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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Arlington Storm Damage

Arlington Storm Damage   If you weren’t in East Arlington last week you may have missed the terrible storm damage from last Wednesday’s “micro-burst.”  According to local residents we spoke to, town employees and local tree companies did a super job – clearing downed trees and cleaning up in less than 48 hours.

“Micro” seems to be the wrong way to describe this freak storm.  In just minutes more than 100 trees were knocked over and countless branches broken in a large part of town – on both sides of Mass Ave from Walgreens to Route 16 .  It’s terribly sad and a huge loss to the local landscape and tree canopy. 

Urban trees have it hard enough under normal  weather conditions – or what passes for normal nowadays.  You could see evidence of this year’s drought around the uprooted trees.  The very dry exposed earth around several toppled trees looked more like sand than dirt.

My Dad and I drove around on Friday.  We wouldn’t have been able to drive through East Arlington just a day or so before – streets were littered with trees. There were still some downed trees  and branches that had yet to be cleared but it was amazing how much had been done in such a short period of time.  Kudos to all who worked so hard on the cleanup. 


Arlington Storm Damage July 2012

Arlington Storm Damage July 2012

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The City Was Spared Snow Damage

The snowman family didn't make it to Halloween

This snowman family didn't make it to Halloween

This is what the snow looked like on Monday morning in the city.  Sure, we got snow Saturday night, but it wasn’t major and it melted by late Sunday. 

Thankfully around Cambridge and Somerville we were spared for the most part the damage to the trees that I feared when I heard the forecast.  Heavy snow is a disaster when the leaves are on the trees.  The trees aren’t structured to bear the weight of collected snow on their leaves.

While I breathed a sigh of relief, I couldn’t let myself think of the devastation outside the city. It was easy to lose track of just how bad it was – until you saw the school closings for Monday.  Just 20 minutes or so out of the city and students in town after town were treated to a snow day on Halloween – Acton, Bedford, Woburn, Medfield – the list went on and on and on.  Clearly things were not good if schools couldn’t open on Monday – and were still closed on  Tuesday in some towns.

Driving through Arlington on Tuesday to visit broker open houses (we real estate agents live the good life – several days a week we get to tour properties newly listed for sale and get treated to multiple lunches) we came across many downed branches and broken trees.  It was a terrible sight.

I can only imagine it’s much, much worse the further west or north you drive.  Many homes and businesses remain without power.  The thought of how many trees Massachusetts lost is heartbreaking.

Our tree canopy has really taken a beating in the last year or two – drought, tornado, tropical storm and now this.  One has to wonder what the landscape will look like in the coming years as the climate continues to change.

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Medford Elm Tree

American Elm tree in West Medford

American Elm tree in West Medford

I was psyched to see this newly planted elm tree aside the West Medford fire station.

Elm trees once lined New England’s streets.  I loved the canopy of green, leafy trees that I walked beneath on my way to school when I was a kid.  It was years later, when I went back and found not a tree on the street, that I realized those must have been elm trees lining the street.  Dutch Elm Disease wiped out 100,000s of American Elm trees.

There are efforts underway to plant DED-resistant elm trees.  This tree, a Liberty Elm, from the Elm Research Institute of Keene, NH was planted by the fire station in memory of West Medford resident Laurie Cote.

I didn’t have the privilege of knowing Mr. Cote but found this tribute in a newsletter from the Piano Technicians Guild.

West Medford elm tree plaque honoring Laurie Cote

West Medford elm tree plaque honoring Laurie Cote

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Medford Trees Succumb to Hurricane Irene

This Maple Tree Took Out an SUV as Its Last Act - Hurricane Irene, Medford MA

Maple Tree Takes Out an SUV as Its Last Act - Hurricane Irene, Medford MA

Medford Trees Take A Hit from Hurricane Irene.  My dad and I were checking out this downed tree on West Street in Medford when the policeman told us that “you can’t count the number of trees down in Medford”.  We decided to go for a drive around West Medford to see the damage.  Check out the Hurricane Irene in Medford slide show below.

The damage caused by Hurricane Irene in Medford certainly could have been much worse. But it was terrible to see so many trees and large branches come down.  The winds weren’t as bad as anticipated and from what we observed, in almost every case, the trees that came down were compromised in some way – most with root systems that had been cut for sidewalks, landscaping, or who knows what.

One sad exception was the largest tree we saw – a beautiful tree on Laurel Street that fell across the street towards Hasting Park in West Medford.  It had a huge root system that had ripped from the ground.  My father guessed that the slightly higher elevation here meant that the wind gusts were just that much stronger.

We were lucky I guess.  A more powerful storm than Hurricane Irene would have wreaked havoc in Medford.  My dad remembers the trees coming down in the Hurricane of ’38 in Cambridge.  Just minutes after he and his friends went inside, the supermarket sign nearby came flying off, nearly hitting a policeman standing on the corner.  Trees went down all over his Cambridgeport neighborhood.

The first house I ever owned had a Hurricane of ’38 story too.  I bought a small book in an antique store called “It Happened Here” about the hurricane in Keene, NH.  I was flipping through the pages and there was my house.  A tree had crushed the second floor taking out the chimney.  The house across the street was pictured too – it had been split in half.  Huge numbers of enormous trees came down all over Keene and New England.  The lady I bought my house from, Kay Adams, recalled huddling in the pantry with her parents as the hurricane roared.  I thought of her more than once today as Irene’s winds whistled for hours.

