According to some reports, Colorado weather in 2014-2015 has resulted in the deaths of 80% of our cherry, plum and peach trees. How did this happen? Does it make sense to replant? And if so, how can we reduce future losses and increase fruitful successes? This article will focus on cherry trees.
Colorado is said to be the worst state in the US for fireblight, and 2018 was considered by many to be one of the worst years in Colorado. Fireblight is a serious disease affecting apples, crabapples, pears, Mountain Ash and hawthorn, and sometimes quince and pyracantha (supposedly up to 73 species of plants).
Leave them to the Mountains OR Plant them at Home?
Populus tremuloides or Quaking Aspen is not only one of the best-known native trees here in Colorado, but it is said to be the most widely distributed tree of North America. Its narrow, roughly pyramidal form is commonly 25’-30’ tall and 15’-20’ wide, although it can get much larger. The leaves are shiny, dark green above and light gray-green beneath which makes the tree shimmer in the breezes. Also its whitish trunk adds to its attractive architecture. Then in the fall the leaves can turn a rich golden yellow which look glorious on the tree and lovely on the ground. It has a suckering habit which inclines it to clumps and which has put aspen in the running for the world’s largest being.
Bigtooth Maple, Acer grandidentatum, is native to the far southwest corner of Colorado in a place known as Sleeping Ute Mountain. It is common in canyons, northfacing slopes and along mountain streams in Utah, Wyoming and west Texas from 5000′ to 8000′. Although most often listed as a separate species, Bigtooth Maple is sometimes called Western Sugar Maple, therefore, a subspecies of Acer saccharum. Its other names are Canyon Maple and Wasatch Maple.
BUR OAK—QUERCUS MACROCARPA-MOSSY CUP OAK
One of the most successful oaks for Colorado is the Bur Oak. It is adaptable to our clay soils and tolerates our alkaline conditions better than most oaks. In harsh, droughty areas this tree can be a low shrub, but on rich, river-bottom land can get 170’ high and 6’-7’ in diameter; but most often grows 50’-70’ high. The trunk is often thick and short with deeply furrowed bark, and the stout branches often extend almost straight out making the tree as broad as tall. The leaves are deeply lobed only in the bottom half and these lobes are rounded not pointed as with many other oaks. The acorns are distinctive in that there is a mossy fringe around the cap. The overall effect can be quite grand and sculptural, sometimes like a Chinese painting. The short taproot is surrounded by a massive root system which is strongly competitive. This is why old specimens often are standing alone.
Western (Northern) Catalpa- Catalpa speciosa
It is surprising that a tree that looks so different from the other Colorado-adapted trees, is so successful. What stands out immediately are the huge leaves which can be 3”x 6” or even 6” x “12” and are heart-shaped. And in June, this large shade tree blooms exquisite, ruffled, bell-like, white, fragrant flowers with yellow and purplish coloration .And in the fall the passerby might be surprised to see the long thin pods 10”- 18” long.
Growing trees in Colorado, especially big shade trees, can be very challenging. Few of the specimens in our community “forests” are native to Colorado, and areas where big trees are abundant are often so different from our conditions that those trees do not adapt well here. Some of the difficulties trees face here are: alkaline soils, nutrient-poor and shallow soils, low humidity, hot and drying winter sun, strong winds, untimely wet snows in spring and fall, rapidly changing temperatures, and low rainfall. Add to these the confining root zones in which many trees are growing in urban environments, and it is easy to understand why our trees are often stressed, subject to borer and fungus problems, broken and short-lived.
This member of the pea family (Fabaceae) can get 50’-60’ high and 30’-40’ wide, though most that I’ve seen in Colorado are under 45’. Nearly everybody thinks of this tree as interesting or picturesque.The branching is more open than most trees and the bark is gray to dark brown, rough and deeply ridged even on small branches. The leaves are bluish-green and somewhat tropical-looking being double compound, each one 18”-24” long and forked with small leaflets alternating on the stem. Fall color is yellow. As the species name implies, this tree is dioecious, having the male and female flowers on separate trees. The flowers are greenish-white, supposedly fragrant and not conspicuous. On the female trees, tough, leathery seed pods follow that are 4”-6” long and 1 1/4”-2” wide. These hang on after the leaves fall and into the winter.
Common Hackberry (Celtis occidentalis)
Why would anybody be interested in a tree that is just the common variety? In this case, we Coloradoans can be very interested because “common” means it will grow just about anywhere. In our harsh country that provides a good living for people planting and replanting and pruning and re-pruning trees, the Common Hackberry is somewhat of a relief. It will grow to 7000’. Our 25 below zero winters do not bother it as it is hardy to zone 2, which helps a lot in adjusting to our sudden warm-to-cold swings. It is also not picky about soils, tolerating both acidic and our usual alkaline conditions; rocky is fine, heavy clay is OK; it really likes rich, moist, but grows right along in poor, dry, windy, polluted cities.
