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As a Cambridge real estate agent, the city squares of Cambridge, Somerville and Medford and the town centers of Arlington, Watertown and Belmont, Massachusetts are my home turf. And as a lifelong New Englander who’s lived within twenty miles of Boston most of my life, I can introduce you to other nearby towns as we search for your new home. If you’re planning to sell your home in Cambridge, MA or nearby you’ll find plenty of info about the home selling process here too. Questions? Send me an email or call me at 617-504-1737.

What’s Killing the Trees?

Dying and Dead Trees

Have you noticed all the dead and dying trees?  If you haven’t you’re not paying attention – and you’re not alone.  Dead trees are everywhere.  Many more are dying or not doing well at all.  Few people seem aware of the problem however and there’s little information to be found about it.

dead tree Cambridge MA

Too late for the slideshow – another dead tree in Cambridge

But drive around Massachusetts and you’re bound to spot dying and dead trees if you look. Anywhere you go – Cambridge, Somerville, Brookline, Concord, Winchester, New Hampshire – anywhere and everywhere you drive through.

I started noticing them last year.  I became a bit obsessed and would play the “dead tree game” wherever I drove.  Passengers would initially be a bit taken aback as I called out “Dead tree!” over and over again, but eventually they too would join in.

My obsession was lifted only when winter came and the lack of leaves made it impossible to distinguish the dead trees.  Since the no-leaves season is fast approaching I urge you to be on the lookout now as you’re walking or driving around – you’re sure to see dead or unhealthy trees all around.

One reason that few people seem to be aware of what’s happening is that the dead trees get cut down.  I’d been planning to photograph the dead trees as evidence for some time but was finally motivated to do so after a particularly beautiful (but dead) tree that could be seen from Mass Ave disappeared.  Already several dead trees in the slideshow have been removed.

The photos I took for this slideshow, in August mind you when trees should be fully covered in green leaves, show trees in Cambridge with a few from Somerville, Medford and Watertown.  Dead trees are everywhere in Cambridge – from Broadway to Brattle Street, from East Cambridge to West.  Dead trees are in yards, parks, schoolgrounds, and everywhere lining the streets.  We’ve lost almost all of the last few years’ investment in street trees as well as many of the much older and larger trees that line the city sidewalks.

Dead and Dying Trees in Cambridge and Nearby Towns

Dead and Dying Trees in Cambridge and Nearby Towns

The trees you see here may very well be gone soon.  Sadly there’ll be no shortage of subjects for next year’s slideshow as the dozens of very sick trees around town are likely to have died by next summer.

When my father identified one dead tree as an elm I realized that several of the most striking dead trees were some of the few remaining elms in the area, long-time survivors felled not by Dutch Elm disease but by whatever’s killing Massachusetts trees now.  I drove by a few of my favorites.  There are three stately elms in a row on Main Street in Medford.  One appears in very bad shape and the other two don’t look their best.  I stopped by Manassas Street where a huge gorgeous elm stood on the corner for decades.  It had been fine when I last worked around the corner at Coldwell Banker so I was stunned to see that only a stump remained.

Other species that seem particularly hard hit are the copper beech and at least one type of maple.  The glorious copper beech in front of the Cambridge Public Library is in terrible shape and can be seen in the slide show.  You’ll see sickly maples everywhere with many bare branches and very small leaves.  In many towns, in Massachusetts and NH, in yard after yard, some types of spruce trees were dead or dying.  Oaks seem to be holding up better but when I walked past some of the majestic oaks along the Mystic River I realized that a number didn’t look well up close.

So what’s killing the trees in Massachusetts and NH?

I vote for drought and continued lack of water as a major cause.  For at least the last two or three years, including this summer, we’ve been in a largely unacknowledged drought in the city.  It was only last week that for the first time I heard a weatherman use the “d” word – until then the forecasters would simply celebrate the unending days of no rain.  Even when rain was forecast, or when nearby towns got plenty of rain, the prevailing weather pattern meant that Cambridge area would get little or none.  Trees often take years to succumb to drought and we can expect to continue to lose trees that are stressed from lack of water.

