Tag Archives: London plane trees

The tale of a root in danger

is both complicated and very simple. And important.

I spent some time with a root yesterday, or rather a root system, looking after one particular tree. So much time, in fact, that I began to think of giving the tree a name – Hamlet, say.

But that didn’t seem quite right for this particular tree. So let’s say Gertrude, who was less brooding than her son, and quite imperious.

I work for a company that consults with the city of New York to protect trees on construction sites. But what do you do on a job anyway? people have asked.

Well. Trees don’t protect themselves. At least on construction sites. Especially in New York, which is strict about tree protection. Companies receive stiff fines if they do any damage to one, and when work is underway it is required that a professional arborist monitors all that goes on. The city compensates the contractor for hiring that expert.

When a new sidewalk is being installed, with a pedestrian ramp, and a big old London plane tree stands close by, humans must pitch in and help. We know from digging a small trench where the ped ramp will go that roots run underneath, probably far enough below the new concrete that they won’t be affected.

But how will the rest of the site look, the part that hasn’t yet been excavated? Usually the back hoe removes the fill to a dump truck to be carted away, but that will be too indelicate, too potentially damaging, for a tree growing this close. So other techniques must apply.

This site happens to be in a quiet neighborhood of Queens, ringed with red brick apartment buildings.

As an arborist or an inspector or a tree consultant, as I’m known on this site, the role calls for a good bit of hurry up and wait. Another inspector, Jeremy, who represents the Department of Design and Construction for the city, and I stand around observing as workers dig a swathe fully 34 1/2’ by 8’ by 13” deep by hand in order to protect Gertrude’s roots.

The men even use a pick axe to remove the curb, something highly unusual but necessary as the roots like to run along the curb, where water tends to flow.

There are quite a few roots. Yes, my work boots are purple.

The London plane, Platanus × acerifolia or as some in the tree world would have, the l.p., is the most common of 168 tree species in New York City, which is home to around 5.2 million trees. Roughly 15% of the total. That’s a lot of l.p.’s. (Following closely behind are the trees people continue to find noxious, the Norway maple, Callery pear, and my favorite, the honey locust.) The London plane’s origins are something of a mystery.

A cross between the American sycamore and the Oriental plane, it can be traced back to the seventeenth century when P. orientalis and P. occidentalis were hybridized. Perhaps, it has been surmised, the match took place somewhere in Spain, or perhaps in Vauxhall Gardens in London, where aristocrat John Tradescant was an avid plant collector and botanist and possibly had the bright idea, or even in Tradescant’s back yard, almost by fluke. In any case, it turned out that the l.p. had the best traits of its parents. Kind of like me.

Preternaturally tolerant of bad growing conditions – it doesn’t care about smoke or grime, cramped roots, salt or drought or pollution, growing well in soils that are acidic, alkaline, loamy, moist, sandy, well-drained, wet or clay. It transplants easily. It isn’t picky. As a result, it became a superlative street tree, both in London and in NYC. And it has the most beautiful camouflage bark.

The tree can top out at 100 feet tall, and can live a century or more. Gertrude is a relative youngster.

In some ways, actually, trees are great at protecting themselves. In the phenomenon known as compartmentalization, known to tree people as CODIT (compartmentalization of decay in trees), when a tree is wounded – say, scraped by a truck backing up in the city –  it begins to protect itself by slowing or preventing the spread of disease and decay, forming “walls” around the wounded area. The walls run in every direction, ingeniously, and help the tree survive.

Humans have a similar defense mechanism. My daughter Maud has spent some time in emergency rooms as a registered nurse. She says the same idea holds true there when you have to deal with pain and suffering. Compartmentalization. I know quite a few people now who are having a very hard time dealing with our current dire political situation. They can’t eat, can’t sleep, dream of taking up a new life in Canada or on Fiji. We might do well to emulate the trees—put aside a set amount of time each day to wring our hands and think dark thoughts.

On the site with Gertrude, a few things happen. Talk is terse. The weather.

Do you think it’s gonna snow?


Maybe rain.

Standing silently with Jeremy and with George, the contractor’s manager on the project, we scuff the fill with our work boots.

Jeremy: Okay to put down stone?

Me: Sure, just don’t cut the roots.

Jeremy: Oh, no.

Me: And lay mesh over.

Jeremy: Okay.

Stone, by the way, is another word for gravel. It goes under all sidewalks.

Everyone smokes. The aroma from George’s cigarette drifts over, and I feel like bumming a cigarette for the first time in years.

This tree is strong, I mention to the men with the shovels when they take a break. Big smiles. Then one says, Okay if we cut? He refers to a small root, under one inch, that sprawls beneath the work area, inconveniently. Okay, if you do it cleanly. Gertrude is so robust. I’m fairly certain losing this tiny root won’t hurt her.

I consider the colors of dirt.

Gertrude has a slight lean toward the street, but that probably will never present a problem. So many street trees do lean. She’s not going to fall.

The root surfacing in the fill as they dig reminds me of the whale I read about this morning that just washed up in Lido Beach on Long Island.

A humpback whale, he actually had a name, Luna. He was 40 plus years old, 41 feet long, weighed 14.5 tons, and had died after being hit by a vessel, in a typical case of stupid humans.

Plenty of time on lunch break to pay a visit to nearby H-Mart, the huge Korean chain supermarket, a good place if you need to find kimchi in bulk.

Or a festive preview of spring at a parking lot florist.

Plenty of time back at the site while on root patrol to muse about W.H. Auden, who was born on this day in 1907. Auden published around 400 poems in his lifetime, including haikus, villanelles, ballads, sonnets, and limericks. He lived for some 30 years in a Brooklyn brownstone and wrote some amazing verse. One of my favorites, As I Walked Out One Evening, contains these tremendous, terrifying stanzas.

‘O plunge your hands in water,

Plunge them in up to the wrist;

Stare, stare at the basin

And wonder what you’ve missed.

‘The glacier knocks in the cupboard,

The desert sighs in the bed,

And the crack in the tea-cup opens

A lane to the land of the dead.

We’re almost finished here. It’s beginning to rain. The bucket rests next to one of the big roots.

I say to George, I appreciate the care that you’re taking.

Auden’s poem winds up on a different note, a more hopeful one.

‘O look, look in the mirror,

O look in your distress:

Life remains a blessing

Although you cannot bless.

‘O stand, stand at the window

As the tears scald and start;

You shall love your crooked neighbor

With your crooked heart.’

It was late, late in the evening,

The lovers they were gone;

The clocks had ceased their chiming,

And the deep river ran on.

Lines about belief in the face of uncertainty. It is our belief on this site on this particular day in New York City that we are saving a tree by taking every precaution to protect her roots. Nothing is sure in this world, but that’s about as close as we come at this moment.

Wonder what Auden would make of Gertrude.

Leave a comment

Filed under Jean Zimmerman