Vital limbs of the city Trees: Despite tough urban conditions and limited resources, Baltimore's forestry division fights for the city's greenery.

April 29, 1996|By Rafael Alvarez | Rafael Alvarez,SUN STAFF

Al Capone's weeping cherry tree drapes a stunning canopy of pink in front of Union Memorial Hospital each spring, attracting arbor ardor from all who see it in bloom.

Less celebrated, but no less spectacular, is a monument almost no one sees: a mammoth "Tree of Heaven" behind a derelict rowhouse in the 200 block of South Carey Street, one of those wild junk trees that sprout between cracks in concrete and push up through the floors of abandoned houses. It's a giant Ailanthus soaring nearly 60 feet on a trunk more than 15 feet around, according to its entry in the city's 1995 Notable Tree Commission registry.

But whether the tree be gangster Capone's gift to the hospital that treated his terminal syphilis in 1939 or a weedy alley rascal that grew into a state champion, Marion Bedingfield has a place in his heart for each of them.

Not to mention the 300,000 or so other trees that line the streets and median strips of Baltimore and are now blooming -- like the goregous Kwanzan cherries at City College and lavender-hued "red buds" on Roland Avenue -- from Dickeyville to Dundalk.

"When leaves start coming on the trees, I get extremely busy," said Mr. Bedingfield, a tree specialist with the city's forestry division. "I don't want to go up and hug 'em, but I like them. I'll get about 100 calls in the spring from people asking: 'What's that beautiful tree I saw on Charles Street? I want one.' "

If you live in Baltimore and want a tree planted in front of your house, write a letter to the forestry division. Plantings can follow requests by up to a year. With staff at a modern-day low of 37 (down from more than 100 in the early 1970s), no one will promise when it will arrive or if the one you liked so much in the median of Gwynns Falls Parkway is suited to a residental neighborhood.

Chances are it will be a red maple, the No. 1 tree planted in Baltimore because it's so hardy. If it's a white blossoming gingko -- a native of China whose roots go back to the Jurassic era -- the odds are 50-50 that you'll be holding your nose when it blooms every April.

"The stink is the fruit from the female," said Mr. Bedingfield, a city tree man for the past 20 years. "When we get them, the nursery tells us they're all males, but you can't tell until they're old enough to bear fruit."

While a lot of the division's time is spent removing dead and damaged trees, Mr. Bedingfield is always looking for neighbors who are willing to help him green the city. And the squeaky wheel tends to get the tree.

"I asked for one in front of the bar after a windstorm took the old one down," said Carole Santmyer, the barmaid at Barnacle's in South Baltimore. "The old one was big, almost to the top of the building."

"Some people complain about the bird mess, but the birds got to live, too, and trees make a street look better," said Albert Babka, who owns the bar. "It's tax money well spent."

Baltimore spent $100,000 on new trees this past fiscal year, with plantings in the spring and fall. Each year, about 2,000 trees are taken down or die (many from vandalism) and 2,500 more, a variety of 30 different species, go into the ground.

The ones planted downtown tend to live between seven and 13 years before they croak under the stress of urban life. In residential neighborhoods, a tree can last longer than most people.

"We try not to make the mistakes we made in the past, like the silver maples from 1915," said Mr. Bedingfield. "Washington, D.C., said they had 1,500 of them, all we had to do was take them. But it's a brittle wood, and it used to be our No. 1 storm damage tree until they started coming down."

A survivor of the curse of the silver maples stands off the corner of Kirk and Bonaparte avenues in Northeast Baltimore. "It has a yellow fall color and that's nice if you like yellow," Mr. Bedingfield said. "I like reds and oranges."

Those are the fall colors that can be seen in what Mr. Bedingfield calls "our most recent mistake, the Bradford pear.

"It's a gorgeous tree with a 30-foot spread and the leaves turn red in the fall," he said. "But after it gets so big, it splits into two stems. I'm always getting calls at 3 a.m. for a Bradford that's split."

Among trees of strange and historical note in Baltimore are the "watermelon red" crepe myrtle at St. Paul and Saratoga streets, donated in the early 1970s by the singer who calls himself Tiny Tim; an English elm in Fort McHenry said to be grown from a cutting taken off the tree that shaded George Washington as he took command of the Continental Army at Boston in 1775; and the weirdly twisted Osage orange near the Reptile House in Druid Hill Park, a tree whose circumference of 17 feet 2 inches is so oddly shaped that a street through the park was built to curve around it.

The more spectactular trees get the attention they need, but the average rowhouse shade tree tends to suffer neglect.

"We can't do the basic maintenance like mulching that would allow them to grow stronger in the long run," said Jim Dicker, the city arborist who heads forestry and its annual $2.5 million budget. "To really care for trees, we'd need 70 or 80 people. We don't do routine pruning of every tree, only about 10,000 a year. At that rate, it would take 30 years to get around to all of them."

Yet, to Marion Bedingfield, even a row of unpruned trees is better than nothing but concrete. He's convinced that there's less violence on streets with trees.

"They make you feel better," he said. "That's a given."

Pub Date: 4/29/96

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