Planting a tree puts us in touch with one of the most essential parts of a tree that is often overlooked—the roots. When a seed germinates, the first part to develop is the root. The seed has stored nutrients, but if the plant is to live, it must immediately make a relationship with the nourishment of the earth. Then it can make the sprout that pushes into the sunlight to start photosynthesizing. So the first matter of importance in planting a tree is to honor its roots—their condition, their future environment and their nourishment.
Alex Shigo is a world-renowned authority in arboriculture, the science of trees. His delving curiosity and sharp scientific analyses carried him beneath the bark into a realm previously little understood. He worked 26 years for the US Forest Service investigating decay in trees, and through the process of dissecting over 15,000 trees with a chainsaw, he has uncovered much valuable information about tree structures and tree systems that have revolutionized the practice of tree care. As he puts it in the preface to his book Tree Pruning, “A major problem throughout the history of tree pruning has been the scant attention given to pruning as it affects the health of trees, while great attention has been given to pruning as it affects the desires of man.” Even though he is busy writing, giving workshops and talks and doing consulting, he agreed to answer some pressing questions for The Colorado Gardener.
European Mt. Ash (Sorbus aucuparia)
This is surely one of my favorite ornamental trees for the front range which can be used up to 8000’.It is an upright oval tree spreading with age 25’-30’ tall aned 15’-25’ wide. If cared for, it will be attractive throughout the season. The bark is a shiny, orangy-brown. The serrated, compound leaves are dark green and in the fall turn yellow and reddish-gold. The clusters of flowers are white, blooming in spring with a peculiar fragrance that some people appreciate more when they’re gone. Clusters of red-orange berry-like fruit follow which color the tree through the fall, accenting the orangy leaf colors. These fruits are greatly loved by the birds and are in fact edible for people. They are known as Rowan berries and are used in Europe in making a brandy. In ancient times the Rowan tree, also know as the Quickbeam, was greatly revered by the Druids and used against lightning and witches’charms. The berries were considered extremely valuable having the “sustaining value of nine meals”, healing the wounded and giving a man the strength of ten men. I had to try this, of course, and found I couldn’t eat even 10 berries. Later I learned they need to “blet” or shelf-ripened. The birds do spread these around, and Mt. Ash seedlings are not uncommon.
The Pinyon Pine has several advantages over other evergreen trees in a Colorado landscape. For one thing, its size doesn’t consume so much horizontal space. Compare the modest mature Pinyon at 10’-15’ in diameter with Austrian or Ponderosa at 25’-35’ diameter or Blue Spruce at 30’-40’ diameter. A few of these “average” sized evergreens look innocent when freshly planted, but who hasn’t seen them blocking sidewalks and doorways, tearing off gutters and shading solar collectors and windows in the winter? The Pinyon with its gently rounded top only gets 12’-20’ high, which suffices for many screening needs and still leaves the view. If it isn’t crowded, it stays branched to the ground with dense foliage of short, medium green to gray-green needles, two to a bundle. The cones are small 1 1/2”-2” long, brown to reddish-brown, which open to a rosette form and in the wild yield Pinyon “nuts”. These seeds are good-tasting and oily, with a piney flavor much appreciated by birds, animals and humans. They are also nutritious, being higher in protein and carbohydrates than pecans, but lower in fat. For some reason , these “nuts” are unlikely to develop in small urban plantings.
One of the most beautiful ornamental trees is the Eastern Redbud, Cercis canadensis. It is a native of the eastern and southern U.S. and has “naturalized” in older Boulder neighborhoods. It’s most distinctive feature is its reddish purple buds followed by intense purplish-pink pea-like flowers in late April before the leaves come out. This wondrous and heart-warming display is greatly appreciated so early in spring but cannot be counted on if winters are too harsh.
It is a smaller tree 20’-25’ high and wide with attractive bark and heart-shaped leaves which are shiny and purplish when young. Fall color is yellow. It is said to be hardy to zone 4 and we have many fine specimens in Boulder.
Shade trees 40’-60’ high and wide are great on the south and west sides of our houses and offices. They reduce temperatures and reduce cooling costs in the warm months, but they are not always appropriate. We don’t want dense shade where we grow most xeriscapes, rock gardens, herb gardens, most natives and many perennials. In addition, there is no need for big shade trees on the north side, and the morning sun is usually welcome on the east side of our houses and workplaces. And many plants prosper in morning sun and afternoon shade. It is also significant that a 20’ tree costs far less to have pruned than a 40’ tree. So it seems to me we should be growing small trees under 30’ tall on the east and north sides of our buildings.
