The combination of age and water conservation measures is taking its toll all around my neighborhood. There are dead and dying trees on every street. Particularly sad are the landscape trees which were planted years ago when Los Altos was a new development, chosen for their rapid growth with no thought to their natural requirements, maintained for decades with irrigation, and now left to fend for themselves in an unnatural habitat.
Many of the redwood trees which tower along our major roads are slowly turning brown at the tips of their branches. Growth rings on redwood trees show that they have survived drought periods as long as 200 years in duration, but not on the eastern side of the Coast Range. Redwoods are adapted to get moisture from morning fog. Deprived of their morning fog drink and of irrigation , they are struggling.
The Monterey pines are in even worse shape. In native stands on the California central coast, a Monterey pine can live 100-150 years. But “in captivity”, as a landscape tree, the life span shortens to as little as 20-30 years. Monterey pines are adapted to live in crowded stands on thin soil underlain by bedrock. As landscape trees, too much space, too much rich soil, and too much fertilizer all combine to put the Monterey pines in trouble..
Without sufficient water in the soil, the trees’ hydraulic system for transporting water to the limbs and leaf tips may fail, weakening the limbs and causing branches and trunks of well-established trees to split and fall. My son’s car was totaled several months ago when a heavy branch split from the sycamore in his front yard. Our flowering plum blocked our driveway when a third of its canopy fell. Around my area old gnarled oaks and pepper trees have split down the middle. Seeing these trees go is like an old friend’s passing. But when the branches fell from our plum tree we discovered a colony of wood boring grubs had ravaged the interior. It had to go. It felt like a mercy killing.
I felt differently about our almond tree. One of a pair, its twin was sacrificed when my parents subdivided their lot so that we could build our house next door. My father had worked tirelessly to protect the almonds from marauding squirrels, using his pellet gun to such great effect that for five years after his death the squirrels still avoided the area. The average life span of an almond tree is only twenty-five years and this one had struggled along for at least sixty. Its bark had peeled off in large sections, leaving the bare wood to weather or rot where water collected in crevices, although it still bravely sported blossoms on its gnarled branches every spring.
Finally, a few weeks ago, we ordered the almond tree and the plum tree cut down – too much of a hazard next to our driveway. “This would make great firewood,” the arborist commented. “Don’t you want to keep the logs?” But we converted our fireplace to gas years ago. The logs were loaded into a truck for someone else’s hearth.
We planted a new little tree where the flowering plum had been. It is a Chinese pistache, well known for its flaming fall foliage, recommended as a street tree by our city, and reputedly very drought tolerant. It’s not going to bloom, but then it won’t be subject to fungus. Despite drought conservation measures, we will be watering it every few days until the rains start. Hurry up, El Nino!