City's trees get no respect

January 10, 2007|By Rene' J. Muller

Trees charm our city, purify our air and remind us that even in a landscape of concrete and asphalt, we are part of the natural world. They deserve to be treated well. But in Baltimore, trees are not treated well.

I recently came upon a Baltimore Gas and Electric crew pruning a row of 16 Japanese Zelkova trees that were growing on the west side of Roland Avenue south of 40th Street. Clearly, BGE had felt threatened by these Zelkovas: The crew was hacking away at each tree, from one end of the row to the other, until a large, V-shaped space was created around the wires that passed through them.

"V pruning" is how BGE describes this procedure in a brochure handed to me by the crew chief after I asked why such drastic cutting was necessary: "When utility wires run through a tree," the brochure explains, "we make a wide V-cut around the wire, leaving branches or stems on either side to grow naturally."

But no amount of "natural growing" would ever regenerate trees compromised as severely as those I saw that day. The worst-mutilated looked like the truncated arboreal figures used in the staging of Samuel Beckett's Waiting for Godot.

According to the brochure, for trees unfortunate enough to threaten wires in other ways, strategies included "overhang removal," "side pruning" and "crown reduction."

No doubt, some large trees with heavy limbs are a real threat to electrical wires strung between poles. But this was not the case with the 16 Zelkovas on Roland Avenue. Zelkovas are goblet-shaped, with a trunk that splits into thin branches that point upward, like the cup in a wineglass. For the most part, their branches splay outward from the center and, if broken, would not fall hard enough on wires to cause serious damage.

(Zelkovas have been widely used to replace American elms killed by Dutch elm disease. The median strip dividing Roland Avenue, from Cold Spring Lane to Lake Avenue, is lined with many of these young trees, which are doing well. Larger Zelkovas are growing rapidly on the Gilman quadrangle at the Johns Hopkins University.)

After years without an official arborist, Baltimore has one, and plans are in place to reverse the years of neglect. But in a city of 2.4 million trees, the task is monumental.

Baltimore has not maintained the trees it plants between the sidewalk and the curb at all well. Many of these fine trees have limbs that are rotting back to the trunk, a process guaranteed to cause infection at that site and the eventual death of the tree. A simple pruning would prevent such a gratuitous loss.

I have spotted a number of trees that are threatened by this kind of neglect. To give two examples: A red oak on the southeast corner of Roland Avenue and Upland Road in Roland Park has two rotting limbs that could be pruned by someone standing on a small stepladder, and on Overhill Road, just down the hill from Charles Street on the south side, a much larger oak faces the same danger, only from limbs that would require a taller ladder for their excision.

Then there are the young trees planted every year by the city in Roland Park and Guilford that die because people who own the houses they front won't water them. During the summer droughts that are now the norm, these trees cannot survive without frequent watering.

Baltimore's dead trees don't get their due, either. A large pin oak off the northeast corner of Highfield Road and Greenway in Guilford had to rot piece by piece for more than three years before the city removed what was left of it.

Baltimore did not stop caring about and caring for its trees in a cultural vacuum. This has happened as part of an overall decline in this city's (and this country's) respect for much of what was once held dear. We need to insist that our city gives our trees their due.

Ren? J. Muller lives in Baltimore. His next book, "Doing Psychiatry Wrong," will be published this year. His e-mail is

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