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Drought's Affect on Trees Impacts Future Planting Decisions

story by Beverly Moseley

Walking along Seymour Lieberman Exer-Trail in Houston's Memorial Park recently, joggers, walkers, and bike riders move along in an easy flow on the trails.

Surrounding this bustling weekend scene are dead and dying trees, likely victims of Texas' historic 2011 drought.

"Experts estimate that tree mortality as a result of the 2011 drought exceeds that experienced by losses from Hurricane Ike," said Mary Webb-Marek, a forester with the USDA-Natural Resources Conservation Service (NRCS) in Bryan. "What we've seen over the past 12 month period is severe mortality. Urban areas like Houston have been hit hard."

The emotional attachment to trees that beautify a city which is home to more than 2 million people was palpable. As workers removed dead trees, onlookers could be heard commenting on the reality of the situation.

"It's sad," was a common refrain by passing joggers and people enjoying the unseasonably warm weather, as their eyes were drawn to the site of trees marked for removal with large, bright orange X's being cut and pushed down.

The drought appears to have been indiscriminate in its attack. Trees that were young, old, small, and large carried the mark of removal. Reforestation efforts have already begun in the park.

The scene at this park can be found across the state. Whether it's an urban or rural setting or a homeowner with one tree in the front yard, people have an emotional attachment to trees and cutting a dead or dying tree down can be a tough decision.

"It's an emotional decision for any landowner or homeowner. Trees provide shade, an aesthetic quality and value. Trees even mark milestones in people's lives. They can be historic. There are witness trees," said Webb-Marek. "Their life span is considered long and can exceed a human life. That's what makes it so difficult to make removal decisions."

Even though most trees, such as hardwoods, are in dormancy right now, homeowners can still evaluate drought's impact on their hardwood or evergreen trees.

"To determine if any tree is living, do a scrape-test on a small branch or limb. Take a fingernail and scrape through the outer layer of bark and if it's green and moist the tree is living," Webb-Marek said. "Pines are evergreen and they are much easier to evaluate whether they are dead or alive. If a pine is drought stressed, you will see red needles throughout the canopy. If it is dead, the entire canopy is red needles."

She added that drought resistant species, such as post oaks and live oaks, more than likely will survive a tough drought.

With spring right around the corner, now is a good time to evaluate tree recovery and begin planning for recovery management and replanting options.

Webb- Marek offered some basic tips for tree owners:

  • Removal - Take the emotion out of the decision. Consider the cost to professionally remove a tree. It can impact removal decisions. Consult with a professional tree removal service that is licensed, bonded and insured.

  • Pruning - Prune live limbs judiciously and target dead limbs that don't have viable leaves. Remove no more than 1/3 of the tree's living limbs.

    "The leaves of a tree are little food factories for the tree through photosynthesis. If we remove a large portion of that we are removing the food source of a tree," she noted.

  • Replanting considerations - Match the tree to the environment. Consider the overall landscape plan and desired results, along with drought resistant species and species suitable to the location's soil type. Also, consider the length of time it takes a species to reach maturity.

  • Planting tips - Don't plant too deep or too shallow. Consider structures when placing a tree. In other words, don't plant to close to a house, driveway, or sidewalk. This can negatively impact root growth or the structure. Don't plant under power or utility lines.

"The big picture is we are currently enjoying trees that were planted decades ago. It is important for us to think to the future with what we plant today," said Webb-Marek.

For more information visit NRCS at www.tx.nrcs.usda.gov or the Texas Forest Service at http://txforestservice.tamu.edu/main/default.aspx.

Within a matter of minutes, mature pines surrounding a playground at Houston's Memorial Park were cut at the base, pushed down, cut into manageable logs, and loaded on trucks to be hauled away. Within a matter of minutes, mature pines surrounding a playground at Houston's Memorial Park were cut at the base, pushed down, cut into manageable logs, and loaded on trucks to be hauled away.

Within a matter of minutes, mature pines surrounding a playground at Houston's Memorial Park were cut at the base, pushed down, cut into manageable logs and loaded on trucks to be hauled away.

A residential tree in Grimes County exhibits extensive damage from the 2011 drought. Pine trees targeted for removal bear bright, orange X's. Experts say that most of the mature pines in the estimated 1,500 acre Memorial Park are dead.

A residential tree in Grimes County exhibits extensive damage from the 2011 drought.

Pine trees targeted for removal bear bright, orange X's. Experts say that most of the mature pines in the estimated 1,500 acre Memorial Park are dead.

On any given day, Seymour Lieberman Exer-Trail in Houston's Memorial Park, is bustling with people exercising. In early January, the trail's paths wound through areas of dead and dying trees, likely victims of Texas' historic 2011 drought.

On any given day, Seymour Lieberman Exer-Trail in Houston's Memorial Park, is bustling with people exercising. In early January, the trail's paths wound through areas of dead and dying trees, likely victims of Texas' historic 2011 drought.