Talking Trees with Davey Tree

Unusual + Unique Trees - Western U.S.

March 09, 2023 The Davey Tree Expert Company Season 3 Episode 10
Talking Trees with Davey Tree
Unusual + Unique Trees - Western U.S.
Show Notes Transcript

Michael Sundberg from Davey's Southeast Denver office shares his favorite unique trees from the western half of the U.S., including some of his favorites in Hawaii! 

In this episode we cover:  

  • Natives in Colorado (0:51)
  • Aspen (1:29)
  • Hawaiian trees (3:14) (16:07)
  • Winter in Colorado (4:55)
  • Sequoias and redwoods (6:09)
  • Dawn redwood in Colorado (7:04)
  • Bristlecone pine (7:27)
  • Planting conifers vs deciduous? (8:38)
  • Are clients typically open to unique trees? (9:53)
  • Top three trees for Colorado's wacky weather (11:37)
  • Catalpa (12:49)
  • Kentucky coffeetree (13:14)
  • Nostalgia with trees (14:25)
  • Planting season in Colorado (17:17)
  • Late snow in Colorado (17:54)

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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.

I'm joined again this week by Michael Sundberg, he's a district manager for the Davey Tree Expert Company in Southeast Denver. Today, we're talking all about unique and wonderful trees for the western part of the country. How are you doing, Michael?

Michael Sundberg: I'm doing well. Thanks for having me back.

Doug: All right. This is what I remember from our last talk is there aren't a lot of native species that you work with, do I have that right?

Michael: Yes. For Colorado, we've got some of our trees up in the mountains, but when you get down into the plains or in Denver, we don't have a lot of trees that just naturally belong here. It's a lot of high prairie grassland area, desert area, so only where you have good water sources, you'll have trees exist in a native sense. We don't have a lot to write home about in Colorado on interesting trees. We've got a few, but it definitely gets more interesting the further West you go.

Doug: Stereotypical Easterner, I'm thinking like aspen trees or something like that, or am I off base there?

Michael: Yes. We definitely love our aspens out here. They're a real fun species because they send out underground roots to pop up new trees with, so you'll end up having these large organisms that it's all the same tree really with aspen. That's a fun thing about them, and then obviously really nice white bark, great fall color, like deep vivid yellows and oranges, and then the leaves tremor in the wind because the way that the little petal is shaped that attaches the leaf to the stem, it's flat and so it catches the wind and batters back around, and that's where you get those dancing leaves which is pretty.

Doug: Explain to me the roots, you were saying that it's like they're all connected somehow, is that right or?

Michael: Yes. They'll start with a parent plant and then they'll send out underground runners that'll then sprout up new aspen trees.

Doug: They're basically clones, right? They're coming from the same root system, right?

Michael: Yes. Exactly. It always seems like when people have an aspen in their property and it sends up new aspen trees, those do really well, but if you try to just plant an aspen tree from the nursery, it's always a challenge because it's not their normal way to reproduce.

Doug: Isn't that just like Mother Nature out in the wild? Those aspens are making more trees every year and then when we try and plant them, we have got a baby them along, huh?

Michael: Exactly. Yes. It's that irony factor that people get frustrated by because they'll lose an aspen or something and if they didn't have any shoots growing up, they want to replant and then it's a struggle, but people that have an aspen sometimes can't get rid of all the shoots and then their jar gets full of them and they can't get rid of them.

Doug: Let's talk about some unique trees for out that way. As far West as you want to go, what's the first one on your list?

Michael: If we can go as far West as Hawaii, I definitely have some fun ones.

Doug: That sounds fun to me.

Michael: Yes. Especially on a dreary day like today, I could use a Hawaiian day instead of this cold weather. We're still getting in winter for Colorado, but there's these cook island pines that they have out there and they've got them planted further past Hawaii as far as you can grow them in California. They originate from further southwest of that region and the Pacific Ocean, but they're a fun tree because they've been known to lean towards the equator.

If you're in the northern hemisphere, they lean south. If you're in the southern hemisphere, they lean north and they've even said they'll lean harder if they're further away. It could just be them chasing some winter sunlight, but a lot of trees will self-correct a lean and try to be more symmetrical just with how they grow up. There might be something in the genetics of those cook island pines that causes them to lean if they can find more sun and just really go that direction which is fun.

They look really cool, really tall straight trunk except for the direction it'll be leaning and then just branches coming off of them very like Christmas tree-like, but tall and narrow, so those are really cool if you're ever out and about. They really stick out in the landscape because they get quite tall too.

