What can we learn from the Broadway honeylocusts?

Andy White Guest columnist

The 10 thornless honeylocust trees on Broadway Avenue in downtown Black Mountain were the subjects of much discussion during my term on the Urban Forestry Commission.

Six of these trees are located on the east side of the street in front of Black Mountain Glass & Mirror, and the other four are located on the west side of the street in front of Dobra Tea. All of them were planted within the last 30 years. To the best of my knowledge, they represent the largest, existing, deliberately planted, street sidewalk trees in downtown Black Mountain.

There is no shortage of opinions about these trees. Opinions run the spectrum between saving them at all costs to cutting them down. I too have an opinion about these trees, and I will share it with you at the end of this commentary. But, first, here are some facts and history about the trees.

The two trees directly in front of Black Mountain Glass & Mirror were planted in the late 1980s or early 1990s by Ken Hoover, who was the owner of The Art Annex, which occupied this building at the time. Ken bought these trees from my company, Wayside Nursery.

As I recall, Ken spent considerable effort convincing the authorities in town to allow him to plant the trees. Ultimately, he was given permission, but he was only allowed to cut a small hole in the sidewalk to do so. The trees have grown, but the holes in the concrete have essentially remained the same size. This represents problem number one with regard to the trees.

Some years after these original two trees were planted, four more trees were installed near them on the same side of the street. You can readily see the size difference between the first and second plantings of these trees. Like the first two, these trees were also planted in small cutouts in the concrete sidewalk.

Around this time, four more trees were planted on the west side of the street. Again, these trees were planted in small cutouts in the concrete. Also, they are located beneath a high voltage transmission line. This represents problem number two with regard to these trees.

Since planting, all the trees have grown - this is what trees do! Over time they have grown into the street , buildings, power lines, sidewalks, curbs, etc. Until now, crises and complaints have mostly determined when these trees were periodically cut back from these obstacles. This represents problem number three.

All of the above-mentioned problems associated with these trees can be resolved in a satisfactory manner without cutting them down and replacing them with something else. The problems associated with these trees reflect a lack of proper design, planning, installation and maintenance that existed 30 years ago and continues to the present. Arboricultural industry standards and guidelines exist for urban street tree plantings and should be followed moving forward. We are, after all, a designated “Tree City USA” and should do our best to live up to this designation.

One only has to take a stroll through the streets of downtown Asheville or any other progressive city to realize that the right kind of tree planted correctly in a suitable location and properly maintained on a regular basis is a tremendous asset to the urban environment. On the other hand, a poorly chosen tree that is installed incorrectly in an unsuitable location and improperly maintained is a costly liability. A good urban tree will provide benefits to many generations of people, but only if thought and care are used to select, plant, and maintain it.

So, what can we learn from these ten trees about our town and ourselves?

•Early and regular preventative maintenance is better than haphazard, crisis-driven maintenance.

•It is wise to rely on properly accredited professionals when you lack in-house expertise; no one is expert in all things.

•Never underestimate the power of Mother Nature or overestimate your own capabilities (case in point: the heaved concrete at the base of these trees).

•Never plant another tree until you have thought things through and have a good, sustainable, maintenance plan in place.

•Focus on longevity instead of immediacy, and the whole package rather than a single characteristic.

•Everyone has an opinion, but some opinions carry more weight than others.

The urban environment is a tough place for trees to grow and get established. My educated guess is that less than half of all trees planted in a city ever survive 30 years. The 10 honeylocust trees on Broadway Avenue have survived longer than most street trees and are now well-established.

Yes, they have some health problems due primarily to neglect and improper care, and they present some utility maintenance problems. But these issues can be satisfactorily resolved or addressed.

It is for this reason that I think any notions to remove and replace these trees any time in the near future should be abandoned. Instead, the problems associated with them should be resolved, and future planting efforts should be focused in areas of the town where more trees are needed.

The primary reason for this commentary is my increasing concern that the fate of these trees is in the hands of a few of the town’s well-intentioned and influential people who might be misguided in thinking the problems associated with these trees outweigh their benefits. It is important to realize that it takes generations to grow a tree but only minutes to cut it down.

It would be a shame to drive home one day and discover that these trees were cut down contrary to the will of the majority of the citizens. These trees still have many seasons of benefits to offer Black Mountain before it is time to replace them.

Despite all of their problems, these trees continue to grow and have almost formed a canopy (archway) over the road, which, if encouraged, could one day be a nice, living, gateway-like, entrance into the main part of downtown.

If you have an opinion about these or any other trees in town, contact a member of the Black Mountain Urban Forestry Commission and let your voice be heard.

Black Mountain resident Andy White is a registered consulting arborist, a certified landscape designer and a former member of the town Urban Forestry Commission.