Planting for Posterity
From the Davis Enterprise, November 23, 2006
Twenty years ago this week, after a night of fog, frost, and hard labor, my daughter was born. As I wrote to her in a journal at the time:
'Nov. 26, 1986: It was the first cold, frosty morning of the winter, and the fog was just forming as we drove to the hospital. It was so dense in some places that we slowed to 35, 25 on the freeway; in other parts of the drive the truck just glided under the sheet of tule fog and the headlights made a low icy ceiling of it.
You were born in the morning when the fog had lifted and the sun was coming through a high haze of clouds. By this evening, while I was planting a tree at home for your birth, the high clouds were marbled to the west, glowing red in a beautiful sunset.'
Yes, I did what any good nursery dad would do to celebrate the birth of his first child: I planted a tree. A Deodar cedar (Cedrus deodara), to be precise. Now if you walk down the road and look back towards the western sky, that cedar makes a dramatic silhouette. At first it struggled along, and she grew faster than it did, but now her cedar is over 30' tall.
But planting a commemorative tree can be risky, so it isn't wise to get too emotionally invested in a young tree planted for a special occasion. When my son was born 16 months later, I planted a cute little Austrian pine not far away. It grew nicely for a few years, and then during a fire on the property, it 'went up like a Roman candle' according to a witness. We planted a palm nearby, which is now 'his' tree. It's important to be flexible about these things.
Planting a tree to mark a birth, retirement, death, or important milestone is a tradition with long roots (pun intended). The Living Memorials Project has links to 18 different organizations that sponsor memorial tree plantings (www.livingmemorialsproject.net). Locally, TREEDavis coordinates an Honorary Tree Program: a $300 (or more) donation gets a tree planted and maintained by city staff or volunteers in designated groves throughout the city. What a great holiday gift! Check out www.treedavis.org, or call 758-7337. They will choose a tree appropriate to the site they've designated.
But how about a tree on your own property to mark an important date or milestone? When choosing a tree for posterity, toughness is the key characteristic to consider. Fast growth is less important than longevity and durability. Seasonal color is a nice bonus. Deep roots are a must. Low litter is preferable.
Fruit trees have drawbacks, as they can be messy and many are short-lived. The life span of a peach or apricot, for example, may only be 15 – 25 years. But persimmons, pomegranates, figs, kumquats, and olives live for many decades, so they may be suitable if the fruit litter won't cause someone to regret your choice down the road.
Many popular small flowering trees are related to, and have the same drawbacks as, our favorite fruit trees. Pretty as they may be, flowering plums and cherries aren't going to stand the test of time around here. But given proper care and regular watering, some species will endure and bloom for many years. For example,Saucer magnolias (Magnolia soulangeana) over fifty years old can be seen here and there. 'Oklahoma' redbud (a Cercis canadensis hybrid) is an adaptable small tree.
But planting to make a big difference for shade and wildlife, to create a canopy of foliage, or for grandkids to climb, means choosing something that will get large and majestic, assuming you have the space. As you choose the tree, consider the ultimate size and the watering needs. The following trees are generally pest and disease-resistant, have few drawbacks, and will outlive all of us.
- Oaks: Valley oak (Quercus lobata), our native species, takes quite a while to make a big tree, but it grows steadily at 2 – 3' a year. A ten year old Valley oak will be up to 30' tall and about 15' across. With greater age their spread is equal to their height. Young trees can tolerate watering (even in a lawn) or drought. Turkey oak (Q. shumardi) is another large species that does well here. Unfortunately, few species of oaks are available in the nursery trade.
- Sycamores and plane trees (Platanus species and hybrids) are the common very large trees in downtown Davis and Sacramento. Fast growers: 5' a year is common, and two that we planted from #15 cans grew to 30' in just three years! Tolerate watering or drought.
- Ginkgo, aka Maidenhair tree (Ginkgo biloba) is very long-lived, disease-resistant, deep-rooted, tolerant of lawn watering or drought, and has great fall color. A slow grower at 18 inches a year, you are truly planting this for posterity. It's important to plant grafted male Ginkgos, and to monitor the young trees for root suckers else you end up with a female branch or tree with stinky fruit.
- Deciduous conifers (these have needles, but drop them in winter) include a couple of unusual trees for well-watered areas. Dawn redwood (Metasequoia glyptostroboides) grows very fast at 5 – 7' a year or more, but only spreads about one-third the height. The new growth in spring is soft green and delicate looking. The light shade is ideal for lawns or for gardening under. Far less common here is the Bald cypress (Taxodium distichum), which is widely used in the South. I have seen at least one impressive large specimen in Davis.
Want to see some examples? Several years ago some Ginkgo and Dawn redwood trees were planted east of the Carolee Shields garden (towards the west end of the UC Davis Arboretum), honoring individual faculty members in the botany department.
Large evergreens aren't as widely planted, but can make great additions to the skyline in carefully chosen sites. Cedars, redwoods, pines, and cypresses are the most successful large conifers here. Be aware of the winter shade cast by these trees, as the cold, dark environment beneath them can be a gardening challenge. It's often simplest to leave the lower branches and allow the needles to build up in a natural mulch.
- Deodar cedar (Cedrus deodara) prefers to be on the dry side: my deep, infrequent waterings have served my daughter's tree well. Its cousin the Atlas cedar (C. atlantica 'Glauca') is the grey-needled tree seen along Covell Blvd. near Anderson Drive. It is a slow grower at about 2' a year, developing a rugged character, and also prefers to be dry.
- Coast redwood (Sequoia sempervirens) is very successful as long as it gets regular watering, even when mature. Very popular and fast at 5 – 7 feet year, it is a much larger tree than many people plan for! A 20 year old Sequoia is likely to be 40 – 45' tall, with half that spread.
- Large pines for this area include the Austrian and Japanese black pines (Pinus nigra and P. thunbergiana), and the Scotch pine (P. sylvestris), all of which grow 2 -3' a year and tolerate watering or drought.
- Italian cypress (Cupressus sempervirens 'Glauca') is the narrow, dark blue-green columnar tree so widely planted as a memorial tree that I've heard it called the 'cemetery tree.' Hailing from a part of Italy very similar climatically to Northern California, it can tolerate watering or drought, plugging along at a foot or two a year to make a tall, narrow spire.
Of course, it would be nice to plant a commemorative tree for someone while they're still alive to appreciate it! But it's a symbolic act, so we can plant a slower-growing species in the knowledge that the payoff comes for future generations.
© 2008 Don Shor, Redwood Barn Nursery, Inc., 1607 Fifth Street, Davis, Ca 95616
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