Talking Trees with Davey Tree

Unusual + Unique Trees - Eastern U.S.

March 02, 2023 The Davey Tree Expert Company Season 3 Episode 9
Talking Trees with Davey Tree
Unusual + Unique Trees - Eastern U.S.
Show Notes Transcript

Jonathan McNeil from Arborguard Tree Specialists, a Davey company, in Atlanta talks about some unique trees he's seen planted in his area, as well as how he got his start in arboriculture and why he loves it! 

In this episode we cover:  

  • Unique trees in Atlanta (0:49)
  • Conditions for live oaks (1:36)
  • Elms in the south (3:16)
  • Other unique trees (4:07)
  • Red bud varieties (4:50)
  • Ginkgo (5:14)
  • Other unique trees (7:03)
  • Chinese fringetree (8:00)
  • Bradford pears (9:54)
  • Sourwood (11:05)
  • Sweetgum (11:59)
  • Black gum (14:42)
  • Ironwood (15:07)
  • How Jon got started in arboriculture (15:58)

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Doug Oster: Welcome to the Davey Tree Expert Company's Podcast Talking Trees. I'm your host, Doug Oster. Each week, our expert arborists, share advice on seasonal tree care, how to make your trees thrive, arborists favorite trees, and much, much more. Tune in every Thursday to learn more, because here at The Talking Trees Podcast, we know trees are the answer. Well, I'm excited to welcome Jonathan McNeil. He's a district manager for Arborguard Tree Specialist, a Davey company in Atlanta. John, today I'm so excited because we are going to be talking about unique trees, and I love to pick the brains of arborists about we always say I'm a broken record, right tree, right place. You guys are the tree experts. When you think unique trees, what is the first thing that comes to mind for you planting in Atlanta?

Jonathan McNeil: One of obviously Georgia's state tree is a live oak. There's not a lot of them in Atlanta, but throughout the coastal areas, obviously down near Savannah, things like that is their soil composition's a little better, a little sandier but they do thrive. You need to make sure when you're planting those trees that one, you're creating the right space, and making sure your soil composition is in the hardiness zone conducive to those trees.

Doug: What do the live oaks want? What is the best spot for them?

Jonathan: Sandy soils. If you think about Savannah being close to or say Jekyll Island we've done some work there. Not planting, but tree preservation with some of their key trees for that island. Making sure that they got adequate root space. Live oaks are pretty slow growing but a very hardy, dense wood. Actually, I think on the green log weight chart, it's like one of the heaviest woods per cubic foot that there is.

Doug: How big do those get?

Jonathan: They don't get real tall. They are roughly anywhere between probably 60 and 80 feet, 80 probably. If you find an 80 foot live oak, that's a pretty massive tree. Think of the Angel Oak. I think it's on St. John's Island in South Carolina. It's probably wider than it is tall. Their canopies can go the same distance, almost 50 to 60 feet. They're quite a unique tree and a lot of good branching structure typically. We don't get a lot of requests for planting live oaks a lot of times. Our planting are either like an elm tree or a maple or a dogwood, things like that.

Doug: When you're thinking unique and unusual, I know that has to fit in with the client for sure. How do elms do down there as far as Dutch Elm disease?

Jonathan: They do pretty well. We have a few American elms. A lot of the cultivars that we plant, mostly that we plant are the the Princeton Elm, which is fairly resistant to the Dutch Elms disease. We don't get a lot of-- we've had some emerald ash borer with ash trees. We don't get a lot of requests to plant those. Most everyone wants something. I want something that's going to flower and it's going to be pretty in the fall and the leaves.

Doug: What are some other cool things that you like to plant that are a little bit off the beaten path?

Jonathan: I would say we do a lot of, we get a lot of requests for ginkgos and red buds. Obviously ginkgo is a rare tree. That it's in its own genius own class. Not really related to other species as your oaks and maples and elms. They have a great fall color, red buds, obviously if it's a eastern red bud or a forestry, I can't think of the name of off the top of my nose, I’m going to lose that thought. There's two different varieties of the red buds, but which I also find interesting that has a purple flower, even though it's called a red bud.

Doug: Is it Forest Pansy, is that right?

Jonathan: Forest Pansy. Yes, that's it.

Doug: I got one. Holy cow. See, all this time of interviewing arborists, I actually learned something. Something stuck in this grade.

