R. J. Smith reports on the sylvan species outside his window:
There are plenty of trees here. Can anyone identify the very tall but little-spreading tree across the street from my apartment? (See photo.) It’s 75′ to 80′ tall. The autumn leaves are never brilliant red. Or even red. Dirty brownish-yellow.
The District’s Department of Transportation (DDOT) is always seeking new and better city street trees. They must be hardy, pollution-tolerant, drought tolerant. Various species come and go in and out of in favor.
Some have shallow roots and heave the sidewalks. Others splinter too easily and fall on cars— like the otherwise gorgeous and near-perfect Bradford Pear. They’re now out of fashion. Also, they rapidly invade roadsides and fields. Lots of big ones were removed in DC especially in front of private apartment buildings on building property. There are still a number on city streets, but I don’t see any new plantings.
Gingko was very popular for a while. Pollution-resistant, with gorgeous brilliant yellow fall leaves. But as they matured, they dropped all that stinky dog-poop fruit. People using canes always were slipping in the mush of crushed fruit. I remember Garrett Hardin hated them as he had to walk something like five extra blocks to avoid them to get to work in the autumn. He walked very slowly and used metal elbow canes, from childhood polio. For a while there was talk of the Department of Agriculture trying to develop a sterile female tree. No news since.
The area around the old CEI offices at L and 19th saw a multi-year effort to plant Dawn Redwoods, which were supposedly pollution-resistant and very attractive with those soft feathery needles. But they kept dying off every summer, especially when there was a long, very hot rainless stretch. They were also very intolerant of de-icing salts. The city kept replanting them anyway. But why plant a deciduous conifer? The city desperately needs a good sprinkling of evergreens to brighten up the dreary winter streets and help slow the snowy winds blowing down the concrete canyons.
An aside about the Dawn Redwood: it was believed to have gone extinct about 50 million years ago. My Portland, Oregon, paternal grandmother was a first-rate amateur scientist, proficient in many areas. She made a number of notable fossil finds in the John Day fossil beds in central Oregon.
She had a beautiful fossil impression of a Dawn Redwood branchlet and needles. I remember her excitement when she wrote me (I was about ten) that some scientists had discovered a valley in China with a number of groves of the “extinct” trees. “Living fossils” collectors led by Harvard’s Arnold Arboretum and funded by the Save the Redwoods League quickly went there, gathered seeds and smuggled them out and soon sent them to botanical gardens and agricultural colleges around the world. Then they were made commercially available and the tree is now thriving in countries around the world. The Dawn Redwood makes a stunning ornamental tree—and lovely bonzai trees. Meanwhile, the remnant population of this species is in severe decline in China and the IUCN (International Union for Conservation of Nature) has listed it as critically endangered in the wild.
This is another interesting example of successful private conservation.
And back on my quiet streets, most of the very large old oaks have been removed. Were the large old mature trees covering the sidewalks and gutters with way too many acorns? Or were the authorities worried about dead branches? Result in my ‘hood is that all the blue jays have vanished. However, the city has planted a lot of new oaks—5 or 6 species—all around the area. So with time, things change.
They’ve been planting a number of Chinese elm trees recently, which seem to be doing well. And experimenting with Persian Parrotia and Green Vase Japanese Zelkona on my street. Parrotia has died for three straight years, probably because the building maintenance staff doesn’t know how much water they need to get started.
The large tree in front of my balcony, which is just beginning to leaf out, is one of a row of London plane trees. And then there are crape myrtles, which never manage to bloom—they just slowly develop buds throughout the summer. At home, however, I have a pot of day lilies, which soon will be producing a few dozen flower spikes.