Trees have it hard in Colorado. If it’s not the shallow and lean topsoil, it’s the low rainfall and low humidity, or it’s the heavy wet late spring or early fall snows, or like last November, it’s the dramatic temperature changes. After a warm and beautiful fall without a killing frost until November 11, we experienced a 77 degree drop in temperature between November 10 and November 12. This was one of the three largest temperature drops ever recorded in the Denver area, the other two were in December 2013 and January 2014.
Trees do a lot for us humans, so we shouldn’t forget to give them some support. When I look at the treeless ten acre lot next to our nursery, or when I see an old photo of the CU campus with bare land around Old Main, I remember why we can’t take trees for granted in Colorado. Trees really have it hard here, but there are things we can do to help them survive and thrive.
Of all our plants, trees take the longest to develop and so it is not only heart-breaking, but a significant set-back to a landscape when a tree that is 10-20 years old is destroyed in a storm. Many of these disasters could be prevented with proper pruning early in a tree’s life. Besides preventing disasters, pruning trees properly when young will help them to develop more beautifully, make them stronger, less expensive to maintain as they get older and keep them healthier.
A young tree, like any young being, is vulnerable and needs some extra care. And trees are often a costly investment, both for the plant and for the planting. So since few arborists will come out for the fifteen minute job of pruning a young tree, and since few lawn crews are trained in proper pruning, it is good for home-owners to understand the basics of pruning in order to get their trees off to a good start.
The roots are the hidden support system of our giant plants, the trees. They anchor their woody trunks to the ground, store food and bring in water, nutrients and oxygen. In this article I will discuss what is going on down there. In the next issue I will discuss more practical applications of this understanding.
Far less is known about tree roots than about the trunk, branches and leaves. This is understandable since the roots are hidden from our view, and once you dig them up, they are no longer what they were. We are awed by the massive trees swaying over our houses and streets, but usually we give little thought to what is going on under the surface. However, when spring thawing is followed by powerful winds and we see an 80’ spruce toppled over with its roots in the air, which are only 9” deep; that gets us thinking.
What would we do without trees? What structures could we invent and construct that would hang over our houses and offices, providing shade and cooler temperatures? Such a structure would have to hold up under 80 mph winds and heavy wet snows, and would have to retract in the winter to let in light. Trees provide these values and much more, giving off oxygen, providing housing for birds, and protection for understory plants. Thus it is very important to take good care of our trees, and the most fundamental level of that care must be directed to the roots.
In general, shade trees are not very tolerant of drought. Some people have gotten the idea that since trees have big root systems, they are less vulnerable to dry conditions. Unfortunately this is not true. Truly xeric trees that are native to arid regions are usually small, more like big shrubs. Even in our semi-arid region, photos from a hundred years ago, show very open and unshaded areas where we now have our urban forests. Most shade trees come from forested areas with much more rainfall and deeper, richer soils. On top of that, our trees are often made to grow in very confined areas in heavily compacted soils. So even under normal circumstances, big trees have a hard life here in Colorado. Therefore, during a drought, we must take extra care to make sure they survive by deeply watering at least once a month. If you multiply the diameter of a tree in inches times 10, you will get the recommended gallons of water required per watering. This water should be applied, not next to the trunk, but in a wide band around the drip line. Your best chances of establishing a tree during water restrictions are to:
Waterwise Shade Trees 40—75′
- Populus acuminata-Lanceleaf Cottonwood
- Salix amygdaloides-Peachleaf Willow
- Celtis occidentalis-Western Hackberry
- Fraxinus pennsylvanica-Green Ash
- Pinus ponderosa-Ponderosa Pine
- Pinus flexilis-Limber Pine
- Pinus contorta var. latifolia-Lodgepole Pine
- Pseudotsuga manziesii var. glauca- Rocky Mt. Douglas Fir
In general, shade trees are not very tolerant of drought. Some people have gotten the idea that since trees have big root systems, they are less vulnerable to dry conditions. Unfortunately this is not true. Truly xeric trees that are native to arid regions are usually small, more like big shrubs. Even in our semi-arid region, photos from a hundred years ago, show very open and unshaded areas where we now have our urban forests. Most shade trees come from forested areas with much more rainfall and deeper, richer soils. On top of that, our trees are often made to grow in very confined areas in heavily compacted soils. So even under normal circumstances, big trees have a hard life here in Colorado. Therefore, during a drought, we must take extra care to make sure they survive by deeply watering at least once a month. If you multiply the diameter of a tree in inches times 10, you will get the recommended gallons of water required per watering. This water should be applied, not next to the trunk, but in a wide band around the drip line.