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Thursday, July 24, 2014 12:01 am

Immigrants behaving badly

Is a bad tree worse than no tree at all?


The house came ready-made but the yard didn’t. Thus it was that, in addition to the picket fence and the rose trellis, my parents decided to plant a tree in the front yard. They did this because houses are supposed to have trees in the front yard, but as I look back the gesture also can be seen as planting the flag in conquered territory.

I have written before about my boyhood home in a GI Bill subdivision on Springfield’s far east side. (See “A house in a day,” Nov. 23, 2011.) Our new house, as it happened, faced due north, so its rear or south-facing side was exposed to Illinois’ summer sun, which is nature’s best argument for February. Had science rather than custom dictated its disposition, that tree would have been planted in the back yard, where its crown would eventually shade the house and make life there in August a little less like the inside of a microwave pouch. If such a practical step did not occur to us, even living as we did in a house without air conditioning, it’s no wonder that most trees being planted in subdivisions on Springfield’s newest urban fringe likewise are placed without regard to old Sol.

Our garbage man had mentioned he had a spread out in the country, and if we needed a tree, well, we could just come out and dig one up. So Dad went out and dug one up – a whip, as the nurserymen label trees a year or two old. Its roots were bare; were we alert to the ways tree communicate, we probably would have heard its screams all the way home. Happily it was rainy the day we planted it, and the roots thus were kept moist enough that the tree survived its having been press-ganged into service protecting middle-class real estate values.

Free trees don’t come with labels. “It was just a tree,” Dad would tell me. Recalling the tree years later, I assumed it must have been a Chinese elm, a tree in wide use and just as widely condemned as disease-ridden, short-lived and brittle. I have since learned that what most Americans know as a Chinese elm is in fact a Siberian elm, Ulmus pumila. Our tree’s bad habits made it exactly the sort of gift you would expect Siberia to make to the world, but it had two virtues required by new homeowners – like the kids, it grew fast and (better than the kids) it was forgiving of neglect.

Arborists class the Siberian elm as a “small to medium” tree in size, meaning it will stand only 60-70 feet tall at maturity. Planted as it was in the mid-1950s, this particular elm is one mature elm. Every first-time homeowner makes the same mistake in planting things too close to the house (or fence or sidewalk) without regard for how large it will be when it grows up. We planted our new tree barely 10 feet from the front step. Looking back, I am doubly glad we never had a house fire; even had we escaped the flames, rushing blindly out the front door would have left us all nursing third-degree bark wounds.

The Illinois Arborist Association rates tree species according to their environmental adaptability, biological traits such as growth rate and pest resistance, maintenance needs and looks. Some trees, like the common redbud, hackberry or sugar maple, rate 80 to 90 out of 100 in central Illinois. The Siberian elm rates 40. It’s not the worst tree for Illinois according to these criteria; several species were rated at 20. But in states to the east, this particular elm is officially ranked as a trash tree. Even here it can be invasive where soil and water is so lousy that it reminds germinating seeds of Siberia. One of the first things ecologists did when they began to restore the 40-acre Adams Wildlife Sanctuary out on Clear Lake was kill all the Siberian elms that had muscled their way onto the property.

Had any of those weedy trees sprouted from seeds from our tree? The Adams property is only two-thirds of a mile away from our house as the samara flies. (That’s an elm joke.) The possibility makes me ask whether it is sometimes worse to plant a bad tree than to not plant a tree at all. A lot of people think so, especially these days, when it is so easy to find better ones. (Many a tree specialist will tell you flat out that the Siberian elm should not be planted anywhere.) I’d have to think about that. After all, similar things were said about a lot of human immigrants to Illinois who also were invasive species able to grow in conditions that would kill less hardy versions of life.  

Contact James Krohe Jr. at KroJnr@gmail.com.


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