Ask someone if they have a favorite tree, and many are quick to name a particular species. It often takes a little more “digging” to come up with the answer to “why”. But since digging is one of my favorite things to do, I decided to ask around. I started with some of the staff at Casey Trees.
If you don’t know about Casey Trees, they are a D.C.-based non-profit group committed to restoring, enhancing and protecting the tree canopy of D.C. They plant trees, teach other people about trees, and work with elected officials, developers, and community groups to make sure that the population of trees in D.C. continues to grow forth and multiply. Ten years and over 10,000 trees since their beginning, it’s obvious to see that they DEFINITELY “dig” trees.
Jared Powell, Director of Communications and Development for Casey Trees helped me poll a few of their staff members to get some answers to the question “What is your favorite tree, and why?” Their answers reflect childhood memories, aesthetic admiration and respect for the environment that help to explain why Casey Trees is so devoted to helping Washington DC remain “The City of Trees.”
Native trees, which are generally better suited for the local environment, are marked with an (N)
Jared’s favorite tree: The eucalyptus, while not native to North America, has certainly made itself at home along the west coast particularly in California where I am from. Growing up, I would build forts at the base of these giants using its tessellated bark for roof materials, soak up its sweet scent emitted from its distinctive long, blue leaves and lounge in its shade on hot summer days. In short, the eucalyptus tree reminds me of home and a time when my only worry was when the end of recess bell would ring.
Marty O’Brien, COO: When I was growing up in Minneapolis in the late 1970s, there were many big and beautiful elm trees lining the boulevards in our neighborhood and throughout the city. At some point the city came through and marked many trees with an orange “X” and soon removed all of those trees. It drastically changed the character of the neighborhood and the city for the worse so, at about 10 years old, I realized for the first time the impact that trees could have. We didn’t know what we had until it was gone. So that is why I chose the American elm (N) as my favorite tree. It was the first real connection I had with trees.
Mark DeSantis, Development Associate: It’s not just the bursts of golden yellow leaves that dot D.C.’s streets during the fall that make the ginkgo my favorite tree – though in my opinion there are few things more beautiful to see in this city. For me it’s more their history and the fact that they’ve been around for so long that fascinate me. They are truly a relic from the past that has survived for so long – something few things in this world have managed. It’s this uniqueness that I find beautiful.
Oliver Pattison, Communications Associate: I am a fan of the pin oak (N) because it is a great large-canopy street tree with a significant presence along certain D.C. streets. I know that oaks are not everyone’s favorite type of city tree because of concerns about falling acorns, but they more than make up for it with their beautiful fall foliage. I discovered that I liked pin oaks in particular by walking around Mount Pleasant and Kalorama Park in the fall.
Christopher Horn, Communications Associate: There are many species of oak in my home state of Kansas, but none like the willow oak (N). When I moved to D.C., I was not only amazed at how many trees there were, but also by the uniqueness of the willow oak. The tree has a dense canopy and its oblong willow-like leaves go from a bright green in spring to a beautiful yellow-orange in the fall. The willow oak is a sight to see in any season.
Sara Turner, Urban Forestry Manager: The artist in me loves sassafras (N) for its color and three distinct leaf shapes, some simple others lobed, which make this tree's identification fun. I especially love the one shaped like a mitten resembling the state of Michigan, where I studied woody plants. In the fall, the leaves transition to striking hues of orange, red, and yellow. I am easily charmed by the spotting of Sassafras on a fall hike.
Lisa Morris, Planning and Design Associate: Allentown, PA, where I’m from, has beautiful sycamore (N) lined streets where the branches form an almost solid mass. These giant trees framed the streets I grew up on.
Michael Potts, GIS Specialist: The blackjack oak (N) is a small, scrubby survivor, though one can grow very large if given proper resources. There are some small specimens at the top of Sugarloaf Mountain in Maryland, but I first came upon them as they grow natively on my family’s ranch in Texas. I loved taking walks through the forest populated by blackjacks and post oaks. They always had a rugged appeal to me.
Tom Buckley, Director of Technical Services and Research: Having a favorite tree is a little like having a favorite ice cream. I don’t think about it much. But the Baobabs in Zimbabwe surprised me, as a little kid on safari. You could crawl around inside them. I had a tree-house, but this was a tree that could actually house you. And they grew very large in dusty, dry climates.
Rather than choosing one favorite tree, Shawn Walker, Urban Forestry Instructor, described the importance of following the practice of right plant/right place. In my opinion, right plant/right place is even more important than choosing natives. Choosing trees that are suitable for your property’s site conditions will generally require less water and less harmful chemicals – both of which are great for the local environment.
Shawn Walker: I chose “right tree, right place” because it’s kind of a theme around here: for a planted tree to thrive one must consider the site-specific constraints and chose a species thus suited – ‘right tree, right place’. When I came to work at Casey Trees a year ago, I was surprised that no other staff had chosen this as their favorite, so I nabbed it right away!
‘Right tree, right place’ describes a thoughtful approach to tree selection and landscape design but it also reminds us that there is room for our attitudes towards trees to be more nuanced, something more than simply ‘I like/dislike that tree’. Take the argument about native versus non-native species, for instance. I used to staunchly believe that native species should always be planted when possible. However, as I have become more aware of the threats to our urban forest from climate change and exotic pests, this bias has become somewhat murky.
Our international trade patterns have resulted in the introduction of numerous harmful tree pests from Asia, and their potency as pests results from the fact that they are new invaders in a new land with few, if any, natural enemies to keep them in check. Of course, we should do what we can to control pests like the Emerald Ash Borer that continues its wholesale ash-murdering rampage but we can also take measures to make our urban forests more resistant to Asian pests by including Asian tree species within our palette. The Manchurian Ash (Fraxinus mandschurica), to site a specific example, coevolved and shares native habitat with the Emerald Ash Borer, and it just so happens that it has a high degree of resistance to the pest. If we love ash trees and want to include them in our species composition, should we not consider the Manchurian Ash as one of many arrows in our quiver? Thus continues the ‘right tree, right place’ discussion…
Now that we’ve started digging, how about you. Do you have any favorite trees?