Trees start weeping, theories flowering

Odd weather, bugs blamed for anomaly

October 16, 2006|By Jill Rosen | Jill Rosen,Sun reporter

John Robertson sent the little e-mail to his Butchers Hill neighbors, just to make sure he wasn't losing his mind.

"Has anyone else noticed the three trees on the 2200 block of Baltimore Street that seem to be misting?" he asked. "If you stand underneath them it's almost like a light rain."

Have they? Have they ever.

Raining trees, misting trees, weeping trees, spitting trees and vegetation in an all-out shvitz have been spotted on the 400 block of South Chester, the 2000 block of Pratt, all over North Collington, throughout Patterson Park and as far away as Mount Vernon.

"I'm glad I wasn't hallucinating the entire thing," says Robertson, a graphic designer who's been doused for weeks while walking his dog, Clive.

"At first I thought it was raining so I'd hurry up to get inside. Then I thought it was condensation from window air-conditioner units - until I realized there aren't any."

As Robertson and his neighbors puzzle and speculate over what's causing the phenomenon, the region's best tree minds are equally stumped. The situation's short on certainty, long on creative guesswork.

Folks blame the leaky leaves on everything from weather fluctuations, irrigation gone wild and extra-terrestrials to the apocalypse, a water main break and a rather revolting phenomenon known as "honeydew."

"Wow," says John Thomas, Washington's chief arborist. "I can't even think of what that could be. I've never heard of that in my life. ... I might have to drive up there and check it out."

He predicts Baltimore's arborist would have a better answer.

"Sudden temperature change," offers a less-than-certain Rebecca Feldberg, Baltimore's tree specialist. "That's the only thing I can think of. It's been cold, then we see it get 20 degrees warmer and trees are very sensitive."

She suggests Maryland's Cooperative Extension might know better.

"Ooookaaay," begins Gary Coleman, a University of Maryland tree biologist. "What I'm betting on is aphids."

He thinks thousands of tiny bugs have taken up residence in each suspicious tree, and the showers people are noticing aren't water, but mouthfuls of sap the critters are spitting out along with - and there's no way to put this delicately - excrement.

Even though it sounds pretty crazy - bugs spewing liquid to such a degree that it looks like rain - Coleman's pretty sure he's right because it happened this summer with a tulip poplar in his Crofton backyard.

"We're dealing with it this year more than I've ever seen," he says. "I've asked my entomologist friends, and they say it's because the weather has been bad for aphid predators," and the bugs have multiplied en masse.

If Coleman's right, if Baltimore trees are raining bug dung, this could be a situation indeed. Particularly in light of Mayor Martin O'Malley's much-ballyhooed plan to double the city's tree canopy within 30 years.

The next generation might find itself knee-deep in honeydew - the polite term for aphid droppings.

"That's really gross," says Marc Denos, a policy analyst for the Social Security Administration and obsessive car-washer who's indulged his habit too much in recent weeks. Still, he was pretty sure - and still is - that it's water landing on his truck.

While Coleman describes honeydew as sticky, Denos says the substance plopping onto cars parked along Lombard Street in Butchers Hill feels clear and not at all sappy.

"If I thought it was [aphid excrement] I wouldn't have smeared it across my face when it dropped on me," he says. "I'm sticking with my extra-terrestrial theory. I like a more wacky cause."

Friends of Patterson Park Executive Director Tim Almaguer knows something about offbeat nature sightings. A woman called him a couple of years ago to say she'd noticed panting squirrels in the park and thought the association should set out bowls of water and little hammocks.

"Oh that," he says, realizing this time it's merely about weepy trees - something he's quite familiar with since his car got splattered beneath a honey locust the other day.

As an ecology major, he's willing to bet Coleman - $20 - that leaves losing sap rather than bugs are responsible.

"You would notice the aphids before you'd notice the tree. You'd be covered in aphids," he says laughing. "This is like `Stump the Panel.'"

In any event, he adds: "It's not the end of days, so tell people they've got nothing to worry about that."

City horticulturist Bill Vondrasek thinks everyone's on the wrong track altogether.

"Frankly, I think whoever is seeing this is seeing the fog in the early morning kind of burning off," he says. "It's more a meteorological phenomenon than something to do with trees. That's my take on it."

Robertson just wants people to understand how much moisture was coming off the trees. He wants them to really get it.

So much that it puddled on the sidewalk. So much that he could see it like a mist as he passed by. So much that he could hear drops rustling leaves as they descended, like each tree had it's own personal little storm.

As it gets colder and foliage begins to fall, this all might end up beside the point.

In the meantime, the D.C. arborist says one can detect aphids by rubbing a piece of black construction paper against a questionable tree's limb. If bugs show up on the paper, you know what you're dealing with.

Or, there's always the E.T. theory.

"I'm not so scared by any of this that I'm going to wall myself off in a concrete jungle," Denos says. "I think we'll all be OK."

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