Trees and Human Well-Being: Caring for Trees Protects Us
Mar 02, 2017 08:32PM
By Ariana Rawls Fine
"I am the Lorax. I speak for the trees. I speak for the trees for the trees have no tongues,” goes the famous saying from Dr. Seuss’ The Lorax.
There is a reason we see so many depictions of humans as trees in art. Both have mobile limbs from a central trunk. Both need strong root grounding to weather the storms of Earth and those of life. People also equate trees to an area, whether it is the palm trees of Florida or the majestic oaks of the Northeast. They are physical reminders of where we were and where we grew up. “People are more attached to trees than they know. I’ve seen how personal health can decline when a tree that has been on someone’s property is gone,” says a Premier Lawn Solutions (PremierLawnSolutions.com) representative who asked to remain anonymous.
Trees represent strength, harmony and connection to us. “Unless moved by humans, trees remain rooted in one place throughout their lifetime, preserving their native character. They stand tall, solid and strong, rooted in the earth. They become an integral part of the place where they live, a contributing member of the biotic community. Perhaps there is no better example for us, as humans, to emulate. Listening to the trees, we can learn not only about a particular geographic place, but also about our place in the larger community of life,” wrote Ruth Wilson in her 2013 “People and Trees: An Intimate Connection” article for the American Forests organization.
Trees “provide benefits that are called ecosystem services, which include the obvious ones such as cooling the air, and other, less noticeable ones, such as providing oxygen, intercepting ultraviolet (UV) light, absorbing rainfall, storing carbon and reducing air pollution,” explains a research review, titled “Trees Improve Human Health and Well-Being in Many Ways,” published by the U.S. Forest Service Northern Research Station in April 2015.
Trees release oxygen and store large amounts of carbon in their wood. Their leaves absorb lower-atmospheric ozone and other pollutants, which can have adverse effects on our health. Tree coverage is also an important part of public health as it keeps the temperatures down and absorbs dust, lessening the impact of local air pollutants.
“The calming effect of nearby trees and urban greening can significantly reduce workplace stress levels and fatigue, calm traffic, and even decrease the recovery time needed after surgery. Trees can also reduce crime. Apartment buildings with high levels of greenspace have lower crime rates than nearby apartments without trees,” explains the International Society of Arboriculture in its 2011 “Benefits of Trees” article.
From an economic standpoint, property values of homes with trees and landscaping can be from 5 to 20 percent higher. The shade provided by trees overhead can directly lower energy costs with less sun beating down on the roof in the summer and creation of a wind barrier that reduces the chilling effect of winter winds.
Our Physical Impact on Trees
To reap the proven benefits from trees, we bear increasing responsibility for helping trees succeed in the new environments being created by human actions. Considerations to boost trees’ health include maintaining the strength and makeup of soil monitoring, the amount of moisture available to the trees, controlling tree diseases in the area, and a myriad of other factors. The condition of tree bark and leaf color can provide clues that something is afflicting one of our tall friends.
What is happening in areas around our trees impacts their health. Construction on a property, removing nearby trees or disturbing tree roots can have unexpected detrimental effects. When planning work on property, it is best to consult with an arborist to determine the best and least disruptive approach for the entire property’s health. Tree roots can be damaged by changes in soil level, soil temperatures, trenching, soil compaction, drought and erosion, according to Stacey Marcell, a licensed arborist, degreed horticulturalist and the owner of Stratford-based Northeast Horticultural Services. She has been practicing for more than 17 years, 10 of those in Fairfield County.
One easy change homeowners can make is to adjust the breadth of lawn so it does not lead directly up to the base of a tree. Marcell explains that when lawn is watered too closely around trees, the tree roots will wind their way closer to the surface because that is where the water has settled. This weakens the strength of the root structure, making the tree more vulnerable to damage during high winds or other extreme weather conditions.
The toxicity of ingredients in pesticides and herbicides also creates problems for trees. These are often applied systemically and their volatility rate during application can cause the vapors to go underneath the tree canopy and into the foliage, negatively affecting the leaf system.
Allan Fenner is Connecticut Tree Protective Association’s (CTPA) vice president and an ASCA consulting arborist for SavATree Consulting Group with more than 25 years of experience. CTPA is an educational association (CTPA.org) dedicated to advancing the care of Connecticut’s trees. Fenner suggests sending soil samples to the New Haven-based Connecticut Agricultural Experiment Station (CT.gov/CAES) to better understand which nutrients may be lacking or exceeding recommended levels, and whether disease is present on the property. Parts of the tree or pictures can also be sent to the lab for insect and disease diagnostics. Fenner also recommends visiting CTPA.org/Tree-Diseases-CT-Exotic-and-Native when trying to determine disease with a tree.
Pruning, Planting and Protecting
Trees peak around 80 years old. At that point, trees are more prone to attract insects and disease. Professional arborists can carefully prune older trees to extend tree life and cut down on the chances of diseases spreading. “Bad cuts can cause the demise of trees but proper pruning to remove the dead source for insects every five years can make all the difference,” Marcell says. She recommends developing a good relationship with a professional arborist to create a priority list of what needs to be taken care of and when each step can be implemented. Such a proactive approach with proper care can not only extend the life of a tree but make it look healthy and beautiful, reduce potential hazards on the tree and improve its structure. “Trees need to adapt as they can’t move. As good tree stewards, we can help them,” Marcell explains. By removing wood decay, fungi and bacteria, food sources that attract detrimental insects are also eliminated. By pruning live branches, the increase in sunlight and air circulation can help the health of the tree as well.
When structural pruning is needed, it is optimal to have it done during the tree’s dormant season, which is December to mid-March. It is also a better time to evaluate deciduous trees’ structure without the leaves obstructing the view. However, exceptions include those trees that flower in the beginning of spring; for those, pruning is best done after the tree has flowered.
Loosening up soil around the tree can help as moisture is best captured when the soil is better aerated. Little fibrous roots can’t push through compacted soil, so fewer nutrients get through to the root mass. The healthier the root mass, the healthier the tree. Also, installing a line from a rain barrel with a tube that trickles water down to the trees can help. A mulch made of nutrient-rich brown matter, such as leaf compost or shredded bark, will help the soil near the tree moist as well as provide a natural barrier against weeds.
Marcell recommends planting a variety of vegetation that will be mutually beneficial. Plant surrounding areas with other plants that are symbiotic with the tree, such as winterberry holly, callicarpa or other native woodland plants. A combination of plants that work well include different ground covers, such as a moss carpet around the tree with subtle ferns. Button bush, witch hazel, lindera, swamp azalea, comptonia, fothergilla and even blueberry bushes are additional plants to consider.
It is imperative to keep lawn equipment, such as weed whackers and lawn mowers, away from trees. An injury can interrupt the vascular flow from the roots through the caliber of the tree to the branches and leaves as well as leave the tree more susceptible to insects.
Ariana Rawls Fine is editor of Natural Awakenings Fairfield County/Housatonic Valley, CT and New Haven/Middlesex Counties, CT. She resides in Stratford with her family.