In his classic book Mormon Country, author Wallace Stegner noted that nineteenth century Mormons planted rows of Lombardy poplar trees wherever they established settlements in the territory that is now Utah. The trees served as windbreaks and boundary markers, but they were also the flags that marked the advance of Mormon civilization in a hostile territory. In my hometown and lots of other towns all over the United States elm trees served a similar function, marking the spread of middle class residential neighborhoods during the end of the nineteenth and the first third of the twentieth centuries. In the 1960’s almost all of those tall elegant trees fell prey to Dutch Elm Disease, making each municipality a little poorer.
I was thinking about trees and what the planting of specific trees says about a society last week when a municipal truck plopped a locust sapling on my neighbor’s front strip. This tree and dozens of its siblings are being planted all over town in an effort by municipal government to replace some of the aged hardwood trees that have been dispatched by storms, disease or simple old age over the past few years.
The trees that have gone were mature oaks, sycamores, beeches and a few straight statuesque tulip trees. Somehow it doesn’t seem right to replace them with a tree as prosaic as the locust. Still, since few homeowners plant anything other than the occasional dogwood, magnolia or crabapple, it is a good thing that the municipality has decided to invest in some kind of street trees. Otherwise, our successors in this town and many others may well fry later on in the century.
Of course, there is nothing wrong with small ornamental flowering trees. They are inspiring additions to the landscape and provide color, flowers and fruit (if not for humans then for birds). There is nothing wrong with locust trees. It is just that in terms of stature, shade, contribution to air quality and inspirational value, you just can’t top a mature beech tree.
The problem is that it takes a long time to get a mature beech tree. If you plant one in your yard now, you will not live to see it get to the statuesque stage. What with high taxes and changing patterns of middle class mobility, you may not remain at your current address long enough to see your beech tree get much beyond the sapling stage. Someone else’s grandchildren will probably play in the beech tree’s shade, but for many people that thought does not provide enough gratification to justify planting the beech tree in the first place.
So municipalities like mine do the best they can, planting trees that grow relatively quickly and are tough enough to survive drought, neglect, air pollution and other travails. Keeping this in mind, homeowners should make an effort to care for the young trees that the town plants in the “hell strip” between the street and the sidewalk (if indeed your municipality has provided you with a sidewalk). It is especially important to water them during droughts. Probably the best thing to be said about the incessant lawn watering that goes on in most places is that the trees benefit from the frequent dousings.
If you have space on your lot, consider planting a slow-growing hardwood tree. Flaunt your individuality and plant something more interesting than the neighbors have—a white oak or a sweet gum or a sugar maple. If you are feeling patriotic and want to give the world a really magnificent specimen, plant a tulip tree. George Washington put them in at Mount Vernon, and at least one survives to this day. If you have a significant event—a birth in the family, graduation, wedding or a death—plant a tree in celebration or remembrance.
Do not be deterred by busybodies who tell you that your little sycamore will eventually shed its bark like a cat shedding fur in July, or that your beech tree will drop enough beechnuts in one season to fill a municipal garbage truck. That’s why there are rakes, leaf blowers, teenagers and lawn services. Besides, just as someone else’s grandchildren will enjoy the shade of your tulip or larch, someone else’s grandchildren may gain a character-building experience by tending to the leaves or sloughed-off bark or fallen nuts. Whether you manage a hedge fund for a living or trim hedges for your daily bread, you leave a lasting legacy by planting a tree. Find a sturdy spade and get started.
by Elisabeth Ginsburg