Heavy snow topples many trees in D.C. area

By Adrian Higgins
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, February 10, 2010

They call Washington the city of trees, but the beloved canopy has recently taken a beating.

Across the region, residents emerging from one storm into the maw of another have discovered landscapes where evergreens and shade trees alike have toppled, dropped major branches or simply snapped in half.

Many trees that are undamaged but bent are at their load limits and could succumb to the second storm that rolled into the region Tuesday night, said John Anna, owner of Adirondack Tree Experts in Beltsville. "The trees that are in a weakened state and with some serious winds and heavy snow, well, we are going to see even more widespread damage," he said.

Anna was speaking from the Beltsville home of Kevin Enoch, whose prized 70-year-old swamp maple was an early victim of the storm. "I happened to be standing underneath it Friday night and I heard a loud pop. I high-tailed it out of there," Enoch said.

Two hours later, the maple snapped at the base of the trunk and toppled into a neighbor's yard.

Trees in sylvan Great Falls were damaged but so, too, were their counterparts deep in the city.

Near the White House, Lafayette Square looked like a war zone. An old Southern magnolia next to the equestrian statue of Andrew Jackson was shredded, and large boughs had broken from shade trees on the east and west sides of the park in front of the White House. Several of the deciduous magnolias set to bloom at the end of next month were in shards. The old and historic trees around the White House itself looked intact, though large limbs were cut and stacked neatly at the southern perimeter fence, near the Ellipse.

Trees bordering the Old Executive Office Building showed lots of splintered limbs, especially three large Southern magnolias on the north side next to Pennsylvania Avenue.

In Baltimore, the casualties included an old weeping cherry tree given to Union Memorial Hospital by a grateful patient, the gangster Al Capone, in 1939. "He was fresh out of Alcatraz when he came here and gifted us two trees," spokeswoman Debra Schindler said. One was lost to an addition in 1955. The survivor lost a major limb on Saturday. "It was very disheartening," she said.

Unlike summer hurricanes or tornadoes, which can devastate trees locally, the blizzard caused widespread damage because the snow was wet as well as plentiful, and came during high winds.

Trees that pose an immediate danger or obstruction to homes need the attention of pros, arborists say, but most of the cleanup can be left until later. Broken branches can be cleanly removed then, though the result may be a loss of desired symmetry. Azaleas, boxwood, yews and other shrubs buried or bent by snow should be left until after the thaw.

"If you start beating them free of snow, you'll do more harm than good," said Kevin Carr, of Bartlett Tree Experts, because you risk breaking branches.

At his 2 1/2 -acre wooded lot at his office near Dulles Airport, arborist Jeremy Baker said he lost about 30 mature trees. "I would call it widespread and severe," he said, "but not catastrophic."

Evergreens, in particular, have suffered, as their foliage trapped the snow. Baker, district manager for the Care of Trees, a commercial tree firm, lists Southern magnolias, white pines, cedars, spruces and hemlocks as the most commonly damaged trees. Then there is the Leyland cypress. The popular but fast-growing, top-heavy conifer has a small root zone in relation to its foliage. With the soil already saturated before the two recent storms, the conditions were in place for them to topple in droves. "In my neighborhood," Baker said, "I have seen quite a few completely uprooted and others that look like a bomb went off in the center of them."

Deciduous trees were also in the storm's crosshairs. In the Inlet Cluster neighborhood of Reston, crews were cutting up a large Bradford pear that had fallen intact near Myra Niemeier's townhouse. "It just pulled the entire root ball out," she said. White pines dropped branches in the woods near her house, and brought down lower branches in their path.

In Takoma Park on Tuesday, Jacqueline Moore and her husband, Michael Blau, summoned the city's arborist to see what could be done about an old 70-foot conifer that had begun to lean perilously above the couple's car. The tree was deemed a goner, Moore said, and they quickly backed the car out of its way, and then braced the tree with a plank. A sailing friend brought over nautical line to tether the trunk to a maple to try to stop it from taking down a power line when it goes. "It's already dancing inside the power lines," she said.

Residents should seek expert help for trees that are still threatening power lines or structures, and they should stay out of parts of a home that are at risk, arborists said. But other damage can be left for later, and homeowners who receive unsolicited help from landscapers plying for trade run the risk of getting ripped off or worse, certified arborists say.

Said Anna: "In a lot of cases it's not important to act right away, and you have these folks driving around with no licenses, no insurance, and they are gouging people."

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