“Since When Have Trees Existed Only for Rich Americans?” askIan Leahy andYarynaSerkezin theJuly 4, 2021, Sunday Review section of the New York Times. They provide the answer in afull pagedisplay of the disparity in urban tree cover in twelve US cities. The differences are quite startling – unless you might have lived in one of those cities. Boston and Buffalo have both been home for me in years pastand Denver I have come to know fairly well. These are three of the cities illustrated in the article. Sure enough, depictions of tree cover indicate that the tonier sections of all twelve cities have far more of the urban forest than do the low-income areas. I just checked the greenery outside my house. Sure enough, lots of trees – but rich? Certainly not most of the households on this block of Dorrington Avenue.
And, incidentallyand importantly, the July issue of the National Geographic magazine’s cover story evokes the same question andprovidedanswers with great detail how Los Angeles City and country havedecided where the trees should go – and grow. With a fold-out map the article takes us on a ride along major streets from the edge of Beverly Hills to the environs of East Los Angeles with a series of photographs depicting the lushparkways ofthe Westside (including West Hollywood) to the bareparkways andsidewalksinthe more Eastern regions of the city. It’s anenlighteningjourneyand brings up the question: Considering that much of the eastern areas of Los Angeleswere settled earlier than much of the western sections, why are they so sparsely green? Concrete replaced greenery rapidly in the last century andapparentlyfew noticedthe disparity.
Let’s look at WEHO. The city has put together a remarkable catalogue of its urban forest, one that puts my Sunset Western Garden Guide to shame. I find that there are about 9000 street trees in the city, comprising some192 species. The majority of these trees were inherited when we became a city in 1984. The tree with the highest number on our streets is thejacaranda,closely followed by theChinese Elm andthe Indian Laurel.The second and third species often grow quite large, and by my estimation are not really in scale with surrounding buildings and our narrow streets. While outside my wee house now sits a verylarge IndianLaurel, the same space on the parkway was home to two Chinese Elms. Before cityhood the county removed both because of the damage they had down to the street and underground utilities – including my sewerline.*While such large trees offer shade to reduce the urbanheat sinks,give us the oxygen we need to breathe, and absorb lots of air-borne pollutants,it can also prohibit the growth of many plants and ground cover which may require more sun. They require constant (every two years) “pruning” which does not interfere with their growth and such trees require much water. According to one source, a 30 foottalltree needsa minimum of120 gallons of water per week, based on a rule of thumb that suggests awaterrequirement of 30 gallons per 1” of tree trunk diameter measured at the base. A healthy tree can retain between 30% and 50% ofits own weight in water. When water is plentiful a 30’ tree can absorb as much as 150 gallons in a day; in times of drought,that’s a lot of water.Water is essential, of course, and its roots will seek it out anywhere they can.
While I have often referred to the Indian Laurel outside myhouse asa “gigantic weed” it has become so from suppingheartilyfrom mytwice replacedsewer line and sipping from my small irrigation lines and shading out much of my front garden, it is a necessary element in our “rich” city. I have pondered ways tosurreptitiously kill it, I have to admit. Ofcourse,Icould not.A common use of the upper story of my weed,itscanopy,isthe home to a variety of smaller birdssome of which thrive on the insects which also make a home up there.. My Audubon membership would be in peril if I did something harsh to the tree. Thus, we live together and I have something to be cranky aboutwhile grudgingly admiring it.The “weed” will long outlive me and, unlessmy currentdwellingisreplaced when I’m gone with one of those “box houses”,itwill not be in jeopardy of removal.
Since about 85% of the city’s residents live in apartment or condo buildings, some of the above may not matter much.– unless one looks around.Those who take walkswill morelikely notice the trees, their variety, their seasons of lushness, ofthe later nuisance ofdropped fruiton sidewalksand of annual decline and the withdrawal of their greenery. Take more notice. Our city is rich in a green canopy, our urban forest.A well-cared for tree is a gift. And thatstatementbringsback adustymemory for me.
The Tree of Heaven
When I was five years old my family experienced a severe economicdistresswhich sent us to the backstreet slums of South Boston and into the arms of the welfare state. Our new home was a cold water flat in athree storywalkup in an area facing the waterfront. Everything was dingy and gritty andgrim.Ourfirst winter there was fearsome. But for the largesse of James Michael Curley, the Robinhood -like mayor of Boston in 1937 we might have gone hungryor even homeless. As the Spring rainssubsidedwekidsfound reason to go outside more often. On one such trip we discovered a tree growing brown branches with green spiky leaves just barely showing. How exciting! It was the only livingflorawithin blocks. My grandmother said, upon viewing it: “It’s anailanthus,which the Chinese call The Tree of Heaven.” I have since seen that treemanytimes,mostlyinEastern US citiesand always in thetheirpoorer sections. Must be part of a plan, Heaven keeping an eye on us
*TheWest Hollywood Urban ForestGuide has explicit rules regarding the removalor alteringof street trees. Be careful.