Doug: Does it need to be a tropical climate or how--?

Michael: Yes. We would never ever be able to have them out here with how cold we get, but places like California, Hawaii, they can be cultivated and grown in and they do quite well.

Doug: I want to go off-topic for one second because we started talking weather. When does winter over for you there?

Michael: Usually, I would say now, except we've had a very cold extended winter, what the groundhog was saying is pretty much what we've been dealing with. March is often our snowiest month, but you get a lot of warm days and we've got, I think the 14th coldest winter on record this year, so very unusual because we've had a lot of previous winters in the past 10 years that were just warm and dry, unusually dry. This year we've had snow every week and the snow has stuck around a lot longer than I'm used to, so it's freaking me out.

Doug: Here in the East, we have barely had a winter, so I'm not complaining, but it's weird.

Michael: I'm happy to ship our winter back to you anytime because we're used to having lots of sunshine and dry weather by now. The occasional dumping of wet, heavy snow and that's what ends up breaking a lot of our trees unfortunately, but we're eager to move on from winter now.

Doug: Even we are too, even though the winter's mild, you're always eager to move on. Over here the daffodils are blooming and so now there's no turning back. It'll get cold again, but there's no turning back. Back at the task at hand, what else are you thinking when you're thinking of something cool, different, unique that'll grow out that way?

Michael: I'd say, when you look at some of the things you'd find out West in California, you've got your giant sequoias and coastal redwoods that would be a big draw. Even for tourism reasons, you would actually go out of your way for a long drive to make sure you can see some of the cool trees they have there. They've got the tallest tree, I think it's called hyperion, and then they've got the largest tree by volume with General Sherman.

Those just blow my mind because they stick up above the rest of the trees around them by twofold or threefold. They're just amazingly large and loving the weather that they're sitting in, really good growing conditions for them, but unfortunately, we can't pull those off in Colorado, so I'd have to head to California to get into there and a bucket list for me as an arborist to check out those chart toppers.

Doug: Now in your climate, can you grow metasequoia, the dawn redwood?

Michael: There's a couple in Denver. Yes. There's just a couple. Some people that have had really good green thumbs and have gotten their hands on them, it's one of those that's it's physically possible but generally very, very, very impractical from an arborist standpoint.

Doug: What else is on your list?

Michael: For me, one of my personal favorites is bristle cone pines which we do have here in Colorado, and they extend further West than that, but they're really slow-growing tree that are known for having their needles line the branches, hence the name bristle cone, and they're really pretty dark green. You get little sap flex that'll be in the needle, so they look like they're dusted in snow a little bit if you get up close. They're also the same species that you would see the oldest tree in the world, so they're in it for the long haul which is really neat.

However, they don't look very impressive when they get that old. I don't think they age very well. They have a few sprigs left that can make them count being alive, but in the landscape here, they're a nice thing for people to plant if they're planning on being in their property for a while because it's just a great slow-growing pine. That's one of my personal favorites on this side of the country.

Doug: Is it easy to grow?

Michael: I would say so, yes. It's tough, it deals with the harsh weather. We have the dryness, it's a very hearty tree once you get it established, so yes, it's a good one for sure.

Doug: Is planting a pine any different than planting any other type of tree, or we use the same basic formula for planting a pine that we would for most other trees?

Michael: I'd use the same planting style, all the same things. Yes.

Doug: Does a pine like that have the shallow roots of the pines that we have here in the East? That's the one thing that they're known for here, shallow roots. People always ask me, what can I grow under a pine and I say a bench.

Michael: Yes. At least in Colorado, our soils are so crummy that just about all of our trees are pretty much shallow-rooted here because we've got really tough clays, so there's not a lot of water and oxygen deep down for roots to be past the point of being shallow, and so a lot of them are just hanging out in that top foot without having any kind of a taproot that people picture. It's all horizontal from the trunk going straight across the yard or whatever.

We deal with a little bit of challenges with that mixture of shallow rooting with our soils and then winds on a spruce tree because they catch so much wind being so thick, so that's where you can get into some trouble here is tree failure from wind because of that. Yes. They're all shallow rooted for us, that's what we're used to here.

Doug: As an arborist, you know all the trees and what they'll do there when you're talking to clients, how many of them are open to something unique and unusual to listen to you and say, "You know what? If you really wanted something that really stands out," how does that go when you're talking to the clients?

