When selecting trees for landscapes, people all too often stick with the familiar. On the surface, this makes sense. We know what we are getting when we plant a familiar tree. We've likely seen it growing somewhere else. There is likely something attractive or otherwise beneficial about it. Common trees may also be cheaper to purchase.
However, sticking with the familiar causes problems. Too much reliance on a single species/genus can have devastating effects if a pest/disease/condition severely affects the overplanted type of tree (see emerald ash borer, Dutch elm disease). Diversifying our plant profile can help buffer from these effects. Planting more species in a given area can also increase overall benefit of our urban forest, as different species provide different benefits.
Fortunately there are a number of underutilized trees that can do well in and around Chicago. Here are five such trees:
1. Kentucky Coffeetree (Gymnocladus dioicus)
Growth Rate: Slow to Medium
Mature Shape: Oval
Height: 60 to 75 feet
Width: 40 to 50 feet
Site Requirements: Prefers full sun and can tolerate a wide range of soils
2. American hornbeam (Carpinus caroliniana)
Height: 20 to 30 feet
Spread: 20 to 30 feet
Crown uniformity: symmetrical
Crown shape: oval
Crown density: dense
Growth rate: slow
Uses: sidewalk cutout (tree pit); deck or patio; specimen; street without sidewalk; screen; hedge; tree lawn 3–4 feet wide; tree lawn 4–6 feet wide; tree lawn > 6 ft. wide; Bonsai; shade
Pests - Relatively few insects attack hornbeam. Diseases - None are normally very serious.
3. Katsura tree (Cercidiphyllum japonicum)
Uses: shade; street without sidewalk; specimen; parking lot island 100–200 sq ft; parking lot island > 200 sq ft; tree lawn 4–6 feet wide; tree lawn > 6 ft wide; highway median
Height: 40 to 60 feet
Spread: 35 to 60 feet
Crown uniformity: symmetrical
Crown shape: oval, upright/erect, pyramidal, spreading
Growth rate: fast
4. Nannyberry (Viburnum lentago)
Uses: Nannyberry is a shade-tolerant, understory species useful in landscape plantings as shrub borders, taller barriers, hedges, and windbreaks.
General: Nannyberry is a native, deciduous, multi-stemmed shrub or small tree that may reach 36 ft. in height.
Nannyberry is leggy and somewhat open at maturity with an irregular to rounded crown. Suckers often form at the base. The bark is dark gray to black in a pattern of small blocks.
5. Ohio buckeye (Aesculus glabra)
Uses: recommended for buffer strips around parking lots or for median strip plantings in the highway; shade tree
Height: 50 to 70 feet Spread: 40 to 50 feet Crown shape: round Crown density: dense
Growth rate: medium
6. Japanese tree lilac (Syringa reticulata)
Characteristics: medium-sized ornamental tree or very large ornamental shrub -maturing at about 25' tall x 20' wide, although larger under optimum conditions -upright oval growth habit, becoming more rounded with age -medium growth rate.
Site: full sun to partial sun -best performance occurs in full sun in a moist, well-drained soil of average fertility, but it is highly adaptable to poor soils, compacted soils, various soil pHs, and drought.
7. American yellowwood (Cladastris kentukea)
Height: 30 to 50 feet
Spread: 40 to 50 feet
Uses: recommended for buffer strips around parking lots or for median strip plantings in the highway; shade tree; specimen; residential street tree
Pest resistance: no pests are normally seen on the tree
What are your favorite undervalued trees?
A tree inventory is a management tool used to collect attributes of a population of trees in a specific location. Data is collected to accomplish a goal, such as determining maintenance needs, risk assessment, education, etc. These days, inventories are typically collected utilizing GPS/GIS and can be easily accessed and shared on the web. Homeowners associations should be interested in conduction tree inventories for many reasons, including the following:
Knowing the maintenance needs of the trees in your association can help plan for work to be done over several years. For example, a plan to prune the trees in the association would be difficult to create if the pruning needs of every tree are not known. Knowing pruning needs helps prioritize which trees to prune first, and at what cost, so that an HOA can budget for maintenance accordingly.