Jonathan: I'm glad I could help.

Doug: Is there anything else on your mind when you're thinking about that? I actually, I want to go back to the ginkgos. Is that a popular tree to plant down there because up in Pittsburgh here, we use ginkgos a lot in the city because they're so tough and then that fall color is spectacular.

Jonathan: Yes. Obviously you got to be careful with that. The female species of ginkgos produces a fruit that smells like--

Doug: Yes.

Jonathan: You know what.

Doug: Yes. Not pleasant.

Jonathan: Not a pleasant especially and so actually in Augusta in downtown Augusta, they have rows and rows of them, and they're all female trees, and of course the fruit just makes a mess and it's awful.

Doug: For the most part, when you're planting ginkgos, they're trying to give you the male. Is that right?

Jonathan: Yes.

Doug: When you go to--

Jonathan: There's really I mean hopefully, from a grower or a nursery that you're getting them from, hopefully they are giving you the selection. You're not going to know until that tree's probably mature into 15, 20 years before it starts producing fruit. There's no guarantee, obviously with that. Hopefully the nursery says, oh yes, this is a male tree, but when it's a two inch sapling or not really sapling at 2 inch, but you're trusting them that it's going to be a male species.

Doug: I guess you just cross your fingers.

Jonathan: Yes. If it starts producing fruit, you cut it down.

Doug: What else should we talk about related to things that are a little bit unusual in the landscape?

Jonathan: We do quite a bit of the Chinese fringe trees. Obviously, they have a really nice fall color, golden rain trees in mid to late summer obviously have that golden flower that comes off of them. Fringe trees, for the most part hold onto their leaves for a long time and have a pretty white flower. When you think of Georgia, obviously you think of pine trees. We don't get a lot of requests to plant pines. Then occasionally sweet bay magnolias, southern magnolias, grape tree, pretty hearty, good branching structure. Good shade.

Doug: When I think of the south, magnolias always come to mind for me, but tell me a little bit more about that fringe tree. I don't know anything about it.

Jonathan: Yes, so I'm not sure what family or genius it's in. It’s Chinese fringe. They don't get very big. When I say very big, 20 feet tall, fairly wide branching structure, good branching characteristics unlike our favorite tree, a Bradford pear. That used to be a thing for 25 years ago, everybody planted Bradford pears because they grow fast and they flower. Of course, that flower also stinks to high heaven when it blooms. Also does have a nice fall color, but I call Bradford pear 25 years a waste of time because it's going to eventually split apart and then you're going to have to cut it down.

Which is why most developers and construction companies when they're unfortunately, leveling a lot to plan in condos or whatever, a lot of times they go with maple trees or a sourwood or something like that, or Ironwood. It's like you said early on, put in the right tree in the right place. A lot of times the substitute has been maples, but if you are planting red maples, they have a very aggressive root system that are pretty shallow. If you got it right next to a sidewalk, you know you're going to be busting up sidewalks in five years because of the root system affecting that.

Doug: We sure talk a lot about Bradford pears on the show and how awful they are.

It sounds like down there, they're not planting them anymore, which is a good thing. Up here, even though we talk about it all the time, I see them being planted all the time in these situations where they clear cut the beautiful old growth forest, and then all of a sudden you just throw in these pear trees, big Bradford pears. Like you said, eventually it's a waste of time, but I guess pretty for a short time but yes, they're not a great tree.

Jonathan: Truth be known, they can be a good tree, but it takes a lot of work from the infancy of that tree to create a good branching structure so they don't blow apart. They're just notorious for including bark and the branching structure is just awful, but if you work on it and work with that tree, you can have that tree 40, 50 years instead of 25.

Doug: Yes. Well, let's talk sourwood because that's a really cool native and one that I'm growing in my little forest. It was again, introduced to me from a Davey Arborist. How often is a sourwood going in? Because I would assume that most normal homeowners, they never heard of a sourwood, but great little tree.

Jonathan: Yes. We don't get a whole lot of requests for sourwood but a lot of times, homeowners or customers will ask, "Well, give me some different options." We'll give them four or five different options or six and just take a look at them online, look at the fall color, look at the branching structure. Is it the right tree for you? Obviously, we've actually planted Sweet Gums, which I don't know why we do, but sometimes people ask for them but as long as you're not walking around barefoot, that is not a bad tree.

