there since I was a kid. But this time, they looked somehow different.

Strike that. They looked exactly the same as I remember, only bigger, but my perception of what a tree should look like has shifted significantly.

I’m not a professional forester, but it’s hard to survive on firewood without taking note of at least some aspects of natural history. Firewood cords mean money, so cutting or buying, people who burn wood to keep warm progress to learning at least something about trees, though the amount of knowledge and specifics vary greatly.

There are a great number of false preconceptions about trees and forests, and most are spread by people with no knowledge (or desire to gain such) of forestry whatsoever. But even people who have done forestry professionally for years will readily admit they don’t know everything. There’s so much about natural habitats that goes far beyond whether cutting a tree down is a destructive act.

Because of owning this little tract of land, I’m a steward for my little forests, and thus I spend a lot of time watching, listening, and walking through the trees. I’ve learned the basics about the lumber industry, I have some ideas about forestry, and a constantly evolving forest management plan to ensure that there is enough disturbance to keep the woods around me healthy, while not clearing so much that I destroy the appeal for certain wildlife.

I leave big trees, medium trees, saplings, snags, and even fallen timber. There’s no cookie-cutter forestry measurement that says what tree to leave there. No formula. Stewardship is thereby left to the steward, and the plan for the stand, hopefully with some input from knowledgeable forestry people.

That said, I see a lot of trees. I’ve harvested a great number. And when I finally popped out of the woods this year (I don’t get out much anymore), I noticed something very off about those backyard timbers.

This isn’t mom’s tree, but it shows typical suburban tree qualities. Thanks Pixabay photographers for the photos.

Looks like a tree, right? Note the division of the trunk very close to the ground, the wide spread of the branches, and the overall slenderness of the smaller trunks that continue to fork all the way to the top.

Now look at these trees:

Slender branches with a tall, solid trunk. There’s a forked trunk in the middle, but look how high up the tree grows before the fork.

Is there anything “wrong” with the first tree? Probably not. Just a tree doing tree things. But…

I found myself reflecting on the differences between trees forced to compete for resources and those who grow in fairly nurtured noncompetitive environments. The tall-masted lightly branched trees of the forest, when healthy, will survive gale-force winds with little damage. The surrounding trees also mean that winds through the branches are much less likely to be that fast, because the forest tempers the wildest of tempests.

The suburban tree (as I’m calling it, plenty of those growing around here too, in open fields and savannas) will probably shed a few large limbs every time there’s a thunderstorm. There’s more top weight, more leafy surface area to catch the wind like a sail, and less strength to hold everything together.

Again, I’m not saying any of this is bad or good, or whatever. Just a peculiar difference I’ve noticed. And I’m reminded of something I’ve written about before: the stigma that walnut trees are super valuable or rare.

I read an article not long ago about a man who was planting walnuts to harvest as timber for retirement. Veneer logs can fetch a pretty penny, so he’s definitely not the first to come up with the idea. Then I saw a picture of his green IRA in the article. They all looked like the suburban tree in the first picture up there. Twisted trunks, branches and forks everywhere, etc.

He had planted them on a very large grid, 25 feet between trees if I recall, and they grew like a “suburban tree.” He didn’t even realize it while being interviewed for the article, so obviously he doesn’t know f- all about timber, as those trees are useless for anything but pencils and posts. To make saw logs, you need tall masts, and to make veneer, you need clear trunks the whole length. You can’t get that (most of the time) from a “suburban tree.” He’ll get the picture when he goes to sell them.

So I wonder, can a forest environment be mimicked for producing large, timber-quality trees? I’ve seen it in Florida, where pine trees are planted in rows at a 3-5 foot spacing between trees and perhaps 6-8 between rows. In other words, much denser than the recommendation from the tree nursery.

Wider spacing makes fuller looking trees, while thinner spacing restricts sunlight, encouraging rapid vertical growth and few branches surviving the climb upward. If only it were that easy, as there are other considerations such as pests and infections when single-species stands are made.

And that was the difference I noticed upon leaving my wood lot long enough to ponder about the trees in another place, and my history of looking at such trees my whole life. In the woods, trees grow and look quite different than in the open. City trees aren’t sick, but perhaps pampered. They are a picture of what a lonely but healthy tree looks like, while the woods trees are feral and built for a tougher life: strong and resilient.

Neither type is really sick, they’re just different breeds from opposite sides of the tracks.

Just one of those things I think about. Enjoyed the short vacation, btw. The kitties got to meet the rest of my fam, and after gorging themselves on turkey, they slept the whole way home: a four-hour car ride.


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