Informing residents of the types of trees and associated benefits throughout an Association can help improve appreciation for the natural environment. After all, one will likely find it hard to care about a resource they don't even know exists. An HOA can make their tree inventory available to residents so they can see the benefits and needs of individual trees. Residents can access some types of inventories from mobile devices so they can learn about individual trees as they walk their neighborhood.
Environmentally aware individuals may be attracted to an HOA if they see that management cares for natural assets such as trees. Caring for trees can also help lead to certification through programs such as LEED and SITES. These are third party verification services that have been shown to improve sale and rental prices for residential and commercial properties. Content produced as part of an inventory can often be utilized by an HOA in marketing materials.
4. Risk Assessment
While trees provide many benefits, they can also present safety hazards if in poor condition. An inventory will identify hazards and prioritize removal or other mitigation options to reduce the potential for tree or limb failure. Failure to assess and remove tree risks can open up an HOA or property owner to legal action if a tree failure leads to property damage or personal injury.
5. Insurance/Value Appraisal
If a tree is illegally removed through negligence, accident or weather the HOA can often attempt to recoup the value of the lost tree through insurance or legal means. However, appraised value is difficult to determine after a tree has been removed unless tree accurate details have been kept. That is why is important to know at least the size, species and condition of every tree of value on a property. All of this data can easily be collected in an inventory.
A home inspection is a crucial part of the home-buying process. White the building itself is almost always thoroughly inspected before purchase, it is also important to inspect the landscape. Trees, as the biggest natural part of a landscape, should be a regular part of a home inspection.
Why Include Trees in a Home Inspection?
Because trees have value. Not only do trees improve the aesthetics of a property, they can also increase property value. Studies claim that property values can be increased by up to 30% for treed versus non-treed landscapes. Trees also provide wildlife habitat, clean the air, help mitigate flooding and remove air pollutants, among many other benefits.
If you wait until after purchasing a home to assess the trees, you could be surprised to later find out that thousands of dollars in maintenance is needed to correct health and safety issues.
If you’re planning on doing construction, your arborist can advise you on the suitability of preserving specific trees for construction. A detailed tree preservation plan can be prepared for trees chosen to remain. This page by Gary Johnson gives a good overview of tree preservation for homeowners.
What about the Trees is Evaluated?
Health – Trees may have safety issues, nutrient deficiencies, water problems or may simply be in a poor location to grow well. By evaluating tree health, remedies can be prescribed to correct issues before they become critical.
Species – Different species have different management needs. Species also vary in what they contribute to a property.
Contribution to Property – Does the tree provide shade? Fruit? Wildlife value? Aesthetics? Is it a good fit for the property, or will it outgrow its space? Questions such as these can determine what your trees bring to your property individually and as a collection
Maintenance Needs – Trees may need pruning, soil management or pest management for health, safety or aesthetic reasons.
Appraised Value – Trees are often appraised for their value in case of loss. If a tree is killed by lightning or illegally removed by a neighbor, for example, you can potentially recover the lost value of the tree. Feel free to read more about appraised tree values here.
Who Performs the Inspection?
An arborist who is an ISA Certified Arborist and/or Registered Consulting Arborist should perform the inspection. You can read more about those qualifications at the links provided. The International Society of Arboriculture provides great info on why you should have an arborist with credentials inspect your trees here.
I've always been a fan of survivor trees. A tree growing on the edge of a cliff. A redwood in California's Muir Woods sprouting from dead and growing several hundred feet tall. And, of course, an ailanthus growing in some back alley in Chicago.
Ailanthus (Ailanthus altissima), AKA tree of heaven, ghetto palm, tree from hell, is a tree that simply survives. You can find it growing in places where other trees would have never had a chance.
Their aggressive sprouting and seeding nature allow them to sprout up in opportune places. Many of them have remained because they are in such places, such as alleys and abandoned properties that nobody has cared enough to remove them. Of course, this aggressive nature means it can be invasive and thus shouldn't be allowed to grow in places where it might take over natural habitats. But anyway...
