“Fell the trees” is the cry.

The Devon Street alders are to get the chop

Trees in the urban landscape have a hard life. More often maligned than admired, battling on in remarkably inhospitable situations, it is rare that they reach maturity. In New Zealand at least. It is even more rare in New Plymouth with its coastal and mountain views. A leafy tree is likely to survive better in a flat, inland city like Palmerston North where it will never get in the way of some ratepayer’s view.

The trees down the main street of New Plymouth are to get the chop. They drop too many leaves and make the footpaths slippery and many people hate them. We happened to be dining at the weekend with a group that included dendrologists – in other words, people with a much better than average knowledge of woody trees and shrubs. Conversation turned to the Devon Street trees.

These are just alders. A boring, utility tree at best, but capable of thriving where less resilient trees will suffer. Opinion across the dinner plates was divided. A few thought it was a tragedy to cut down perfectly healthy trees fulfilling a role of greening the city. Others thought they could be replaced by something a great deal more interesting. It is hard to argue with the friend who emailed me the next day saying, “The alders always remind me of dank and dark South Wales where they are planted on the bulldozed slag heaps, as alders cope with the poisonous soil.” He was hoping for palms which are more evocative of the tropics.

But replace them with what? Metasequoia, maybe?

I think it would be fair to say that the majority opinion was that the alders can go but they need replacing with a better option. Therein lies the problem, for I fear the ignorant majority would probably be quite happy to see nothing come in as a replacement because all trees are ‘messy’ and a concrete jungle doesn’t worry them at all. Hope lies with the staff at the district council who may be more enlightened about greening the urban landscape. But it won’t be easy.

First up, removing the alders will likely require lifting the pavers that surround them and replacing a fair amount of the soil. It is not just a matter of chainsawing off the tops (though that will be no small task) and getting the stump grinder in to take out the bulk of the root ball just below the surface. Leave all those feeder roots in place – and they will spread far and wide – and the risk of soil borne fungus (particularly armillaria) attacking the new plants is high.

Amelanchier, maybe?

But the huge issue is what to replace them with. There is very limited space. Whatever comes in must have small leaves and small flowers that decompose quickly. Much and all as we would love to see magnolias used, evergreen magnolia leaves take years to rot down and deciduous magnolias have enormous leaves and flower petals, all of which will fall every season. Anything that forms a canopy is going to need extensive pruning and training and for the council, that costs money.

Deciduous or evergreen? Contrary to ill-informed opinion, evergreen trees drop leaves too. It is just they do it all year round instead of one hit in autumn. What can survive and thrive in a heavily polluted environment with an extremely restricted root system? Dinner time suggestions ranged from metasequoia (the restricted root system would stunt the top growth to a more manageable size), amelanchier (autumn colour, spring flowers, small leaves and petals but still plenty of them and it does not have a great natural form), Melia azedarach (though it may prefer a drier climate), pseudopanax (tough leaves, not a highly prized native, generally) and palms. The last option was somewhat favoured but Mark and I are cautious. Palms would look exotic. It would be possible to choose some options that would take the conditions. They are tall and narrow so take up next to no space. But – and it is a big but – as they mature, those fronds are often very heavy and a frond falling from a height in our frequent winds would do significant panel damage to vehicles parked below as well as potentially ripping off the spouting from verandas as it falls. Imagine the outcry….

Handsome, but…

… these falling fronds can cause significant damage

Mark takes the somewhat depressed view that maybe some shrubs in a planter box are the best we can hope for on the main street of New Plymouth. Unimaginative, utility and suburban.

Gleditsias. NOT our native kowhai

On the funny side, the little town of Waitara is local to us and it has gleditsias planted along its wide main street in a yellow and blue colour scheme. Even these trees are controversial. I have been at local meetings where landowners and business folk want them cut down because they drop leaves and are ‘messy’. But Mark likes to tell the story of when they were planted. A local councillor said to a noted local environmentalist: “You must be very pleased to see kowhais being planted on the main street.” I mean gleditsia, kowhai – not a lot of difference, eh? But maybe a good lesson on not leaving the blitheringly ignorant to make decisions on trees in public places.

For those loyal New Zealanders who think we should only be planting native trees, the trouble is that most of our native plants have evolved to grow in forest conditions. The roll call of suitable options for the stand-alone, exposed, windy, confined conditions of a narrow streetscape is very small indeed.

Melia azedarach – a pretty small tree but hardly one of stature and longevity

We can never overuse this meme

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16 thoughts on ““Fell the trees” is the cry.

  1. Charles Gordon

    Hi Abbie,

    Another thought to add to your good article is that trees provide shade. Palms not so good. I believe that Auckland City had problems after planting Nikaus in the Queen Street. (After removal of most of the Planes). They have been planting more Planes for shade. New Plymouth would be no different with its hot intense summer sun. Deciduous trees are definitely the way to go. And as you say, natives just don’t really do well as street trees, poor form and performance generally except for Pohuts. But the Pohuts create black cold holes in the winter. Kowhai’s are always suggested but they really don’t perform well unless well sheltered.

    We have had good success in Wellington with Ulmus parvifolia better know as Lace bark elm or Chinese elm. They are tough, handle salt, wind and are almost deciduous. But don’t have that darkness that the Alders have. There are also some very nice Gingko’s coming on in the Lambton Quay area. They are slow and of course they do drop leaves but can produce good shade in summer and open sun in winter and a good show in the autumn.

