Palo Alto loves trees — it has about 600,000. The city's Urban Forestry Section maintains roughly 66,000, about one per resident.
Trees in parks and public areas number around 46,000; almost 38,000 of them are street trees. The proper care for all those trees is a deeply rooted mindset in town.
In fact, Palo Alto was named after that large redwood tree that still stands near the tracks by Palo Alto Avenue and Alma Street. The Ohlones ages ago called it “the big stick." The Spaniards then called it “el Palo Alto”; we now know it as the "tall tree."
It is 1,093 years old. It’s looking a bit shabby these days, but so would we if we were a millennium old.
But back to street trees. When the city took out two liquidambar trees across the street from me, I was concerned. Our tree canopy had a bare spot, and we needed to plant replacements quickly.
So, I called the Public Works Department, which includes the Urban Forestry Section, and I was told it would take about a year for the stump removal and possibly three years for replacements.
Why so long?
“We have 40,00-plus trees to take care of in this city,” a city staff member replied curtly. “It takes a lot of time to care for them.”
It is now about a year since the trees were removed, but the two stumps still remain — untouched.
So, this time I called Peter Gollinger, the city’s urban forester. He listened carefully and told me that because of the winter storms and the need to take care of all the damaged trees and fallen limbs, the clean-up took more time than anticipated. They are playing catch-up now.
As for the stumps, that service is contracted out, and the company comes for removal when there are a sufficient number of stumps to collect. It’s not exactly a speedy service, he added.
Except that stump removal is not the same as storm damage clean-up, and until a stump is removed, a new tree cannot be planted in its place. Logical, isn’t it?
Gollinger said a replacement tree typically occurs a year after stump removal. (Replacement occurs during planting season, traditionally October to May, according to city Chief Communications Officer Meghan Horrigan-Taylor.)
The two liquidambar stumps will be removed relatively soon, Gollinger said, and then replaced a year later by gingko trees – a tree with beautiful gold leaves in the fall. However, only male the male ginkgo trees are planted; the females have smelly fruit that drop on lawns and are harmful to dogs.
But we have only liquidambars on my block, all along the street, I said. Why introduce something with a distinctly different appearance?
He said Palo Alto adopted a new street tree selection process five-plus years ago to mix up tree types on the street. The decision was made because arborists were aware that certain trees can sometimes get diseased (like some ash and elm trees). Mixing varieties can prevent having all street trees of the same type get a disease and die, resulting in an avenue without any trees.
When I asked Gollinger how a variety of trees looked, he said fine — once they grew up and out.
Here I disagree. There are many streets in town that have uniform trees along both sides of each street (like sycamores whose branches spread out and meet in the middle), providing shade, uniformity, and unity. Visually they do not compete with front lawns for attention, rather they enhance the appearance.
So, the question is: Do the benefits of uniformity outweigh the dangers of certain street trees dying? It’s a difficult balance, and for me, a difficult decision to make because no one knows if the existing trees will someday get infected.
Gollinger said the city is working on adding more trees in south Palo Alto and have budgeted for the additions, and also have been working with Canopy, a tree-loving organization, to plant more trees all over town.
That’s great, because we do love trees in our town. By the way, I really hope the “Palo Alto (planting) Process" gets speeded up.
Diana Diamond is a longtime Palo Alto journalist, editor and author of the blog "An Alternative View" at PaloAltoOnline.com/blogs. You can email her at DianaLDiamond@gmail.com.