A new kind of street tree grows in Newton
NEWTON — At 37, Vanessa Spilios can remember when the city’s many big trees would become green again each spring, including an old maple in the corner of her family’s yard in West Newton.
The Garden City has long celebrated the trees lining its streets and standing sentry in its parks. Photographs taken near the turn of the last century and kept by Historic Newton show broad, leafy canopies shading roadways such as Lincoln Street in Newton Highlands.
But out walking that same street this month, Spilios said she’s noticed many of Newton’s trees are either dying or have died in recent years. Even the big maple at her family’s home.
In some cases, she said, they look like “haunted house trees,” looming over neighborhoods with bare branches reaching into the sky.
Since the 1970s, nearly half of the city’s 40,000 street trees have died off, largely the result of age and lack of care, according to officials. Now the city has a program to plant new trees — with the goal of bringing the total back to 30,000 to 35,000 over the next 15 years.
But because of the changing climate — combined with concerns over invasive species, disease, and the problems of pollution and salt — the city is planting more than 20 varieties of trees that will transform the streetscape once they mature. Instead of the Norway maples that are now commonplace, one might find linden, cherry, red oak, and crabapple trees.
Spilios applauded when told about the tree-planting program on her recent walk.
“It’s one of the things that makes Newton beautiful,” she said. “Planting more will preserve them for future generations.”
The city’s planting strategy is designed to ensure the new trees will enrich the community and thrive in harsher conditions, said Newton Mayor Setti Warren.
“It’s good for the environment, great for our neighborhoods, and we wanted to plant trees that were adapted to the severe climate we were in,” Warren said.
The Northeast has already seen a rise in temperature of roughly 2 degrees over the past 100 years, according to the federal National Climate Assessment released in 2014.
Along with rising sea levels and increased precipitation, the region is expected to experience more frequent, longer, and hotter heat waves, leading to increased drought risk.
A study released in March by the Woods Hole Research Center predicted that 40 tree species in the eastern United States will not be able to adapt to warming temperatures, including some varieties of birch, maple, fir, and cherry.
Researchers reviewed conditions at national parks and recreational areas in Pennsylvania, New Jersey, Tennessee, and Virginia. While park rangers can fight invasive species and pests, researchers said the underlying causes of climate change need to be addressed.
“We need to cut our fossil fuel emissions and stop warming. There’s no getting around that,” said Woods Hole scientist Brendan Rogers in a statement.
The future of Newton’s urban canopy is being shaped in part nearly 500 miles to the west, at Schichtel’s Nursery in Springville, N.Y. It’s where the city gets many of its trees, and growers there worry that the heat will bring drought, threatening trees like sugar maples, said James Kisker, the nursery’s sales manager.
Kisker said the nursery provides trees for more than 150 American cities, including Milwaukee and Minneapolis, and closer to home, Boston, Lexington, Arlington, and Cambridge.
He compared climate change’s predicted impact on some trees to the harm caused by Dutch elm disease to the American elm decades ago.
“We’ve seen this pattern before,” he said.
The nursery has been encouraging city foresters to plant several varieties of trees that can handle drought and pollution, Kisker said. And they should be diverse enough to prevent insects and disease from decimating a community’s trees.
Marc Welch, director of the city’s urban forestry division, said the city’s tree program, which began plantings in 2015, is expected to add a total of 1,100 new trees by the end of 2017.
In addition to beautifying public spaces, he said, they offer shade, clean the air, and reduce stormwater runoff.
Specimens are chosen from among 20 to 30 different varieties, depending on the location. Where trees could bump into power lines, crabapple or cherry are being planted. Taller types — oak, for example — are being added where height won’t be an issue, he said.
“They are one of the few public assets, as they grow, they appreciate in value,” Welch said.
Newton’s trees have been threatened before. The trees dying now are largely the Norway maples planted decades ago to replace the elms killed off by Dutch elm disease, said Nathan Cenis, who is with the volunteer group Newton Tree Conservancy.
“Unfortunately that tree grows very quickly and then it starts falling apart after about 50 years,” Cenis said.
The Conservancy, founded in 2008, works with Newton’s urban forestry division to organize efforts to plant trees in local neighborhoods. Part of that effort is to encourage Newton residents to help water and maintain young trees, he said.
“They do need our help to grow and to thrive,” said Cenis.
Julia Malakie, the group’s president, uses a Twitter account to keep track of city trees that appear to be dead or dying. She said the city is still recovering from a 25-year period where it took down more trees than it planted.
“We’re benefiting now from the trees that got planted 30, 40 years ago,” said Malakie. “We’ve got to keep that up so people will have trees 40 years from now.”
An early 1900s postcard, courtesy of Historic Newton, shows a canopy of trees on Lincoln Street in Newton Highlands. A recent photo by John Hilliard shows just a few trees lining the street today.
Correction: Due to incorrect information provided to the Globe, the wrong species of tree was listed as the target of the Asian longhorned beetle.