In the woodlands of Southwest Missouri, old black oaks — ancient for their species — are dying.
In urban lawns, river birches have dropped their leaves as a defense mechanism.
In Joplin parks, insects such as the apple tree borer are advancing on young maples, preparing to attack.
The trees are under siege from all sides after last summer’s excessive heat and lack of rain, followed by a winter that saw virtually no snow, and now, the worst drought in 50 years.
Waging a counterattack are volunteers, arborists and urban foresters. Their primary goal, they say, is to save the 6,551 trees that have been donated and planted in the storm-damaged areas of Joplin and Duquesne — replacements for the 15,000 to 20,000 destroyed in the May 22, 2011, tornado.
So far, it seems to be working, but no one is sure how much longer it will.
Ric Mayer, who started work Feb. 6 as Joplin’s new tree coordinator, conducted a survey Monday afternoon to assess whether any more of the young saplings planted in Joplin parks had succumbed to stress brought on by weeks of temperatures hovering at 100 degrees and just 1.62 inches of rain since June 1.
Amazingly, Mayer said, of the 562 trees planted, only 14, or less than 3 percent, were “struggling to death,” meaning they will not survive.
“I talked to foresters, and they are amazed we have such a good retention rate,” he said. “Typically, you can expect through vandalism, poor planting, etc., you can lose 20 percent of the trees you plant in a public setting because they don’t get the same care as they would in a yard. Of course, that’s in a typical year.”
What’s making the difference for Joplin trees, Mayer said, are volunteers and other workers.
Twice weekly, a team of six participants in the Workforce Investment Board’s federally funded program for workers displaced by the storm divides into two crews. In trucks outfitted with plastic water tanks and hoses, they head to Joplin parks in the tornado zone.
“We would be in such trouble without them,” Mayer said.
Program administrator Sam Schaumann said the workers are “focused on doing their very best to keep trees that were planted surviving until we get through this extremely hot, dry weather.”
“They’re going park to park, tree to tree, administering as much water to try to do everything we can to keep these young trees surviving, which is a real task under the circumstances,” Schaumann said.
In addition, hundreds of volunteers, coordinated through AmeriCorps, are fighting the good fight to keep the trees alive.
“We provided a bunch of buckets for bucket brigades, and they use the water faucets at each of the city parks to fill them,” Mayer said.
Altogether, the city is seeing 340 volunteer hours per week from those watering trees.
Is it worth the battle?
“Anyone who plants a tree wants to see it live,” Mayer said. “You build your home, you step back and then you say: ‘Now it’s time for trees. It’s time to re-green, make it a pleasant place to live, a nicer place to live.’”
It’s a battle that takes not only intensive labor, but lots of water, and even the experts are struggling. Last summer’s weather wreaked havoc on the trees of Joplin’s urban forester, Jonstet Skinner of the Missouri Department of Conservation.
“I personally lost half a dozen dogwoods that were 6 or 7 years old,” Skinner said. “It was because I can’t irrigate them adequately. People aren’t alone; even the guys that know better can’t keep up.”
Trees that are 3 to 5 years old need 20 gallons of water per week per inch of the diameter of the trunk. The larger they are, the farther out the water should be applied, as that’s where the roots are — not at the base of the trunk.
“That means a soaker hose over one-third of my lawn, and that’s not cost-effective, especially for people with large trees, say 12, 20, 30 inches in diameter,” Skinner said. “It’s hard. You can’t provide enough water.”
New trees are especially susceptible, he said, but no tree is exempt from struggling.
“When you plant a new tree, it’s under stress anyway, and we’ve added drought to it,” Skinner said. “They are, at best, surviving. That’s all they’re doing. Ideally what you’re doing when watering is encouraging it to grow roots, to become independent in five years or so. In years like this, no tree is really independent. They all could use a little extra, but so much water is needed. It’s hard to do.”
The stress makes trees susceptible to attacks from fungi, bacteria and insects.
“All construct to take advantage of these weakened trees, and that’s what’s going to occur for multiple years,” Skinner said. “Insect borers will take advantage. Funguses can’t be fought off.”
Mayer believes that if the volunteers keep at it, there is hope for saving most of the trees in Joplin parks. But homeowners who have received donated trees also need to roll up their shirtsleeves, he said.
“Sadly, I have seen neglected young trees (in yards) that have been planted and died, and a lot were trees we handed out,” he said. “I’d like to see every tree survive. We’ve got a good percent in the parks, and I’d like to see that same thing occur at private homes and in the city. It takes effort; it’s hard to do. But I’m sure we’ve made a dent.”
Duquesne and Joplin homeowners in the tornado zone who want to apply for trees to plant in their yards this fall may apply online at joplinmo.org starting Thursday. Anyone who wants to volunteer to water trees in Joplin parks is welcome, Mayer said, particularly during August and September when volunteers will be in short supply.
Tips for homeowners
• PROTECT A TREE TRUNK from insects with chemical treatments. Use a systemic insecticide found at box stores, farm stores and nurseries as a preventive measure.
• IRRIGATE with 1.5 to 2 inches of water per week over the entire root system of a tree. Place an 8-inch round cake pan under the sprinkler, and when it is full, move it to the next tree.
• WATER early in the morning, before sunrise, and in the evening to allow water to soak in and not evaporate.
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