Palo Alto's majestic magnolias taking a beating | September 7, 2012 | Palo Alto Weekly | Palo Alto Online |

Palo Alto Weekly

News - September 7, 2012

Palo Alto's majestic magnolias taking a beating

About 10 percent of the University Avenue trees could be dying

by Sue Dremann

About 28 of University Avenue's stately magnolia trees might have to be removed this year due to declining health, Palo Alto Urban Forester Walter Passmore said this week.

The avenue's 282 magnolias, which display striking, lemon-scented white blooms against dark green foliage, are showing signs of stress due to constant, nearby traffic and poor soil conditions. Driving along University, passersby can see trees with withering leaves. Some appear dead.

"The good news is there is no catastrophic disease striking the University Avenue magnolia trees," Passmore said.

However, "University Avenue is a well-used and developed corridor where trees have significant challenges to thrive. They compete with road, sidewalk, utilities, landscapes and buildings for space," he said.

Passmore said the University Avenue trees are mostly between three and 80 years old, with the average age of 40 to 50 years. Their roots have outgrown their space, and soil is poor in some areas, making it difficult for roots to absorb water and nutrients. To accommodate traffic, some trees require more frequent or more extensive pruning, Passmore said. The stress weakens trees' immune systems, making them less able to defend against decay organisms, insects and diseases.

What could improve their situation?

"More volume of high-quality soil combined with comprehensive maintenance will grow better trees," Passmore said.

City staff is currently assessing all the trees along University Avenue. This winter workers will start on maintenance. Most trees will be pruned, but some in poor condition will be removed. New magnolias will be planted where space is available, he said.

The trees will be assessed on a list of factors including condition, risk, size, location and possibility to replant.

Passmore asserted that, based on public input, workers could treat trees with questionable health or defer their removal, after risks to the public are reduced. The trees would be taken out and replaced one at a time rather than en masse, he said.

He plans to reach out to the community once assessment is complete.

Catherine Martineau, executive director of Canopy, which is dedicated to protecting the urban forest, said the iconic University Avenue trees are one of the few stands the city replaces with the same species, she said.

"They create such an amazing sense of place," Martineau observed.

Palo Alto has a total of 589 Magnolia grandiflora trees throughout the city.

The trees are rumored to have been planted because the wife of the first public-works director was from the South, which could explain why there are so many planted. But Martineau said she has never been able to verify the story.

Native to the southeastern United States from Virginia to central Florida and west to eastern Texas and Oklahoma, the so-called Southern magnolia is found on the edges of waterways and swamps in moist but well-drained soils. It can grow to a large tree, with some magnificent specimens in Mississippi having reached 114 feet in height, according to the U.S. Department of Agriculture. There are at least 100 cultivated varieties.

Staff Writer Sue Dremann can be emailed at


Posted by air pollution, a resident of Downtown North
on Sep 8, 2012 at 4:07 pm

There is just too much air pollution along that road for trees like that.

Posted by Midtowner, a resident of Midtown
on Sep 8, 2012 at 4:32 pm

The climate is not right here for magnolias. Magnolias need high levels of humidity, lots of water.

Posted by the answer, a resident of Crescent Park
on Sep 9, 2012 at 2:10 pm

Reduce traffic on University Avenue.

Posted by Neal, a resident of Community Center
on Sep 9, 2012 at 8:56 pm

Please don't replace the magnolias with another magnolia. Use a variety of other trees that are better suited to the climate and soil conditions. We have enough magnolias as it is. They aren't particularly esthetic.

Posted by No, a resident of another community
on Sep 10, 2012 at 10:24 am

Replace them with other kind of trees more immune to the harsh environment there. Why insist on growing trees not suitable for the place?

Posted by DT neighbor, a resident of Community Center
on Sep 10, 2012 at 10:40 am

I am glad they are taking some responsibility. We lived on Middlefield and a gigantic branch fell on our car. The city would not take any responsibility, even for the deductible yet we are not allowed to maintain these trees because they are not "ours". The insurance company nearly totaled the previously totally usable good condition car. In the end we were able to get them to not total it so it cost us the $500 deductible and cost the insurance company over $7,000. Cost to the city zero... well I guess they did come clean up the mess.

Posted by curmudgeon, a resident of Downtown North
on Sep 10, 2012 at 12:14 pm

Drearily vintage City Hall reaction: since we know they don't work, we'll put in more.

Posted by Garry Wyndham, a resident of Midtown
on Sep 10, 2012 at 2:14 pm

Sadly, magnolia trees are not suited to the Palo Alto climate or soils. It's folly to replace dying magnolias with new magnolias. The trees on Colorado in midtown are in sad shape and are unlikely ever to be really healthy.

Posted by Solon, a resident of Old Palo Alto
on Sep 10, 2012 at 3:12 pm

Redwoods have the same problem and probably should not be planted in Palo ALto

Posted by BP, a resident of Midtown
on Sep 10, 2012 at 4:26 pm

the magnolias are a very messy tree in Palo Alto, or maybe they don't shed their leaves in Crescent Park as they do in Midtown.

Posted by litebug, a resident of another community
on Sep 10, 2012 at 5:36 pm

After describing how unsuitable magnolias are in that environment they are going to replace them, as needed, with more magnolias? Isn't that the definition of insane...repeating what hasn't worked before in the hopes of a different outcome? Why not do a little research and find trees which can tolerate the environment they will be required to grow in? I swear this entire country is getting more stupid by the day.

Posted by Southland, a resident of University South
on Sep 11, 2012 at 11:16 am

"After describing how unsuitable magnolias are in that environment they are going to replace them, as needed, with more magnolias? Isn't that the definition of insane..."

Or the definition of Palo Alto?

Posted by CM, a resident of Ventura
on Sep 11, 2012 at 11:25 am

There are a slew of terrible looking magnolias on Park Blvd as well. When healthy they are great trees, but unless they are irrigated they are awful. The branches are brittle and their leaves don't mulch well. They should be replaced with something else. I know this is a favorite forum for bashing Palo Alto, but rather than venting here why doesn't someone contact the city arborist?

Posted by Savethetrees, a resident of Crescent Park
on Sep 12, 2012 at 5:07 pm

I guess. But, lately there are so many trees being removed from Palo Alto deemed to have outlived their usefulness by "the arborist" -- the California Ave fiasco, San Antonio Ave, etc. A little suspect.

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