Tree Notes is about trees -- especially native trees, trees for wildlife, and trees in history.

Sunday, April 22, 2007

The urban forest : Diversity is essential

A mixture of species is best for street trees.



Brigham Street in Salt Lake City, Utah, about 1900
Detroit Publishing Company photo at the Library of Congress

American botanist Charles Sprague Sargent, writing in 1890 for his weekly magazine, Garden and Forest, expressed a strong opinion about street trees:

It is plain that trees of one variety only should be planted in a long, straight row parallel with the lines of buildings in a continuous street. Much of the desired effect will be lost if the trees vary in form or size, or expression, or rapidity of growth, or in the time of putting forth their leaves or shedding them.

An avenue of American Elms, with their lofty overarching tops, is always beautiful, because the charm of each tree is renewed in the next, and the effect of the whole is constantly intensified and multiplied by repetition. An avenue of stately Tuliptrees is equally beautiful, but in an entirely different way. The same might be said of a double row of Pin Oaks, where there is space for their drooping lower branches.

But if all these trees were intermingled, and Sugar Maples, Horse Chestnuts and others still were added, the result would be incongruous and contradictory. There would be no continuous lines extending through the entire vista to help the perspective and to give unity of character and expression and consistency of purpose to the whole.

And yet in our city street-planting it is the common practice to allow each lot owner to select the tree which suits his fancy. The immediate effect is bad enough, but it grows worse as years roll on and the individual trees become more and more unlike each other as their peculiar characteristics are more strongly marked with age.

(Professor C. S. Sargent, Garden and forest, Volume 3, Issue 108, March 19 1890, p.137.)

Professor Sargent was wrong!


Sargent was no stranger to trees and tree management; he was the director of Harvard University's Arnold arboretum from 1872 until his death in 1927.

Evidence of Professor Sargent's importance in the field of botany persists to this day. When you see the word Sargentii or the abbreviation Sarg. in the name of a tree or other plant, it refers to Charles Sprague Sargent.

But despite his well-deserved and long lasting fame, he was misguided in his advice that street tree plantings should be homogeneous.

When all the trees on a street are the same species, the neighborhood is at danger of a tree pest or disease wiping out every one of them, leaving the street bare and shadeless. Professor Sargent's ideas about desirable street tree plantings were conceived before the days of Dutch Elm disease, chestnut blight, and emerald ash borers. He had never seen a disease or insect sweep down a street, killing tree after tree.

Insuring diversity in street tree plantings


Today, urban foresters agree that street tree plantings should be as diverse as possible to help insure the health of the trees. Site variables, aesthetic considerations, and maintenance requirements will always limit the list of trees that may work in any particular urban location, but within those parameters, as much diversity as possible should be maintained.

A growing number of municipalities have ordinances that specify the minimum number of tree species that should be represented within a block or a development.

Due to the tree ordinance that [consulting urban forester Robert A.] Cool helped implement, new developments in Lansing [MI] are now required to have at least five different genera of trees planted on each block. No two adjacent trees can be the same genus.

"If you plant a block in one type of tree, in five years some will grow faster and others will grow slower. Some might die. So you've lost your uniform effect, anyway," says Cool. "If another epidemic like Dutch elm disease comes along, you've lost your whole block. Mixing your plantings is like hedging your bets."

(Helen M. Stone, "Municipal Arboriculture: Street Tree Smarts")

Is your urban forest diversified?


Does your town or city have guidelines for diversity in the planting of street trees? When you drive through your neighborhood or subdivision, do you observe a variety of species in the street trees, or are they all the same? The answers to questions of this sort may indicate the future health of the urban forest where you live.

3 comments -- please add yours:

Dave said...

Thanks for this important historical perspective. But of course Sargent is not solely to blame for a society-wide aesthetic preference for uniformity over diversity. That's still something we all need to challenge, as much as possible.

Crafty Green Poet said...

Monoculture is never good. In our city there is a pretty good diversity of tree species in parks and gardens.

Georgia said...

I found this essay via the FOTT website. My block, in Berkeley, Calif., has a diverse palette of street trees. One of my favorite blocks in Boston, in terms of trees, is planted with a mix of red oak and sweetgum.

Despite our devastating experiences with tree pests, streetscape designers (landscape architects, architects, and planners) still propose single-species palettes for blocks and entire streets.

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Enrich your life with the study of trees.

"The power to recognize trees at a glance without examining their leaves or flowers or fruit as they are seen, for example, from the car-window during a railroad journey, can only be acquired by studying them as they grow under all possible conditions over wide areas of territory. Such an attainment may not have much practical value, but once acquired it gives to the possessor a good deal of pleasure which is denied to less fortunate travelers."

Charles Sprague Sargent (1841-1927)

Print references I frequently consult

Benvie, Sam. Encyclopedia of North American Trees. Buffalo, NY: Firefly, 2000.

Brockman, C. Frank. Trees of North America: A Guide to Field Identification. Ed. Herbert S. Zim. New York: Golden, 1986.

Cliburn, Jerry, and Ginny Clomps. A Key to Missouri Trees in Winter: An Identification Guide. Conservation Commission of the State of Missouri, 1980.

Collingwood, G. H., Warren David Brush, and Devereux Butcher. Knowing Your Trees. Washington: American Forestry Association, 1978.

Dirr, Michael. Dirr's Hardy Trees and Shrubs: an Illustrated Encyclopedia. Portland, Or.: Timber, 1997.

Elias, Thomas S. The Complete Trees of North America; Field Guide and Natural History. New York: Book Division, Times Mirror Magazines, 1980.

Grimm, William Carey. The Book of Trees;. Harrisburg, PA: Stackpole, 1962.

Hightshoe, Gary L. Native Trees, Shrubs, and Vines for Urban and Rural America: a Planting Design Manual for Environmental Designers. New York: Van Nostrand Reinhold, 1988.

Little, Elbert L. National Audubon Society Field Guide to North American Trees. New York: Chanticleer, 1996.

Martin, Alexander C., Herbert S. Zim, and Arnold L. Nelson. American Wildlife and Plants. New York: McGraw Hill, 1951.

Mitchell, Alan F., and David More. The Trees of North America. New York, NY: Facts On File Publications, 1987.

Randall, Charles E. Enjoying Our Trees. Washington: American Forestry Association, 1969.

Settergren, Carl D., and R. E. McDermott. Trees of Missouri. Columbia: University Extension, 1995.

Sternberg, Guy, and James W. Wilson. Native Trees for North American Landscapes: from the Atlantic to the Rockies. Portland: Timber, 2004.

Wharton, Mary E., and Roger W. Barbour. Trees and Shrubs of Kentucky. Lexington: University of Kentucky, 1973.

Wyman, Donald. Trees for American Gardens. New York: Macmillan, 1965.

Photos and text copyright © 2006-2010 by Genevieve L. Netz. All rights reserved. Do not republish without written permission. My e-mail address is gnetz51@gmail.com