Surprising facts and factoids about trees in our fair city | An Alternative View | Diana Diamond | Palo Alto Online |

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By Diana Diamond

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About this blog: So much is right — and wrong — about what is happening in Palo Alto. In this blog I want to discuss all that with you. I know many residents care about this town, and I want to explore our collective interests to help ...  (More)

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Surprising facts and factoids about trees in our fair city

Uploaded: Sep 3, 2023
Palo Alto loves trees -- it has about 66,000 of them, about one per resident. Our city is responsible for the upkeep of about 46,000 trees in parks and public areas; almost 38,000 of them are street trees. The city has an Urban Forest Section in its Public Works Department, and proper care for all those trees is a deeply rooted mindset in town.

In fact, Palo Alto was named after that large redwood tree that still stands near the tracks by Palo Alto Avenue and Alma Street. The Ohlones ages ago called it “the big stick." The Spaniards then called it “el Palo Alto”;we now know it as the tall tree. It is 1,093 years old. It’s looking a bit shabby these days, but so would we if we were a millennium old.

But back to trees on my street. When the city took out two liquidambar trees across the street from me, I was concerned. Our tree canopy had a bare spot, and we needed to plant replacements quickly. So, I called the Public Works Department, and I was told it would take about a year for the stump removal and possibly three years for replacements.

Why so long? “We have 40,00-plus trees to take care of in this city,” a city staff member replied curtly. “It takes a lot of time to care for them.”

It is now about a year-and-and-a-half since the trees were removed – but the two stumps still remain --untouched.

So, this time I called Peter Gollinger, the city’s Urban Forest manager. He listened carefully, and told me because of the winter storms and the need to take care of all the damaged trees and fallen limbs, the clean-up took more time than anticipated, so they are playing catch-up now.

As for the stumps, that service is contracted out, and the company comes for removal when there are a sufficient number of stumps to collect. It’s not exactly a speedy service, he added. Except that stump removal is not the same as storm damage clean-up, and until a stump is removed, a new tree cannot be planted in its place. Logical, isn’t it?

Gollinger said a replacement tree typically occurs a year after stump removal, and the two liquidambar stumps will be removed relatively soon and then replaced a year later by gingko trees – a tree with beautiful gold leaves in the fall. However, only male the male ginkgo trees are planted, the females have smelly fruit that drop on lawns and are harmful to dogs.

But we have only liquidambars on my block, all along the street. Why introduce something with a distinctly different appearance, I asked.

He said Palo Alto adopted a new street tree selection process five-plus years ago to mix up tree types on the street. The decision was made because arborists were aware that certain trees can sometimes get diseased (like some ash and elm trees) and mixed varieties can prevent having all street trees of the same type get a disease and die, resulting in a avenue without any trees.

When I asked Gollinger how a variety of trees looked, he said fine -- once they grew up and out.

Here I disagree. There are many streets in town that have uniform trees along both sides of each street (like sycamores whose branches spread out and meet in the middle, providing shade, uniformity, and unity, and visually they do not compete with front lawns for attention, rather they enhance the appearance.

So, the question is do the benefits of uniformity outweigh the dangers of certain street trees dying? It’s a difficult balance, and for me, a difficult decision to make because no one knows if the existing trees will someday get infected.

Gollinger said the city is working on adding more trees in South Palo Alto and have budgeted for the additions, and also have been working with Canopy, a tree-loving organization, to plant more trees all over town.

That’s great, because we do love trees in our town. BTW, I really hope the “Palo Alto (planting) Process gets speeded up.


Tree Trivia

My thanks to the research of Hope Jahren, author of “Lab Girl,” which is a book about trees, for providing the Tree Trivia.

• There are about as many leaves on a tree as there are hairs on one’s head. Depending on hair color, the average person has between 90,000 and 150,000 hairs on their head.

• A single birch tree will produce a quarter of a million new seeds each year -- most of them will not sprout although they wait around hoping.

•. The ratio of people to trees in America is 1:200.

• There are 80 billion trees just within the protected forests of the western United States.

• One can hear plants growing in the Midwest. At its peak, sweet corm grows an inch a day, and as the layers of husk shift slightly to accommodate this expansion and create sound.

• Consider that there can be easily a hundred thousand lobed leaves on a single oak tree and no two of them are exactly the same, in fact some are easily twice as big as others.

