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

Monday, February 9, 2009

Will these trees survive construction?

Many trees would die from such abuse.

Someone has purchased a couple of acres near a small river a few miles from our home. They are building a beautiful new home in a bend of the road.

In preparation for construction, they hired someone to bulldoze most of the trees and level the site. A few large trees, mostly sycamores (Platinus occidentalis), were left standing. I confess a degree of morbid curiosity about whether the trees will survive.

Fortunately, sycamores tolerate soil compaction, because I am sure that soil was quite compacted after the bulldozer drove back and forth, again and again.

When the soil is compacted, water, air, and nutrients cannot move freely. As a result, the tree may become stunted or weakened, and it may slowly die over a period of years.

I wonder how much of the root system of those trees was destroyed during the bulldozing. With all trees, the roots that are responsible for taking up nutrients and water are located near the surface of the soil and extend well beyond the tree's canopy.

Sycamores have a particularly shallow root system. In my experience, they often have very large roots radiating from the trunk at soil surface. If large roots have been broken, the trees may begin to lean or they may even fall down in a strong wind.

Look how the vehicles and equipment are parked right under the trees near the house (top photo). Construction materials are piled there as well. All these things are totally against the rules when you want to preserve a tree on a construction site. And their new road runs right over the roots of the two big sycamores they saved on one end of the property (photo below.)

I wish the property owners had taken some measures to protect the trees they decided to save. They could have fenced out the critical root area around those trees and protected their most important roots.

Rather than selecting individual trees and bulldozing the rest, the owners could have chosen clumps of trees to preserve. The few trees they saved are singled out now after a lifetime among comrades. They are unaccustomed to standing alone, and they will be more vulnerable to wind and weather distress than they were in the group.

In areas around the house where they couldn't avoid traffic, the owners could have decreased the likelihood of root damage by applying a thick (6 to 8 inch) temporary mulch under the trees. (Obviously, the mulch would have been most effective if they had not bulldozed the site already.)

Ask me in ten years, and I'll tell you how many of the trees are still alive. I'm not placing any bets, one way or the other. I think sycamores stand a better chance of living through this than many other tree species would. They're tough, but they've taken a good bit of abuse here.

(Some may know the sycamore by other names, such as American planetree, buttonwood, or button-ball. )

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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.

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