Street trees are particularly vulnerable – I could have added many, many photos to the slideshow of young and not-so-young street trees that have died.  In part, I blame this on the very small ground area around many of the trees making it even more difficult for them to get adequate water.  But drive down Powderhouse Boulevard from Route 16 and you’ll see many dying or dead trees despite the grassy median they grow in.  Young street trees need to be watered regularly and since they’re not it’s not too surprising (though it’s very frustrating) that they’ve succumbed.  But older street trees are dying too.

Over-salting is one reason that local trees near streets and highways are dying.  Last winter I was mystified to see trees along Routes 2 and 16 that were totally white.  Then I realized that they were coated in salt from top to bottom that had been made airborne by passing cars.  Cities and towns need to cut back on the salt and everybody needs to buy snow tires, slow down, or stay off the roads when it’s stormy.

Invasive pests are another important cause of tree death.  Right now pests we’ve got to contend with include the emerald ash borer, woolly adelgid, and winter moth.

Invasive vines are another tree killer.  Many times I’ve come across trees that have a lot of greenery with dead branches sticking out at the top.  Since many of Cambridge’s trees have had the new growth at the top die off, I’ve often mistaken these trees for ones where only the new branches are affected. Look more closely however, and you realize that the greenery is actually leaves on the vine that’s killed the tree and the tree itself is now a dead host.

Some are suggesting that pollution is a major contributor to the tree die-off.  Locally, people have suggested that some trees have succumbed to underground gas leaks from old gas pipes.

Is this the first stage of a changing landscape due to climate change?  Most of the potential causes listed above can be lumped together under climate change.  It’s difficult to imagine what our towns and cities will look like when the local climate no longer supports the trees we know and love.  As a homeowner, it’s difficult to know what types of trees to plant – what will thrive here decades from now?

You can’t help but think that the wild weather we’ve experienced in the last few years is part of the changing climate.  I’ve documented the downed trees from freak storms and microbursts more than once.  The wild weather of a couple of weeks ago brought down more large trees locally – trees we really don’t have to spare.

Why Should We Care About Tree Loss?

I’m fully aware that not everyone is a fan of trees.  I’ve had enough beautiful trees taken down near me by “tree haters” that I leap out of bed at any sound that suggests a chain saw is on the job.  Some people see trees as a hassle – heaven forbid they have to rake – and others as a menace.  Others value smooth pavement over driveway or sidewalk more than they do the tree. But it will be a sad place to live if we continue to lose trees at the current pace.  And I’m afraid it’s a bit like the frog in the pot of water who fails to realize it’s getting hotter until too late.  It’s easy to overlook how important the trees around us are until they’re gone.  And then it will be decades before we can get back what we’ve lost.

Much of it boils down (no pun intended Mr. Frog) to quality of life.  Without a decent tree canopy it will be a lot hotter around here. Acres of asphalt baking in the sun without benefit of trees’ shade make for a miserable summer. And it’s not just the lack of sun and daylight that make people feel gloomier in the winter – it’s the lack of greenery.  A bare tree’s branches are a thing of beauty but nothing beats the new green leaves of spring.  Here’s a super article on the impact of trees on human health and happiness.

Aesthetics are a huge part of trees’ value. There’s nothing more grim than a city street barren of trees.  There are tree-less streets around here that are about as depressing a block as you’ll see.  City greenery is one reason real estate tends to sell better in the spring – everything looks better when the leaves are back on the trees.  Chances are almost any Cambridge street that you consider appealing is lined with trees.  But perhaps not for long if something’s not done: one Avon Hill block I photographed had three or four huge trees reduced to stumps and several others dead or almost gone.

Property values are absolutely impacted by trees or the lack of trees.  My own street in Cambridge was described as a “tree-lined bower” some decades ago.  That’s far from the case now as almost all of the trees have been lost and not replaced.  I showed one real estate buyer a condo on my block and she turned up her nose and said “but there aren’t any trees on this street”.  Needless to say, a sale was not made that day.

Privacy is another benefit of our city trees that’s often overlooked until a tree is gone.  Most of us would far rather have our views framed in leaves than be staring into our next door neighbor’s house.  It’s easy to take for granted just how much a tree blocks from view.

What Can Be Done About the Dying Trees?