• A tree prepares itself for winter by “hardening” –pure water flows out while concentrating the sugars, proteins and acids left behind. These chemicals act as a potent antifreeze. A chilly autumn brings on the same hardening as a balmy one because the trees do not take their cue from the changing temperature. It is the gradual shortening of the days, sensed as a steady decrease of light during each 24-hour cycle, that triggers hardening. If winter is mild or punishing from year to year, the pattern of how light changes during the autumn is exactly the same each year.

• A mature tree gets most of its water through its taproot, which is the root that extends straight down. Tree roots located near the surface grow laterally to form a needed support structure that prevent a tree from falling over. These shallow roots also leak moisture into the dry soil, especially when the sun is down and the tree’s leaves are not actually sweating. Mature maple trees passively distribute water from the depth up and out of the shallow roots all night long. The small plants living near the big trees have been shown to rely on this recycled water for more than half of their needs.

What is it worth to you?


Posted by Paly Grad, a resident of Leland Manor/Garland Drive,
on Sep 4, 2023 at 12:05 pm

Paly Grad is a registered user.

If you would like to request that a Public Street Tree be planted in the City's right-of-way at your residence follow the link below for more information.

Web Link

Posted by Penelope Walsh, a resident of Midtown,
on Sep 4, 2023 at 1:06 pm

Penelope Walsh is a registered user.

Can residents plant their own trees?

My late grandmother once mentioned that if a tree doesn't bear edible fruit, they aren't worth planting.

Posted by Mort Crawford, a resident of Embarcadero Oaks/Leland,
on Sep 4, 2023 at 3:45 pm

Mort Crawford is a registered user.

Would eliminating all of the street lined trees in Palo Alto (whether evergreen or deciduous) effectively curtail the use of leafblowers (gas or electric) and the risks of fire associated with power lines?

The only problem might be nesting opportunities for certain birds. On the other hand, most of the desirable wild birds have been replaced by noisy crows and we don't need any more of them.

Posted by Bystander, a resident of Another Palo Alto neighborhood,
on Sep 7, 2023 at 8:00 am

Bystander is a registered user.

I love the leafy streets of Palo Alto. The shade on a hot summer's day makes all our homes that degree or so cooler and the sidewalks and cars parked on driveways a little more bearable. Without the trees we would miss the birdsong and probably bees and other important little critters. The colors as they turn and the leaves fall make for a canopy and carpet of color as the sun filters through the branches.

The big problem is that the age of the trees are similar and one after the other, trees are falling or being removed for safety reasons one by one down the streets. As one had split and needed removal across the street from us in the past year, the City appears to be in no hurry to replace the tree. This means we have more direct sun coming through our windows, causing the house to heat and the glare to be annoying at times, often blinding us as we enter a room or try to work.

So the question remains, why is the City taking so long to replace City trees? As more and more trees are removed or fall, will we soon have no more shady streets for large parts of town?

Posted by Deborah, a resident of Evergreen Park,
on Sep 13, 2023 at 12:37 pm

Deborah is a registered user.

Hi Diana - It seems Peter Gollinger hasn't spent a lot of time in the street looking at trees. Because I bike everywhere, I have a half a century of observation of the street trees in Palo Alto. Some of the street trees have done a lot better than others. In the fifties and sixties, the city arborists had a field day planting any number of different varieties of street trees. Some have done better-Sycamores- than others-Camphors- and some, like the Magnolia, have flourished in "Old" Palo Alto where as the Magnolias in South Gate are all sickly and dying.

My vote for worst street tree is the Liquid Amber. The can't handle drought stress. They are poorly adapted to this area so their growth habit is straggly and stunted and they drop branches left and right. That is why the city is taking them out.

In terms of continuity, the problem the arborists face is that the tree nurseries only have certain types of tree available at any given time. In other words, even if it was a good idea to replant with liquid Amber, which it's not, odds are the tree nurseries wouldn't be able to supply that tree at this time.

Yes, boulevards of all the same tree look beautiful and yes, city of palo alto arborists are considering aesthetics, but you know what would look even better? Tree islands.

Posted by Lenora Jackson, a resident of Crescent Park,
on Sep 14, 2023 at 7:59 am

Lenora Jackson is a registered user.

"My late grandmother once mentioned that if a tree doesn't bear edible fruit, they aren't worth planting."

Another consideration would be to plant deciduous hardwood trees like Oak, Ash, Cherry, Walnut, Tulipwood, and Hard Maple throughout Palo Alto.

After a period of extended growth, they could then be cut down to make real furniture, not that IKEA stuff.

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