Who’s Killing the Water Oaks?

12 June 2014 Idea of the Day “Undoubtedly the most damaging human vice is thinking you know it all already.” Rabbi Irwin Kula

The other day I got a call from one of my property managers to go out to look at one of his properties and make suggestions in an estimate for tree work that should be done prior to hurricane season. I thought it odd when he said he didn’t need any elevation pruning – removing low-hanging branches that are obstructing driveways, roads, walks or sitting on roofs. Almost all properties regularly need elevation pruning, the most fundamental type of pruning, just like you and I need a haircut. He just wanted me to clean out the dead wood out of the canopies in preparation for storm season.

I arrived at the condominium complex the next day and noticed several things different from the usual modern site. It was an older development probably built in the 1970’s. But for precisely this reason it didn’t have some of the faults of newer condo developments. There was lots of green space between buildings. This is good because other than greater natural ambience and beauty, it gives lots of room for placement of trees with plenty of space for roots to expand. And this is exactly what these developers had done that modern developers usually don’t – the trees had all been planted well away from buildings, driveways and even roads. For this very reason they appeared particularly healthy at first look. These trees didn’t have so many dying tips or so much rotten wood due to restricted root systems running into concrete hardscapes like modern constricted communities. Also trees didn’t have limbs threatening to fall on buildings and roots were not invading foundations, situations often seen in modern condominium and apartment complexes.

One of the residents, a friendly gentleman in his 60’s came up to me.
“Are you the arborist from the tree company?” he asked
“Yes sir, I am. I like how unusually healthy most of your trees look because of all the space they were originally given to grow in!” I replied enthusiastically.
“Yeah and we just love the umbrella look! Don’t you?” he said as he shaped his hands into a fluted tree. Oh no, I thought. That was not good to hear.

It was certainly true that the live oaks and camphors, two hardy species, looked very healthy everywhere I saw them – luxuriant amounts of canopy foliage, deep forest green for the live oaks and golden green for the camphors.

But then I noticed that there were quite a few of a less common oak that had been planted here, the weaker water oak. In fact this was turning out to be the location in the County with the most concentrated population of water oaks I had ever seen! It could have been an arboretum for them, an outdoor museum. Healthy water oaks have deep green leaves shaped like spatulas and tend to grown tall and straight. They develop small characteristic burls all up and down the trunk in many cases, a trunk which is typically a light gray color and smooth. They can be attractive, growing as tall as 70 ft. high when strong and vigorous.

But where live oaks and camphors often live to be several hundred years old, the water oak in urban locations usually starts having problems by its 45th to 50th year and might just limp to 60 years old if well cared for. Unfortunately these water oaks were only 30 to 35 years old and already looking distressed with some large dead wood and dying tips. One of them I had to red-ribbon for removal was almost dead, another was half dead.

Another older resident with a beard who looked like an Ernest Hemingway look-alike came out and saw me putting the red ribbon around the almost dead water oak.
“Are you taking that one down?” he asked.
“I’m going to recommend it. It’s close to your condo and could drop the large dead wood on it and cause real damage. It should have been done a year ago,” I added.
“They were going to take it down last year, but then when they were trimming the front one an entire large limb just fell off and the money had to be spent on taking that one down,” he explained.

Oh oh, I thought. That suggested the tree had been very rotten, again premature for these trees.
Many other water oaks had dead branches at the end of their limbs. I had to look closer to see what was going on.

I pulled out my mallet to sound the trunks of some of the water oaks and sure enough some were hollow. Handfuls had Ganoderma conks at their base, a mushroom-like fungus that grows like a hard shelf out of trees. This growth indicates masses of interior rotten wood or hollow spots where the rotten wood has already disintegrated. Who had killed these trees so prematurely? I was perturbed. But the plot was soon to thicken.

Some might say the developer-builder who chose a weak species was to blame. They might be partly faulted for this, but who knows what the knowledge base on water oaks was back in the 1970’s and this wouldn’t explain the premature dying. Some might say it was the nurseries and farms that stocked and sold them. Yes perhaps they should have known this wasn’t a long-lived species, but again how much was known about the resilience of water oaks in the urban environment back then and that didn’t explain this premature decay problem.

I stood back and ran my eyes across the canopies of the water oaks looking for clues from looking at many of these victims. And then I saw it. Water oak after water oak had not just a few pruning cuts, but 10, 12, 14 cuts in the first twenty feet of stems! And not just small 3″ cuts, although there were many of those, but 10″, 12″ and 14″ cuts. As I tell my customers, the shock this creates on a tree is equivalent to cutting off a human’s arm or leg! Comparable to gangrene in a body’s extremeties, many of them were rotting at that very cut from “flush” cuts made too close, often hidden by a group of odd looking vertical water sprouts growing around the cut. When you see a lot of water sprouts on a tree, it’s an indication they are trying desperately to make up for the lost foliage that the area had been robbed of.

It was the tree trimmers that were killing the water oaks!

Then like a waterfall it all became clear. This was an over-55 year old community. Many of them were elderly and scared of trees falling on their condos. So they had told the tree trimmers to prune everything high away from the roofs, “umbrella” shaped, which explained why the property manager didn’t need any elevation pruning like usual. The tree trimmers weren’t sufficiently trained and so didn’t educate the condo owners on how excessive that kind of “center pruning” is. (There is no such arborist cut as a “center prune” but that’s what they called it.) They didn’t explain how water oaks don’t heal well, that especially cuts over 4″ in diameter are likely to invite decay, that such a high quantity and size of cuts were lowering the energy reserves of the tree so its immune system was weaker against decay and disease and finally that the loss of interior center foliage was causing limbs to grow skinny and long with foliage at the ends acting like sails (called lions tailing) which would whip these thin limbs extra hard in wind and break them prematurely – especially since they had so many weak, rotten spots in them from the excessively cut decay points! Ai yai yai, what a loss to the community – which only ensured ten more years of excessive expense to remove these trees prematurely one by one.

It could have all been prevented with better trained arborists who knew what they were doing and wouldn’t let homeowners push them into incorrect arboriculture procedures. I realized it all starts with education, then certainty enough in one’s knowledge to hold one’s ground versus attempts to get one to do things that aren’t the most optimum solution for everything involved. Here I was having to remedy it all the best I could when it could have been a “no problem” for another fifteen years at least. All this of course is a good reason to only hire Certified Arborists who really know their subject and care enough to keep learning and applying what they know for the best solution for the entire long-term environment.

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