While some of reasons trees are dying may be beyond our individual control there are things we can do:

Water the trees for cripes sake!  Whether it’s a tree in your yard, a tree in front of your house, or a tree outside your office – get a bucket and get watering.  The trees need regular watering and need water as they head into winter.

Consult an arborist about any distressed trees in your yard.  I’ve got one of mine on a regular treatment plan for winter moths.  I just wish I could get the raggedy, beleaguered street trees sprayed as well.

Encourage the city to water the trees they plant.  Trees need a great deal of water when they’re first transplanted.  City trees never seem to get what they need.  The lack of rain has exacerbated the problem resulting in the death of almost all the youngest trees.  Can’t we give some kids a job for the summer?

Talk to your representatives about using less salt or de-icer in the winter months.  It’s better for trees and for local ponds, streams and lakes.

Become better stewards of the tree canopy.  It’s a mixed bag around here in terms of what towns and cities are doing to ensure a healthy tree canopy.  Cambridge has hearings about cutting down street trees but I’m not sure it makes any difference. Far too many trees aren’t replaced.  Brookline’s magnificent tree canopy puts Cambridge’s motley treescape to shame. What have they been doing right?  Medford calls itself a “Tree City” but its streets are often tree-free or what trees are there end up getting mutilated for overhead wires.

Actually become a tree steward.  Every year Massachusetts offers a two-day tree steward training.  The training is held in a rural area but there’s also an emphasis on the health and maintenance of urban trees.

Plant trees.  Plant a tree in your yard or work with the city to get street trees planted or replanted on your block.  It’s hard to know what trees will do well going forward. What will our climate be like 30, 40, 60 years from now?  Recently it seems the newer oak trees the city planted seem to be doing well – their roots go down deep and they seem to do better finding enough water.

Press for answers about the problem of dying trees.  We need to start asking questions.  It’s too easy to overlook the die-off of trees as the dead ones are cut down and lost from memory.  Something’s happening though and we need to find out the causes before it’s too late.

Here’s some more from the internet about trees dying:

World’s Big Trees are Dying

Trees Dying at the Quabbin

The Impact of Our Drought on Trees

Climate Change, Invasives and Tree Death

What’s Killing the Spruce Trees?

Superb Post about Tree Death and Pollution

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  1. Leslie T.

    Just returned from a trip to Maine (I’m from NJ) and was startled at all the dead and sick trees along highways in MA and CT – fortunately did not see this trend in Maine, nor in NY or NJ. It’s pretty shocking and saddening – I hope the reason can be found and a way to end this blight found – what a loss!

  2. Dave Pugh

    Same with us on a vacation to Maine from Indiana. I saw dead Ash trees though from Evansville through Mass and Ct. As well as red oaks from Gall Wasp, Dead ashes from Emerald Ash Borer. I also experienced dead and dying Maples, Elm , and others including some varieties of the Conifer family. This is unacceptable that this is happening. I blame a lot on the invasive insects brought to the Americas. Insects living within the wood of shipping pallets secured to heavy machinery, shipped from many of the foreign manufacturers, through the wonderful Global Economy ! It did not happen overnight however, Importation of plants, diseases, and insects has occurred many times in history, The Zika virus is a prime example of this. I’m very curious why the national news services hasn’t addressed the tree deaths, and asked questions about this obvious problem. When all the trees are gone, then will we wake up?

  3. Trina Greene

    Today, driving to Maine on the Mass Tpk and Route 95 to 495, we noticed miles and miles of trees w/ barely any leaves. At first we thought of blight, then the late cold spell of last spring, then the drought, finallytoo much salt. But nothing explained why so many white pines were totally dead, and the extent of the damage to dying trees. Very alarming and depressing.

  4. Diana Kordas

    Trees are dying all over the world, and at the current rate will lead to massive climate change and desertification. I live in Greece and have just returned from a 3 month trip covering all of heavily-forested northern Greece as well as central Greece. Trees of all species are dying everywhere.

    I believe the cause of all these tree deaths is electromagnetic radiation (EMR) from cell phone masts. Before you dismiss this statement out of hand, please allow me to explain. There exists a significant body of research showing that EMR is dangerous to all life on earth. One very good article is by Alfonso Balmori, the eminent Spanish biologist, and is entitled “The Effects of the Microwave Radiation on the Trees and Other Plants.” Other articles can be found at oscillatorium.com and ehtrust.com –you can do your own research and come to your own conclusions.

