Attic Salt for April 15, 2012

Water oaks live for 40, die for 40

BY ED CULLEN

Advocate staff writer

The water oak stood in the corner of the yard the day we bought our house almost 40 years ago.

We had the tree removed the other afternoon.

I got home from work to find a stump the size and shape of a kitchen table.

The water oak, Quercas nigra, is the most reviled (and feared) tree in Baton Rouge.

“Lives for 40, dies for 40,” people say of water oaks.

They mean that after 40 years of healthy life, the tree drops limbs for the next 40 years until it comes crashing down in a storm.

This Quercas nigra in the corner of the yard, majestic and scary at 70 feet tall with a girth I couldn’t get my arms around, needed to go.

The tree company, a good one, had the tree down and carted off in a day. A clean-cut, moist, sweet-smelling stump is all that’s left.

The tree that shaded my children at play, anchored one end of a radio antenna and gave me a cool place to read on a summer’s day is gone. Forty years is a long time. I haven’t known many people that long.

I hate to cut down a tree, even one that troubled my dreams and added a thrill of fear and dread to hurricanes and lightning storms.

When the sounds of a storm woke me at 2:30 the other morning, an old reaction had me on the verge of rolling out of bed. Then, I remembered the water oak was gone. I pulled the covers up to listen to the rain on the roof.

When we buy houses in old parts of town, the land is likely to have too many trees or the wrong kind of trees for our stormy city.

Water oaks were free and plentiful, they grew in nearby woods, when neighborhoods were being developed in the 1930s.

By planting water oaks, developers laid time bombs all over Baton Rouge. For years, the trees provided shade. Their tall, columnar trunks and broad canopy made us reluctant to cut them down.

LSU forester Hallie Dozier talks about the “chain saw backlash” that happens after every big storm. People are scared. In their fear, they hire tree cutters to take down all the trees in their yards, including live oaks.

Live oaks are one of the best storm trees to have in your yard. Good tree services try to talk homeowners out of cutting down healthy live oaks.

There are trees we like that arborists don’t because the trees don’t do well in high wind, trees like southern red oak, water oak, pecan, tulip poplar, Bradford pear, tallow, Chinese elm, southern red cedar, Leyland cypress, spruce pine.

Better in high winds are southern magnolia, live oak, cypress, sweet gum, dogwood, hollies, palms, sweetgum, Shumard oak, Japanese yew, American and yaupon holly.

Sometimes, we select trees for no other reason than we like the way they look.

Do a little research. How tall will a tree get? Plant it so that no matter how tall it gets it won’t fall on your house or a neighbor’s.

Plant your next tree in a place that won’t trouble your dreams.

Editor’s note: This column was changed on Monday, April 16, 2012 to correct the spelling of Hallie Dozier’s first name.