It pains me to think that an unusual event like today’s storm gives fodder to the tree-haters among us.   Many seem to see a damaged vehicle as a bigger deal than the loss of a tree.  I’m not suggesting, of course, that unhealthy trees shouldn’t be addressed. But it strikes me that a car or SUV is inherently a lot more dangerous than any tree.  We all need to do everything we can to preserve the trees we have and to replenish our all too spotty city tree canopy – if not for us to enjoy – for our neighbors years from now.

Here are more photos of the hurricane damage in Medford MA:

Hurricane Irene Medford MA

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Trees In Medford – Lecture on Thursday

This Thursday, Dee Morris, author of Medford: A Brief History, will present a lecture at the Medford Public Libary titled What the Trees Saw: Their Perspective on Medford History.

While too many of Medford’s streets have too few trees, Medford is a Tree City (see below) and has been home to some truly magnificent trees.  Several years ago the city published a calendar featuring some of Medford’s grandest trees.  It was fabulous – I bought a dozen copies.

Otis Street, Medford MA in 1911 -When Trees Grew Large, Unhindered by Overhead Wires

Otis Street, Medford MA in 1911 -When Trees Grew Large, Unhindered by Overhead Wires

Morris’s lecture will touch on some of Medford’s early tree enthusiasts including Peter Chardon Brooks, Elizur Wright and Lauren Dame.

The tree lecture will be held at the Medford Public libray on Thursday, June 16, 2011 at 7 pm.  The library is located at 111 High Street, Medford MA.

Wondering what’s a Tree City?

The Tree City program is administered by the Arbor Day Foundation and the National Asssociation of State Foresters.  More than 3400 US towns and cities are currently designated as Tree Cities.  To qualify, a community must have:

  • A Tree Board or Department
  • A Tree Care Ordinance
  • A Community Forest Program with an annual budget of at least $2 per capita
  • An Arbor Day Observance and Proclamation

Wondering when is Arbor Day?(I know I was as I typed the last line)  It’s the last Friday in April – that’s the national observance and the day it is celebrated in Massachusetts and many other states.  Arbor Day may be observed on a different day in your state particularly if there’s a better time of year to plant trees.

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Trees and Real Estate Values

New Leaves on Trees in the City

New Leaves on Trees in the City

This is one of my favorite times of year – the time of new leaves, as green comes back to the city.  But after last year’s drought I’ve been watching the new leaves especially carefully.  2010 was a tough, tough year for city trees – in fact for all trees.  A number of trees around the city appear to be dying.  On a drive through Lexington yesterday we spotted many, many trees that were close to leafless – we speculated that, if not the drought, it might be the effects of gypsy moths.  It’s so bad out there that watching for dead and dying trees is our new driving game – the 2011 equivalent of auto bingo.

City trees are particularly vulnerable and we should all be concerned.  We don’t have enough trees in the city and the loss of any tree can leave a huge hole in the landscape.  Urban trees have a tough time of it in any year – winter salt, encroaching asphalt, utility company limb cutting, too much dog urine and too little rain – it’s amazing that  city trees flourish.   Add tree-begrudging homeowners who don’t want to be bothered with tree limbs and droppings and it becomes all too easy to lose the leafy backdrop that enhances your house and street.

City trees add enormously to quality of life and to the beauty of city streets and yards.  A city street devoid of trees is usually a stark and dreary sight. A  tree-less street is also an uninviting prospect for potential home buyers.  My own Cambridge street, described in the Historical Commission’s 1977 architectural survey as a “warm and inviting secluded core with bowered trees,” is now almost devoid of trees.  A buyer, looking at a condo on my street recently, sniffed “but this street has no trees”.  I don’t know of any study that shows that properties sell for higher prices on tree-lined streets, but experiences like this and its counterpart – buyers delighted by leafy streets –  convince me that real estate values are boosted by nearby trees.

We all need to pay attention to the trees that line our streets and sidewalks.  We have too little say over the trees that shade our houses but sit on our neighbors’ properties (I’m in favor of giving trees protection via a permitting process prior to removal -why should I have input as an abutter concerned over my neighbor’s renovation or building plans but no say over the tree that’s a vital part of the neighborhood landscape? Topic for another day!) but we can work to ensure that the city trees on our streets continue to flourish despite the odds.

What can you do to help?  Cambridge has a new booklet “Working Together: A Healthy Urban Forest Needs Help From All of Us” that can be picked up at City Hall.  The Urban Foresty page on the city’s website has lots of info about city initiatives and how you can get involved.   Cambridge and Somerville have installed Treegator bags on newly planted street trees. Info on watering the Treegator bag near you and other volunteer efforts is also on the Cambridge website

City trees enhance real estate values and make the city a much more pleasant and attractive place to live.  So grab a bucket and water the trees near you.   And if you’re walking your dog – please – curb the dog elsewhere.

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Pink Snowflakes

Pink Snowflakes in Spring - Somerville MA

Pink Snowflakes in Spring - Somerville MA


One of the prettiest sights this time of year is a sidewalk covered with what often, at a glance, looks like snow. 

All the rain we’ve had this week has brought many of the flowering trees’ petals to the ground.  In this case, it’s a pink dogwood’s petals coating the sidewalk and hosta below on Alewife Brook Parkway in Somerville MA.  These petals look a bit less like snow and more like pink frosting. 

Streets carpeted with petals – sweet!

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