Doug: Let's talk a little bit about Sweet Gums because it's so funny when you bring that up, because again, if you have a sidewalk or a driveway or something, they're a pain, but I know people that love them. Again, boy, talk about right tree, right place, how would you explain those little things? They are these sharp round seed balls? Is that what I'm thinking it's called?

Jonathan: Yes, it's the fruit. We call them porcupine eggs, not a lot of people in the South know what a porcupine is, and it's kind of a northern thing. Me growing up in Pennsylvania, knew all about porcupines and all my dogs that I've had over the years know what porcupines are, and usually a trip to the vet. Yes, Sweet Gums, is a fast grower, fairly dense wood, pretty heavy wood, but it's crazy as dense as the wood is, you'd think they would hold together a little bit, but we do a lot of pruning for weight reduction on them, because when those seed balls come off and flush out, it creates a lot of weight and they get really tall. You can guarantee if you plant a Sweet Gum, it's going to be in the right spot, 120 feet tall.

They do make a chemical, it's called snipper. If you have a Sweet Gum where you can basically inoculate that tree and reduce the fruit production, and you actually can use it on any tree that produces fruit, and we occasionally get that request, is there anything I can do? I love the tree. I don't want to cut it down. How can I reduce the amount of fruit? Is a real finite timing when it's basically injected through caps, and based on the size of the tree, and you got to do it right at leaf break, or bud break of the tree. I tested it on a tree at my I house and worked pretty good. Probably reduced the fruit by 80%, but the next year I didn't do it, and it came back with a vengeance.

Doug: Whenever we mention Sweet Gum can a Black Gum grow down there?

Jonathan: Oh yes, we have them.

Doug: Tell me about the Black Gum.

Jonathan: Yes, Black Gum, it does produce nothing like a Sweet Gum fruit and it's got a little bit branching structure, little bit slower grower than the Sweet Gum but amazing, amazing fall color.

Doug: Then you mentioned Ironwood, which again, that's a tree I don't know much about. I have to assume that's a really hard wood with a name like Ironwood.

Jonathan: You would think like an Ironwood tree is this majestic, huge tree, but it's not, it's an understory tree. Similar characteristics of size, like a dogwood or a cherry, does really well in shade, and decent fall color but we don't get a lot of requests for that. A lot of times you'll find them in more wooded areas like along walking pass or something, if you have an office complex that has a walking trail or something, a lot of times they will have Ironwood there.

Doug: So tell me a little bit about how you got into this. Why is this job right for you?

Jonathan: I have a degree in natural resource management, from Georgia Southern, and was a collegiate swimmer. I was like, I'm going to go into the swimming field. Anyway, being an outdoorsy person, I was like, I need to get out of four walls and saw an ad. This is dating me in the newspaper, the one ad in the AJC, said tree climber trainee, and had a phone number and happened to be Arborguard. I called and went in, and I stopped at a payphone to call my wife and I was like, "I'm quitting my job today and I'm going to work for this tree company" [laughs] and that was it.

Doug: Well, you dated yourself with the payphone too.

Jonathan: Yes. [laughs] I responded to an ad in the newspaper and I made a phone call from the payphone. Arborguard, I've been here 23 years, and the only place I've done tree work, and every day is a new and exciting day. Trees are a lot like people, they need a lot of care, they need a lot of attention and just every day's a new day and every day's a good day to be outside in trees and like Alex Chagos says, touching them.

Doug: Well, I'm going to leave it right there, Jonathan. That is great stuff. Thanks for sharing all those really interesting trees. I have to look up that Ironwood, I'm interested in that and I'm sure we'll talk again. Thanks so much for the great information.

Jonathan: You're welcome. It was a pleasure to be here.

Doug: One of the things that's so much fun about hosting the show for me is discovering a new tree. That Ironwood might be perfect for my oak forest, we'll see. Now, tune in every Thursday to the Talking Trees Podcast from the Davey Tree Expert Company. I'm your host, Doug Oster and do me a favor, please subscribe to the podcast so you'll never miss an episode. We're getting lots of great ideas and feedback through email. Send me a message to That's and as always, we'd like to remind you on the Talking Trees Podcast, trees are the answer.

[00:18:43] [END OF AUDIO]