    I became interested in the subject of EMR when the island I live on went to 4G and all the bird life disappeared in the vicinity of the cell phone towers. I could not find any reasons for the birds’ disappearance (no environmental degradation, pesticides, etc) so I began to research EMR. The more I learned, the more convinced I became that EMR was indeed the cause.

    I just returned from a 3 month trip to heavily-forested northern Greece. I went to see if what was happening with regard to the birds on Samos was also happening at the hugely important birding sites of nothern Greece. In a nutshell, I found that cell towers had proliferated all over the place since I was last there in 2014. Bird life had decreased dramatically, with virtually no birds at all in internationally important wetlands such as the Nestos Delta and the Evros Delta, which are now bathed in 4G and 4G+ signals. I also realized that, vitually everywhere, trees were dying at an enormous rate (they hadn’t been in 2014). We passed by huge swathes of pine forest where nearly half the trees were recently dead, their needles rusty red. And trees of all species ere affected, from oak to juniper to poplar to cypress to olive. My husband and I also noticed that tree deaths were far worse in areas that have strong signal, like highway corridors.

    I managed to speak to some forestry officials who told me that they have not been able to work out what is causing so man species of trees to die. Lab tests for things like fungus have come back negative, and insect traps weren’t trapping any insects. Likewise an olive farmer in central Greece told me that they have not been able to identify what is killing the olives.

    I realize that in many other places trees deaths are being attributed to a variety of causes, from borer beetles to drought. However, EMR is like AIDS. Nobody dies of AIDS. AIDS weakens the immune system so that the patient eventually dies of something that might not have killed him if he hadn’t got AIDS.

    Telecom companies have been ramping up EMR for the past several decades. Each move from 2G to 3G to 4G means a quantum leap in the radiation emitted. These levels of EMR are not safe to trees, birds, bees or us. They want to move on to 5G within 3 years. Personally I believe that if they do that, our planet will be a desert. I don’t want to see that, and I don’t believe mobile phones or mobile internet is worth that price.

    Please research the topic of EMR for yourself. If you come to the same conclusions I have, lobby government and NGOs to get rid of mobile communications. Land lines are safer and healthier.

    Personally I believe that EMR is the biggest driver of climate change that exists. If you have trees, they will absorb carbon. No trees? I don’t want to think about it.

  5. Marilyn

    I have noticed the dead trees over the past 5 yrs. or so. At that time I noticed the invasive veins killing the trees. I have tried to work with my town in this regard and has gotten little or no interest. This year I am noticing most maple trees in my community have brown weathered dead leaves on them. I am concerned about foliage this year. Does any one know what is happening with the maple trees?
    Thank You,

  6. Steve P

    Maybe these trees need to be tested for aluminum poisoning. We need to stop operation solar shield before it ends life as we know it. Sure you can blame drought or climate change but the added stress of Harvard Universities Solar Geo-engineering “research” project is putting the final nail in the biospheres coffin. We need these trees to suck up carbon dioxide and produce our oxygen. It amazes me that most people aren’t even phased by the trees dying all around them. It’s so sad. I hope people wake it’s almost too late already.

  7. Janet

    I started noticing the dying trees about two years ago. I’m praying the two on my property will stay healthy
    But almost all the ones lining the street are all gone. Last year I knoticed the planes spraying almost daily
    And whatever they are spraying turns into misty clouds. The trees and the animals are dying and it’s Maddening. No one cares and the think your nuts. Look up people and watch daily and you will see

  8. moira murphy

    Massachusetts, Plymouth County tree decimation gets more jaw dropping each year. I have noticed this for about the past 5 years or so and relate gravely to the observations and opinions of the others on this thread. In my area of observation there were many houses, streets, and buildings that were once cloaked by thickets of trees and they now are clearly visible as the trees are all dead or dying. I walk frequently in a conservation area and first noticed the tree death up close and personal. Then I started to notice dead and dying trees all over town and even along the highways. One of my theories that has not been mentioned by others is the possibility of bioterrorism. Like someone is killing the trees on purpose.

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