Aside from being survivors, these trees provide actual benefits. It provides food for some silkworm moths. It's wood is useful for some types of cabinet work. It is believed by some to have medicinal properties.
Would I plant an ailanthus in my front yard? No. I might even remove it if it were in a spot that could be better occupied by another species. But in its place an ailanthus is a tree that adds to a property and the greater environment.
So if you have an ailanthus (or some other survivor tree such as a mulberry) on your property, just leave it be. Be thankful that it's adding something to your property that other, less tough tree species wouldn't be able to.
What other underappreciated tree species are you a fan of?
Tree Campus USA is a program run by the Arbor Day Foundation that helps colleges and universities and universities around the USA establish and sustain healthy community forests. It's basically the school version of the better-known Tree City USA. Tree Campus USA requires that schools meet five standards for recognition:
- Campus Tree Advisory Committee
- Tree Care Plan
- Tree Program with Dedicated Annual Expenditures
- Arbor Day Observance
- Service Learning Project
There are many benefits to becoming a Tree Campus USA. Here are five of the most important:
1. Student and Community Engagement
The requirements for an Arbor Day observance and service learning project present an opportunity to get students involved with the care of campus trees. Tree plantings are a popular choice for both, but other projects could include a tree inventory, tree benefit tagging or small tree pruning/mulching. Involving students helps improve their appreciation for campus trees and their care requirements, and may help gain support for including trees in the campus budget.
A tree benefit tag.
Image courtesy www.cityofvancouver.org
2. Cost:Benefit Improvements
It would difficult or impossible to efficiently budget for tree care activities if a current budget is not known. Tree Campus requires a school to determine how much they are currently spending on caring for their trees. By analyzing their tree care budget, a campus can determine inefficiencies to better spend the money currently set aside for trees. A school can also be more likely to receive grant funds from various funders if tree expenditures are known. The program suggests a goal of $3 per student, but this is not required.
Environmentally aware students, faculty and staff may be attracted to a school if they see that management cares for natural assets such as trees. Caring for trees can also help lead to certification through programs such as LEED, STARS and SITES. Such certifications can further enhance marketability of a school as sustainability-oriented.
4. Improved Management
Tree Campus requires the creation of a tree care plan. While this doesn't have to be overly comprehensive, the more detail a school puts into its creation the better. The plan should detail such practices such as prohibited species, goals and targets, damage assessment and tree preservation. Simply by going through the process of creating a plan, a school may become more aware of the benefits of comprehensive tree care. Hopefully, standards and policies created as part of the plan will be made enforceable by the school.
There are many funding sources available for community, schools, nonprofits and others to maintain and plant urban trees. Below is a list of funding sources I am aware of. Please comment below if you know of any other good sources, and I will add them to the list.
State Urban Forestry Coordinators - The best place to start in searching for funding would be to contact your state urban forestry coordinator. They'd be able to point you to other sources in Indiana that might not be available in other states.
Arbor Day Foundation TD Green Streets - They run the Tree City USA program (and have various tree planting programs to help communities. Schools can participate in a similar program, Tree Campus USA, and there are sometimes funds available for campuses as well.
Global ReLeaf- A program run by American Forests, a non profit, to provide reforestation grants to communities.
Alliance For Community Trees- Another nonprofit that facilitates urban forestry grants for communities.
Environmental Protection Agency (US EPA)- their grants for stormwater management and environmental justice have both been used by communities for tree planting/forestry projects. Community development block grants through HUD have been used by communities to purchase trees as well.
Home Depot Community Impact Program - Grants, up to $5,000, are available to registered 501(c)(3) nonprofit organizations and tax-exempt public service agencies in the U.S. that are using the power of volunteers to improve the physical health of their community. Grants are given in the form of The Home Depot gift cards for the purchase of tools, materials, or services.
National Recreation and Park Association - RPA’s Partnership and Business Development department works with funders and like-minded organizations to make an impact through local parks across NRPA’s pillars: conservation, health and wellness, and social equity.
Grants.gov - Learn about and apply for federal funds. This site can be less than user-friendly, but there are a lot of potential opportunities available.