The best and worst trees for Palo Alto streets | News | Palo Alto Online |


The best and worst trees for Palo Alto streets

City Managing Arborist Dave Dockter notes his top picks

Although redwoods are certainly beloved trees and Palo Alto was named after El Palo Alto, a tree at a campsite of the Portola Expedition Party of 1769, the city is too far inland and too dry to support redwoods without copious amounts of water, City Managing Arborist Dave Dockter said.

That's why the trees have done so poorly in the drought. It's also why, when stressed, they have become susceptible to diseases and, in some cases, have become hazardous.

Many of Palo Alto's street and garden trees originated from other parts of the country. When people relocated to California, they planted some of the trees they knew, he said.

"These trees last maybe 50 years," Dockter said, noting that those trees, planted outside of their natural habitats, have come to the end of their lifespans.

As the city removes and replaces mature trees, it is getting away from some of the old standards. Liquidambar, a beautiful fall street tree, is being replaced by other long-lived attractive species, and magnolias, native to the southeast, are being replaced with varieties that are better suited to grow locally. Canopy, the Palo Alto tree nonprofit, is encouraging the plantings of native oaks such as the coast live oak and the valley oak, which require less water and do well in local soils, Executive Director Catherine Martineau said.

The organization's Canopy Tree Library lists hundreds of trees with information about care, height, water and other requirements to help choose the right tree.

Michael Hawkins, Canopy program director, advised, "Getting trees off to a good start is key in making sure they thrive and have a greater than average lifespan."

Dockter has provided a list, below, of his top picks for street trees that will succeed locally and a list of those that will likely not thrive.


1. Chinese pistache

2. Forest green oak

3. Cork oak

4. Frontier Elm

5. October glory maple


1. Privet

2. Black locust

3. Tree-of-heaven

4. Silver maple

5. Big conifers in general

Related content:

The clash over cutting down Palo Alto's trees

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7 people like this
Posted by jean struthers
a resident of Los Altos Hills
on Nov 19, 2016 at 11:41 am

Another tree that might be used, that is if you will be willing to wait awhile, is the Blue Oak, Quercus douglasii

There is an enormous one in front of Dinklespiel auditorium on campus. This tree must be 400 years old it is so big. It says something about being adaptable to this climate and lack of water. Its big disadvantage is its slow growth but that can be an advantage since it wont over grow the space for many years.

1 person likes this
Posted by Wayne Tyson
a resident of another community
on Nov 19, 2016 at 9:42 pm

Sounds like Palo Alto has a good tree Dockter.

Trees and streets have some incompatibilities, especially if the soils are not deep and whether or not there is a reasonably high water table (say, 20 to 50 feet?)

Tree root systems, ideally, should be an approximate reflection of the trunk and branching structure. Anything that interferes with the roots can cause problems for both. Streets should not leak (watch out for porous pavements), lest they encourage shallow root growth. Underground utilities are not compatible with roots. If the streets don't leak, the soil can get too dry to permit root development. Not good. Trees too close to other cultural features like sidewalks and curbs can create problems for both. Bear in mind that a good root system should be deep and wide, with a spread beyond the canopy perimeter. Better to plant the trees farther back from the street where they can spread out without causing trouble.

2 people like this
Posted by :(
a resident of Jordan Middle School
on Nov 19, 2016 at 9:44 pm

We have Chinese Elms right outside of our house and my son is allergic to them.

Like this comment
Posted by Wayne Tyson
a resident of another community
on Nov 19, 2016 at 9:49 pm

I love the Chinese, but not the elms. Invasive roots. Bugs. Brittle. Sewer invaders, ad nauseam.

Many, many, much better trees.

The bigger trees get, the harder and more expensive they get to remove.

4 people like this
Posted by Curious
a resident of Monroe Park
on Nov 20, 2016 at 2:37 pm

What's wrong with privets? The seem to take care of themselves, survive a drought, and are easily pruned to hedge or nobility.

16 people like this
Posted by Native Trees
a resident of Midtown
on Nov 21, 2016 at 2:04 pm

Native Trees is a registered user.

What about native California Live Oaks? Tan Oaks? Madrone? Manzanita?

All of these grow naturally in chaparral areas in California where there is less water and more sun.

7 people like this
Posted by Really?
a resident of Midtown
on Nov 22, 2016 at 10:55 am

"Canopy, the Palo Alto tree nonprofit, is encouraging the plantings of native oaks such as the coast live oak and the valley oak, which require less water and do well in local soils, Executive Director Catherine Martineau said."

I inquired several times with the city regarding removing our magnolia which is doing very poorly in the drought with a more drought friendly tree. Their view was this was not "fair for the existing tree" (true quote). Maybe they are ready to accept reality.

2 people like this
Posted by Neighbor
a resident of Embarcadero Oaks/Leland
on Nov 22, 2016 at 2:28 pm

I love the photo of the magnolia tree on the link to this story. Notice how this particular tree has river rocks around the base? Well, the river rocks around the base can damage the tree by keeping the roots too warm. These stones do not benefit the trees in any way, and become a special problem in times of drought. When I look around my neighborhood full of magnolias the ones are the worst are the ones with rocks around the base and those where the people pumped the ground water for construction, hurting not just their tree but the trees on the adjacent lots.

5 people like this
Posted by David
a resident of Another Palo Alto neighborhood
on Nov 25, 2016 at 9:38 am

I loath whom ever brought Privet trees to the SF Bay Area. They are THE WORST TREE EVER!!!

5 people like this
Posted by Sneezy
a resident of Downtown North
on Nov 27, 2016 at 10:03 pm

Planting low pollen producing trees would really help those of us with asthma and allergies.

1 person likes this
Posted by resident
a resident of Charleston Meadows
on Nov 28, 2016 at 9:39 pm

I have ash trees outside. Mine is a female tree - so I have been told - which has multitudes of seed pods everywhere. These seeds get into everything. If you park a car under it the seeds are all over the car. The male tree does not have the seed pods so is cleaner. How to be so lucky to have a female tree vs a male tree. I want the city to remove it or come once a year to remove the branch ends with seed pod but they are not interested.

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