Arbor Day Reminder: Protect Our Urban Forests

spring_trees_cropIt’s been one long, cold spring so far here in Worcester, but the trees are finally in bloom. The Norway and sugar maples that line so many miles of our city’s streets are bursting with pale green flowers. Cylindrical Callery pears shyly show their snowy petals. A few magnolias offer cream and purple blooms to the sky.

It’s an appropriate welcome for Arbor Day, marked in Massachusetts and in most states on the last Friday of April.

Proposed in 1872 by Nebraska newspaper journalist and editor J. Sterling Morton as a way to promote tree planting to create wind breaks, shade, fuel and building materials for the vast Nebraska Territory, Arbor Day soon caught on across the U.S. By 1885, it had become a legal holiday in Nebraska—the same year that Massachusetts first observed the tree planting celebration.

Worcester’s First Arbor Day Shadowed by Deforestation

Worcester marked the Commonwealth’s first Arbor Day on April 30, 1885, by planting nearly 500 trees, thanks largely to the efforts of the Worcester Grange: 413 shade trees (mostly maples), and 80 fruit trees and ornamentals, to be precise.

Standing on a stage bedecked with flowers and potted plants in Horticultural Hall, before a canvas inscribed “Our first Arbor Day—may it take as firm and lasting a hold on the hearts of the people as the trees take root in the soil,” State Grange Master James Draper urged an enthusiastic audience to plant trees. Draper’s concerns about dwindling timber resources and deforestation around Worcester were echoed by Stephen Salisbury III, a member of the city’s Parks Commission.

“It is a matter of common knowledge . . . that the timberlands of the country were disappearing,” reported the next day’s Worcester Daily Spy. “Something more than Arbor Day was needed to prevent utter desolation in New England. Those who participated in its observance, however, would always be honored and their service would be appreciated.”

19th Century Forests Depleted by Centuries of Waste

Deforestation in Massachusetts—the result of centuries of wasteful timber harvesting for fuel, potash and building materials, as well as clear cutting for farmland—had become a serious problem by the mid-19th century. Writing in 1846, botanist George B. Emerson warned that the Commonwealth’s wood-based industries, such as ship building and furniture manufacturing, had so depleted native forests that the state was rapidly becoming depending on timber imported from Maine and New York.

In Massachusetts, deforestation peaked about 1860, when roughly two-thirds of the state was open land, compared to one-tenth in 1800; many Central Massachusetts hill towns had cleared more than 75 percent of upland area by midcentury.

Arbor Day was one step in a long process of reversing that trend. Today, Massachusetts in one of the most forested states in the U.S., with nearly 71 percent tree cover, compared to a national average of 34 percent. According to David Nowak of the U.S. Forest Service, there are about 273 million trees in Massachusetts, moderating climate, stabilizing soil, controlling storm run-off, improving air quality, sheltering animals and beautifying our world.

Urban Tree Canopy Threatened by Development

But that green canopy is once again in jeopardy. Here as throughout the country, development is chipping away at urban forests, replacing trees with buildings and impervious surfaces, such as roads and parking lots.

Nationally, according to Nowak, 17 out of 20 major cities have experienced a significant decline in tree cover during the first decade of the new millennium. On average, we’re losing 4 million trees annually.

It’s a trend we ignore at our peril. Just as deforestation surrounding Worcester in the mid-19th century caused observable changes in climate and growing conditions, so a loss of trees as we continue to expand cities and suburbs will degrade our natural environment.

This past year, Worcester intensified planting to help offset the many trees lost to the Asian Longhorned Beetle infestation. Our streets are lined with young saplings, still taking root after the cold, harsh winter. It will be decades before they shade streets like their aging sylvan neighbors. On this Arbor Day, our 128th, their future, and our city’s, is in our hands.

Evelyn Herwitz is the author of  Trees at Risk: Reclaiming an Urban Forest and blogs about ALB prevention and tree stewardship at She predicted the 2008 Asian Longhorned Beetle infestation of Worcester, Mass., in her book, published by Chandler House Press in 2001.

How Trees Make Our City Livable: Interview on WICN’s “Business Beat”

Thanks to Steve D’Agostino, host of The Business Beat on WICN 90.5FM, I recently joined with Peggy Middaugh, Executive Director of the Worcester Tree Initiative for a half-hour conversation about the importance of Worcester’s urban forest.

Our talk ranged from who planted the first trees in Worcester to why trees are so important to the urban environment, from the Asian Longhorned Beetle infestation and the newest threat, the Emerald Ash Borer, to Worcester’s model public-private partnership to replant the city’s urban forest.

The half-hour program aired Sunday night, February 3, 2013. Enjoy the podcast!

Evelyn Herwitz is the author of  Trees at Risk: Reclaiming an Urban Forest and blogs about ALB prevention and tree stewardship at She predicted the 2008 Asian Longhorned Beetle infestation of Worcester, Mass., in her book, published by Chandler House Press in 2001.

How to Care for Trees in a Heat Wave

It’s been a long, hot, dry stretch here in Worcester, as elsewhere across the U.S. during this record-breaking heat wave. While it’s nice to have a real summer, the extreme temperatures and lack of rain are placing a lot of stress on our trees, young and old.

The city planted many new street trees this spring. You see them everywhere, waving slender branches, trunks skirted by conical, green plastic water bags. Some look like they are thriving, while others are showing signs of heat stress, their leaves drooping.

Water New Trees Three Times a Week in a Heat Wave
Those green water bags are key to young trees’ survival through this dry, hot period. When filled, the bags slowly release water directly to the trees’ roots, without any run-off or evaporation.

Even under the best of circumstances, new trees need to be watered twice a week, with 5 to 10 gallons each time. When it’s hot and dry, as now, they need a third day of watering, as well.

Mature Trees Need a Good Soaking, Too
Mature trees need water during heat spells, as well. A slow, steady soaking around the base is most effective, using a soaker hose or drip irrigation to conserve water, or a rain barrel with an outlet tap at the bottom. It’s important to soak around the entire base of the tree and to allow the ground to dry out between soakings, so as not to suffocate the roots.

Mulch also helps to retain moisture. It’s best to place two inches of fresh, organic mulch around the base of the tree each spring, after a good ground soaking. Be sure to leave clear the six inches closest the trunk. Ideally, you should mulch the area shaded by the tree, because the root system spreads underground as broadly as the tree’s crown.

We All Need to Care for Our Street Trees
There aren’t enough hours in the day or city forestry staff to water every Worcester street tree on a regular schedule during a heat wave, so it’s important for all of us to care for our trees, young or old, in front of our homes, shading out streets.

Especially if you have a new street tree, monitor the green bag and fill it up twice or three times a week, as needed. In the wake of the Asian Longhorned Beetle infestation, we certainly don’t want to lose any trees from neglect.

Evelyn Herwitz is the author of  Trees at Risk: Reclaiming an Urban Forest and blogs about ALB prevention and tree stewardship at She predicted the 2008 Asian Longhorned Beetle infestation of Worcester, Mass., in her book, published by Chandler House Press in 2001.