    Cheers

    Charles Gordon
    Senior Landscape Architect | Parks,Sport&Rec Management | Wellington City Council
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    1. Abbie Jury Post author

      Thank you for your thoughtful comments, Charles. You are quite right about shade though not so much on Devon Street where the space is narrow and really only for access rather than gathering. I too am unconvinced by nikau as street specimens – they look a bit stranded and wind burnt in such isolated conditions. I thought the issue with planes is that they can be quite brittle and drop branches? But maybe I am wrong. Gingko was mentioned over dinner – maybe the gorgeous autumn colour would stave off the chainsaw brigade who hate the falling leaves? The Cambridge gingkos are simply magnificent but as a main street specimen, I can imagine the angst of having to undertake regular tree surgery to to keep them to a reasonable shape without allowing much canopy. I just hope that some planning will take place BEFORE the alders are felled, not after. Though I think I read our new mayor declaring that they have to go so I fear that they may be removed before alternatives are lined up.

  2. Barry Marx

    We had a Gleditsia that split in three parts – one falling on the neighbour’s house. The trunk was felled by a professional arborist – now we are constantly poisoning terrible shoots with 20mm long thorns that are coming up within 8 metres of the “dead” stump.

  3. Michael Mansvelt

    Hi Abbie
    I love the article you have written and the dialogue you have created.
    It seems that any tree is going to have at least one trait that will cause excess shade, leaf drop or attract a swarm of wild dogs into town as we all know male dogs like to relieve themselves on trees.
    The alders catkins are slippery i work in town and have experienced that, however the blue stone paving is slippery when wet regardless of what debris is on it, I dont recall ever being in a city where the wet pavement wasn’t a little slippery to be fair.
    i would prefer for them to stay, but if have to be replaced agree that deciduous will always work best in a city were winter sun is valued.
    The reality is that as a city that facing a very very bright future marriage with tourism, our main street needs to look pretty,and trees are the best way to do it.
    Pyrus calleryana hybrids have been dubbed “Americas favorite street tree”. The fruitless pear is medium in size, disease free, salt tolerant, has great autumn color in warmer areas and stunning small spring blossom
    , These could be a good alternative but my fear is whatever is chosen is going to be hated by the haters!
    The truth is the without trees our city looks pretty blah, so it needs trees. Abbie for council?

    1. Abbie Jury Post author

      Thanks for your comments, Michael. Devon Street will be bleak and miserable if those trees are not replaced but I certainly don’t envy those who must make the decision. Will people be more accepting of the slipperiness of fallen petals than the alder catkins? I did a quick search on Pyrus calleryana – ‘Chanticleer’ appears to be most columnar selection (not much space for any tree to spread on Devon St) and it is certainly pretty. But you are right – any tree is going to be hated by the haters.
      Abbie for council? Nevair! I told Mark to shoot me if I ever got flattered into standing.

  4. karen evans

    Palmerston North did away with their trees lining Broadway 3 years ago for the messy leaf drop etc etc. They haven’t replanted in the ground, have a few planter boxes. It’s lacks that sense of place for me now.

  5. Renee

    How sad to look at that picture of Devon Street and mentally erase the trees. I can’t really see the point in replacing them with more trees. Any deciduous tree is going to make a slippery mess at some point in the year, whether leaves, petals, catkins, or fruit; and evergreens would create too much shade in winter in that space. The traffic island on my street has cabbage trees! They do okay, but wilt in a dry summer. It wasn’t a problem this year…

  6. Chris We bb

    What about Niksu Palms or strenlus banksii
    A very boring car park in Auckland has pouteria costata that are doing well
    Pseudopanax ferox or cordlline indivisa as left field options

  7. Diana Studer

    Is a pohut a pohutakawa?
    They flourish here. We had to remove an inherited one from our garden, as a neighbour complained – about damaging his wall and shading his lawn. Sad to see it go as it reminded me of my NZ father, but WAY too big a choice for a small suburban garden.
    Manitoka, pohutakawa, Norfolk Island pine all popular trees here.
    Growing Coprosma and enjoying the fruit, once I read that it is edible!

    1. Abbie Jury Post author

      Yes, a pohut is a pohutukawa. Too large for a narrowish main street though we have plenty two blocks over on the waterfront. I did wonder about Araucaria columnaris (the narrow, twisty relative of the Norfolk Island Pine) but I think deciduous trees are likely to be favoured. I am deeply grateful that I am not responsible for making the choice on replacements – there is a thankless task!

    1. Abbie Jury Post author

      The pohutukawa? Not unless you have a death wish. The alders may be heartily disliked. Even if one planted them by referring to them as metrosideros, the outcry of horror would be deafening. They are regarded as fair game for every poisoner, chainsaw operator and even the Taranaki Regional Council. No matter how lovely they can be and how tough they are. Sadly.

      1. Abbie Jury Post author

        Oft derided by the ignorant as weeds here, simply because of their resilience and general indestructibility. Every few months there are newspaper stories about coastal pohutukawa that residents either want removed or persons unknown have poisoned to kill. But too dense and strong growing for a narrow main street. Best right on the coast, in my opinion.

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