Michael: I think a lot of them are open-minded to that because we have a pretty slim list of trees that do well with our wacky weather in Colorado. Then you throw in invasive pests over the years that have wiped stuff out or made stuff not a good idea to plant, you're left with a few species you can count on one hand that most houses have. If anybody that wants to diversify at all, you can throw them some of those species that are the other 10% of trees that aren't everywhere and they'll be interested to dive into that list.

You usually sacrifice some of the features that people are looking for. It's like they want really good fall color, they want really pretty flowers, all these things that no one tree does well with our weather. You have to take one of those or two of those off the table to have a tree that might do better with the weather and be different from their neighbor's trees and do really well actually.

Doug: Man, that sounds like a challenge, my friend. [laughs]

Michael: Yes. [laughs] It's tough recommending planting for people to say here's what works well here. They're not the prettiest trees, but they're hardy or you can go with the run-of-the-mill five or six species that your neighbors have. It gets a little boring in town but that's what's fun about getting out and traveling, is you get to drool over the other trees other states can have.

Doug: Even though we're talking unique and unusual trees, what would the three main trees be? We always say right tree, right place. That goes without saying, but for your area, what would be some of those basic trees that you would want that could stand the wacky weather that you have?

Michael: I think three trees I would like to see planted more of that seem to do well but are still gaining traction with people would be Kentucky coffee trees, catalpas, and I would probably say I could use more hackberries out here. They're almost a wheat in other places, but they're impressive when they get big and they really tolerate our weather well. None of those three are really flashy and have super fall color.

You get some really pretty flowers with the catalpa flowers, but then people hate those long pods. It's always those trade-offs that you look for to see how willing somebody is to try something new. I don't know. Those are some of the ones I think we should plant more of. Otherwise, we're drowning in Autumn Blaze maples, honey locusts, and Chanticleer Pears and pines and spruce. That's pretty much most yards out here.

Doug: I think you and I talked about catalpa once before and whenever it comes up on the podcast, that's a tree I grew up with. That was right in our backyard and yes, my dad hated the seed pods, but that was a really cool tree. Before they drop, they're the coolest-looking thing to me. Like a giant bean I guess would be a way I'd explain it.

Michael: Oh yes.

Doug: Then I only know a little bit about Kentucky coffee tree, but I know that those that love it, they just love it. They just think it's the most awesome tree. Like you said, it's not the showiest tree in the world, but talk a little bit about it. Why do you like it?

Michael: For us, the hardiness comes first because it can actually survive our weather. That's the first barrier of entry. They've got a really cool pattern with how the leaves go off of each branch so it's unique how its leaves are arranged. They're very unimpressive when they're brand new because they just look like a stick in the ground. It doesn't tell they're more of a teenager that they do more branching and it looks like a tree in the winter.

After you get over that initial hump of it looking pretty, stick-like, once they bloom, they put out lots of good leaves and a funky arrangement. They do have pod list varieties, which makes a lot of people happy and up to try it because then you don't have all those pods to rake up. That's getting a lot of people excited because there's a few of those cultivars now. The toughness is the big thing for us that it can survive our weather and our dryness and be happy living here.

Doug: It's funny the connection that so many homeowners have with their trees. In my case, it's the catalpa. I can remember actually sitting under a honey locust. Now, I consider a honey locust a weed. I don't want it. I'd love to have a catalpa. Do you get much of that when you talk to your clients? You get much of that nostalgic because I'm just a nostalgic person. I don't have trees, whatever, [laughs] but I think of that catalpa a lot.

Michael: Yes, we've got lots of people that'll move here because it's a state that a lot of people will come here to seek the sunshine and the mountains and everything. They're showing up and buying a house and saying, "Oh, I would love for this or that species if you can get one." I'm like, "Oh no. No way." Sometimes it's just stuff that can't happen here. A lot of people will come here from California and it's like, "Yes, you can be hot and dry in California and we're hot and dry here, but our winters are too unusual compared to the trees you'd be looking for that you want to plant here so no, we can't really get our hands on eucalyptus for you. It's not going to work out very well."

Then other times we've got a lot of trees from the east side of the country where those trees are good with our winter and if we can get them enough water, they can be happy to be in Colorado. You look at some of the oaks that are really prolific out there. We're getting a lot more sugar maples out here now planting trees for Eastern US. They've been doing well here because they're used to winter and then that brings that nostalgia. If somebody came from Vermont and is like, "We had a sugar maple in our front yard," it's like, "We can get you a sugar maple," and it actually will work quite well.

Doug: Was there anything else on your list of unique and weird and fun trees?

