What the Hyattsville?: Where have all the shade trees gone?
BY HEATHER MARLÉNE ZADIG
Fall foliage in Hyattsville may have seemed a little less spectacular this fall than in previous years, though not because the colors were less vibrant: There are simply fewer trees. Unusually powerful storms in recent years have toppled countless shade trees throughout the city and across the region, mirroring national U.S. Forest Service data that reveal higher rates of tree loss than average in recent years.
With time and care, trees are ultimately replaceable, though the increase in bare, front-yard stumps around town suggests we aren’t actually replacing them.
According to recent shade tree advisory board minutes, residents become wary of their own larger trees when severe storms fell branches or trees nearby, which can lead to illegal tree removals (subject to up to $1,000 fines). Presumably, the same fear may also then deter residents from replanting large species.
On my own Hyattsville block, a summer storm felled part of a shade tree in the front yard of neighbor Joan Stump two doors down — narrowly missing our shared neighbor’s home. Stump emphasized that her family loves the shade of all the trees on their property, but the upkeep costs can be quite high. “In the 13 years we’ve lived here, we’ve had them maintained three times for a cost of over $7,000,” she said, adding that the price may be out of reach for many residents.
That tree remains largely intact, thankfully, but for anyone concerned about future damage to structures, smaller native species like dogwood, serviceberry, paw paw and white fringe trees are excellent options for planting closer to buildings, while larger species can be relegated to the perimeter of a property.
Unfortunately, low rates of tree replacement across the city can impact far more than fall colors. As the saying goes, “Trees are the lungs of the earth” — removing air pollutants by intercepting particulates and absorbing gasses. Given our county’s consistent F air quality rating, we could use all the filtration we can get.
Trees are also the primary tool for reducing the “heat island effect” in cities, which occurs when large amounts of concrete, roads and buildings absorb, retain and emit significantly more heat than high-vegetation areas — like rural or natural lands — do.
“If you wanted to invent the most effective kind of climate management technology from the ground up, you could spend a lot of time trying to do that. You would just engineer a tree,” Brian Stone Jr., director of Georgia Institute of Technology’s Urban Climate Lab, told The New York Times this past September. According to the Arbor Day Foundation, trees can cool cities by up to 10 F — a huge margin — as well as reduce crime and increase property values.
Shade tree canopies are also an environmental justice issue, with disparities in neighborhood greenery contributing to inequities in several measures of human health. According to the reputable American Forests Foundation, communities of color have 33% less tree canopy on average than majority-white communities in the U.S. — a trend reflected by tree distribution across our city and county.
As the Life & Times reported last year, by 2018, Hyattsville had already lost more than 236 acres of trees over the previous decade — 30% of its canopy — due to land development, pests and disease, and attrition.
To help combat this profound shortage, the city continues to offer free tree plantings to residents, using leftover funds from the American Rescue Plan Act of 2021. Free trees (to be planted during the spring) are available through the city’s website, according to Public Information Officer Cindy Zork, and residents can also apply for free street trees.
Interestingly, not all trees are equal at removing pollution — and some even contribute to it (hence the Great Smoky Mountains’ smog). All trees release oxygen and absorb and filter pollution, but trees also emit varying levels of volatile organic compounds, or VOCs, that are the precursors to smog — some a little, and some a lot.
Research reported in Scientific American says that birch, elm, tulip and linden trees are low-VOC. Conifers are an especially good choice to reduce VOCs if they’re native and suit site conditions, according to 2015 research reported by BBC’s Future Planet. Hemlocks, junipers, cypresses and pines are also low-VOC and filter year-round, while high-VOC trees like black gum, oaks, poplar and willow are best avoided.
The city does prioritize native trees for wildlife needs and hardiness reasons but does not currently consider trees’ VOC emissions, according to Zork.
Local arborist Christopher Larkin sent me an informal list of trees that he’s noticed have been struggling more than others in our area, along with the problems they tend to encounter (see Table 1). Larkin, who works for Bartlett Trees, suggested residents “look to the south for species that tolerate our new normal,” given increased pests, disease, and heat stress related to climate change. The Department of Agriculture has also published a detailed chart of recommended trees for the D.C. area that may be better suited to the warming climate.
Table 1: Local trees prone to pests, disease and decline
|needle cast diseases from fungus and high humidity
|Bacterial Leaf scorch disease: early defoliation and loss of energy reserves
|poor drainage in our clay soils suffocate roots, drought/heat stressing the trees
|Emerald Ash borer introduced species can cause death within a year of attack
|A northern tree affected by the heat and weather; verticillium wilt and root rot
|Spotted lanternfly not here yet, but will be soon; massive loss of sap
|Beech leaf disease not here yet but close; caused by nematodes in twigs & foliage.
*High VOC-emitting trees. **Indicates problems likely to be imminent.
Although the compact yards of our semi-urban neighborhoods can only support so many trees, there’s room for hope: If every household in Hyattsville planted just one tree, it would contribute roughly 6,800 trees to the canopy.
And that’s nothing to wheeze at.