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April 26 2014 Tree Tour

posted Jun 6, 2016, 4:16 PM by Gabriel Popkin   [ updated Jun 6, 2016, 4:16 PM ]

While we may rarely think about the urban forest that surrounds us, it is one of our city’s major assets. Our trees shade us in the summer, provide habitat for birds and other wildlife, contribute to neighborhood property values and reduce flooding during storms. We are lucky to live in a city with such a well-developed canopy that includes some truly spectacular old trees.

We are also lucky to have a dedicated and knowledgeable roadside tree expert in Bryan Knedler. On April 26, a beautiful Saturday earlier this spring, around 20 people joined Bryan (also a former mayor of the city) and the Mount Rainier Tree Commission for a two-hour walking tour to learn about some of the city’s past, present and future trees.

We began in Spring Park at the corner of Shepherd and 33rd Streets, the site of the natural spring that provided water for the area’s first residents. The park was re-landscaped in 1998 by a former Tree Commissioner and other volunteers, who planted native serviceberries. The adjacent yard is home to the city’s largest eastern hemlock tree, a species that is struggling in this part of the world due to both climate change and an invasive pest. (This particular hemlock, however, appears healthy.)

We headed west and uphill on Shepherd Street, which used to be called Ash Street and, naturally, was once lined with ash trees. The ash has been decimated in recent decades by an insect called the emerald ash borer, and is no longer planted. At Shepherd and 31st Streets, we reached the high point in town, where a mansion owned by the Clemson family stood in the mid-1800s. At that time, the only trees in present-day Mount Rainier probably stood near this point; some of these trees, mostly white oaks, remain. Due to their age, some of these majestic oaks will probably need to come down in coming years, but others could continue growing for decades.

At 29th Street we took a small detour to see the remains of an American elm, many of which (including this one) have succumbed to Dutch elm disease. This elm had come down just a week before the tour. After the tree came down, its trunk turned out to be hollow on the inside.

Our route took us west to 28th Street, south to Bunker Hill Rd, and back toward 33rd Street. As we walked, we passed a number of young street trees that Bryan had recently planted with grant money made available through a Prince George’s County program. Some are well on their way to adulthood; others are just a year or two old. Bryan pointed out that our streets trees do remarkably well, given the conditions we ask them to grow in: small tree boxes, disturbed soil and long, hot summers with little rain. The most precarious time for a street tree is during its first year. Bryan puts plastic rings around the bases of new trees to protect them from string trimmers, and occasionally places fences around particularly vulnerable trees. He also makes sure the city or a nearby resident waters new trees during the hot, dry summer months. After a year or two, most trees can make it on their own. Tree Commissioner Steve McKindley-Ward prunes young street trees to ensure they grow straight and tall.

On 32nd Street we took another small detour to visit a small arboretum just south of Mount Rainier Elementary School. The arboretum was planted in the late 1990s and still hosts several nice trees, including one of the city’s few sycamore. Reviving and maintaining the arboretum is one of a number of opportunities that exist for interested citizens to get involved with Mount Rainier’s trees. We ended the tour at the gazebo at 33rd and Bunker Hill.

One lesson from the tour is that the city’s tree canopy is a work in progress and always will be. Trees will grow, die and be replaced. Some species, like Bradford pear, have fallen out of fashion; others, like redbud and sweetbay magnolia, have become more popular. Some of our best street trees, like the ash and elm, have been lost to invasive insects and diseases. Others, like the red maple, have been overplanted, making them vulnerable to potential disease outbreaks in the future. When choosing new trees, Bryan also considers the constraints within which a tree must grow. If a site has overhead power lines, for instance, the best choices are shorter tree like redbuds and dogwoods, which will not need to be cut back later (often in unattractive ways) by utility crews. And trees planted near roads need to be pruned so passing trucks won’t knock off branches.

Today Mount Rainier strives to plant and maintain a diverse, mostly native tree canopy that will be resilient to future climate change. These trees will also be crucial for helping us adapt to climate change, which will be bringing us hotter summers and more intense storms. We can all help support the urban forest. Please let your Tree Commissioners know if you see a sick or dying street tree, or if you have an empty tree box in front of your house that would make a good home for a street tree. Consider planting trees in your yard if you have space. Take care if using a string trimmer not to damage young trees. And in hot, dry periods, give your young trees a nice, slow drink of water from the hose. They will appreciate it!

And next time you have a moment, take a look at some of the beautiful trees around you. They help make our city a special place.