Michael: Yes. I would say another one to pull from Hawaii would be they've got some banyan trees out there, but one of them in the town of Lahaina on Maui is in this little courtyard area and the tree has about a 2-acre spread of its canopy.

Doug: Wow.

Michael: It's really cool coming off of one trunk branches up and horizontal and then they send down vertical aerial roots that'll drop down and eventually anchor to the ground to hold up the tree so it can keep spreading sideways. It's a really fascinating tree because it's just an enormous coverage that it gets you laterally. It's not that tall but really, really wide, full of birds, and it's right in this courtyard there. Sometimes you'll be on a hike out there and run into one in the wild too, which is really neat. The trunks are like 10 feet wide and then they branch off and send down these other trunks all over the place like arms propping themselves up. That's a really cool tree if you can go check one out.

Doug: When do you start planting or have you guys started planting already?

Michael: Well, we're eager to start planting because then we'd feel more like spring, but probably more realistically, April and May is going to be our big spring planting season. A lot of the nurseries will start getting their trees in at the end of the month. Soil here, it's cold but it's not permafrost. You could still dig a hole right now. It's more availability and maybe not having such weather swings as you get a brand new tree put into the ground at someone's house that you're trying to avoid as we might go from a 60-degree to a 0-degree swing in a hurry.

Doug: One of the things that I always see on the news out here looking from the east are these late snows that you get. When is the latest snow usually? It's always a big news event out here because we're chuckling. Usually, our winter is so much tougher than yours and then we're like, "We're out of it," and then we see on the news 17 inches of wet snow in Denver or someplace or in the mountains of wherever. [laughs]

Michael: I'd say one of the most interesting ones we had was we had a really bad Mother's Day snowstorm and that's generally been the day that everybody is confident about getting out, planting their bulbs, doing all that kind of gardening activity because we've made it out of the snow season was always Mother's Day weekend, is when nurseries get really crazy and we had one year with a Mother's Day snowstorm that broke branches everywhere, ruined gardening plans. It was a big disservice to all the moms out there.

Mother's Day is our usual cutoff, but it has snowed later than that before, which is crazy. It'll just snow and it's heavy and it's deep and then it's gone in a day or two because it just warms back up so quickly.

Doug: As an arborist, when those storms are coming, those late storms that you know are going to have that wet snow, is it like a nightmare for you thinking like, "Oh my gosh, the next week all we're going to be doing is running around. It's going to be nuts."

Michael: Yes. It's hard to watch the forecast when you see something when leaves are out and flowers are out and you've got a big dumper coming that it's like we're going to be just piling up and getting to as many people as we can to look at trees, get them estimates for cleaning it up, and you're just going to be working tons and tons of hours to try to catch up on all that. It hurts when it happens. because you just know it's going to be a painful weeks to follow. It can even be months of storm damage appointments after one of those storms so they're painful for us. We hate to see the trees break too, because Mother Nature does a horrible job at pruning. When these leaves come out, they're just listening to the weather and they're thinking it's safe, and then you get a big, heavy snow on them, and they break in the worst kind of ways.

Then the trees are permanently disfigured, and you'll be able to look back at someone's yard and look at a big wound up in the tree and be like, "Oh, yeah, I remember that in 2018. I remember that one from 2020." You start to get that mental record of where all the breaks happened in some people's trees. Then of course, some people just lose them to the point where they get cut down, and that's the absolute worst.

That's the one frustrating thing about our crazy weather is that the trees have no way to hold off until the snow is cleared and all you can do is prune them in advance to try to help reduce some weight and do some thinning and give them a chance to not catch as much. When you get 18 inches with leaves out, it doesn't matter a whole lot what else you've done with the tree, it's possible to break.

Doug: Well, Michael, I'm going to leave it right there. I'm sorry you had such a tough winter. I'm sure we'll get it next year and you'll have an easy one. That's the way it usually works. Thanks for your time. Thanks for the great information, and boy, I got to look up that one tree you said that one in Hawaii. Man, that looks really cool. Thank again.

Michael: Absolutely. Thank you for having me again.

Doug: Tune in every Thursday to the Talking Trees podcast from the Davey Tree Expert Company. I am your host, Doug Oster. Next week, we've got some great tips to get a jump on pest before they can get a foothold on your trees. Do me a favor, 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 @podcasts, that's plural at P-O-D-C-A-S-T-S@D-A-V-E-Y.COM. As always, we'd like to remind you on the Talking Trees podcast, trees are the answer.


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