The 275-year-old copper beech tree where Abraham Lincoln used to sit to read, relax and play with his son recently died and is being cut down. Tulip trees that George Washington planted at Mount Vernon are in trouble and might have to be taken down soon. Efforts are underway to clone and grow a new generation of them. The champion white "Wye" oak in Wye Mills State Park on Maryland's Eastern Shore, listed in the National Register of Big Trees, is declining. The oak, which covers a quarter acre, is the only single tree to officially be declared a state park. Acorns have been gathered from it to grow offspring.
Hearing about the problems facing these esteemed members of our community brings to mind a question people have asked me for years: Should I cut down a large, healthy, mature tree on my property?
Some homeowners feel guilty cutting a venerable plant; others fear its size and insist on removal to reduce the risk of it falling on them. I have mixed emotions.
One way to answer this is by asking other questions:
* Is it causing structural damage? Tree roots can grow to the surface and change the drainage pattern across a property. In some cases, they can block water and keep it from running away from a house or yard. Silver maples are notorious for this, and it's virtually impossible to correct the problem without cutting through masses of roots, injuring the tree. The weakened limbs have the potential to damage property and harm people below. Removal might be in order.
A tree planted too close to a house can lift a walk, rot the eaves and drop juicy berries that are then tracked through the house. Weigh the damage or inconvenience a tree can cause with the value of having it there, and think about ways you can alleviate the problem with the least damage to the tree.
* Is it making the property difficult to use? If a tree robs you of the ability to do what you would like to on your property, then removing it might be the answer. But first, try to include it in your plans. The trunk can be incorporated into a deck or patio design. The effect of making an opening in a deck for the tree to grow through is quite pleasing. Around the roots of trees, a patio can be laid on stone dust instead of concrete. This will ensure the health of the tree and give you the entertainment or recreation area you might have wanted, with the added benefit of a shade tree.
You can include your tall woody plant in other ways. It can offer a lot of benefits as the canopy of your garden. Hang a swing or bird house; attach landscape lighting to shine onto a patio or yard, giving the appearance of moonlight; or create other aesthetically pleasing reasons to leave mature trees as part of your landscape design.
* Can tree removal help the space? If healthier and more desirable species will be planted in place of the one that was removed, it can be good for the environment.
In a natural woodland setting, removing certain trees can help the ecosystem. For example, the removal of leggy, weak pines will make space for the more desirable native hardwoods. Several trees that are more desirable than pines in our woodland are hickories, oaks, red maples, chestnuts (resistant species), elms (resistant species), walnuts, hollies, dogwoods, redbuds, serviceberries and sweet bay magnolias.
A shade tree that could be removed is Norway maple. Its seeds fall onto the forest floor and dominate. Then the slower-maturing, more desirable species listed above can't get a foothold.
With that said, if a cultivated Norway maple is planted on your property and is doing well, don't cut it down. Clients of mine have several of the most gorgeous Norway maples that I have ever seen and cutting them would be a travesty.
* Is it economically feasible? Get a price for removal from a tree company, and you might decide that the tree has earned the right to stay.
* Are you emotionally attached? Emotional attachment can override judging a tree simply for its ornamental value. A case in point is a blue spruce growing in an 88-year-old client's yard. His neighbor wanted it cut down because he considered it an eyesore. It had spruce gall and mites and was losing needles faster than growing new ones. I agreed with the neighbor until the client told me that he planted the tree upon the birth of his grandson and the boy had just graduated from law school.
In this situation, even though the tree had been stressed in that spot for more than a quarter of a century, it deserved to stay for as long as it lived because of the deeper meaning it had.
An organization dedicated to saving big old trees is American Forests. You might find its National Register of Big Trees interesting. Perhaps you have a champion on your property.
They also run a program in which you can acquire seedlings and cuttings from historic trees. We own a crape myrtle that has grown into a beautiful tree in 10 years. It came from one that President James Madison grew at his home in Virginia.
You can own a honeylocust that was taken from a tree that witnessed Lincoln's Gettysburg address and is still alive. There is a Hippocratic Oath Sycamore that came from the tree on the Greek Isle of Kos at the legendary site of the world's earliest medical lessons. Saints Peter and Paul are said to have stood in the shade of this same sycamore. There are apple trees taken from one of those planted by Johnny Appleseed, selections from Elvis Presley's home and many more.
Get the Famous & Historic Tree Nursery catalogue by going to www.historictrees.org. The group offers lots of other information on preserving trees at 800-320-TREE or www.americanforests.org. It can also help you with other ways to contribute to preserving big trees.
When it is time to cut a tree, have it taken down by a company that is insured and can supply you with references from satisfied clients. Find one in the Yellow Pages, listed under "Tree Service." The top credential for a "climber" who cuts down large trees is certified arborist. Contact the National Arborist Association at www.natlarb.com for more information on this or any other subject relating to the care of trees.
When the tree is cut, if it is far enough away from the house, leave the trunk to stand as a pillar about eight feet tall. Plant the stump with vines and birds will thank you. You can also have the trunk carved into a sculpture or a garden bench, and it can decay gracefully.
You are not always allowed to decide yourself whether to cut a tree on your property. Some communities have codes, codicils, laws or other controls on what trees are permitted to be cut. You might be required to get a permit to cut on your property. Always check with your local jurisdiction before cutting down any trees.
Joel M. Lerner is president of Environmental Design in Capitol View Park, Md. His e-mail address is firstname.lastname@example.org; his Web page is www.gardenlerner.com