This week we learned that the White House tree, which is the iconic tree on the south facade of the White House, is set to be cut down and removed. According to an exclusive report from CNN, great effort has been made to hold the tree in place for as long as possible. In fact, if it weren’t for the tree’s historic significance, it would have been removed decades ago. However, documents show that the structural integrity of the tree makes it a real safety risk. For residents who don’t have a team of arborists to monitor the health and structural integrity of their non-historic trees, it can be challenging to know when a tree on your property has become a danger.
In 1828, Andrew Jackson has just won a brutal presidential campaign when his wife, Rachel, died. According to historians, when Jackson moved to the White House, he took a sprout from Rachel’s favorite magnolia tree on their farm and planted it on the White House grounds. Eventually, the White House tree became the iconic behemoth that it is today. It has been seen in thousands of White House photos over the past three centuries and dignitaries and first ladies alike have gifted or replanted seedlings from the tree throughout history.
Today, the White House tree is being held up by a complex cable system which is beginning to fail on one side of the trunk. Expert arborists wrote in their report that, “It is difficult to predict when and how many more will fail.” As a result of professional information and accompanying historical documents that were presented to the First Lady, the tree is scheduled to be taken down later this week. Although this seems like bad news, the upshot is that no matter how important a tree is, it’s never a good idea to hold on to a dead tree that presents a danger for people or structures. For average homeowners, however, determining when to remove a tree can be tricky.
According to the University of Maryland Extension, there can be benefits to keeping a dying tree on your property. “Dying trees that are not in danger of falling on people or structures can be allowed to die in place without human intervention,” the webpage reads. “Old dead trees also serve as places for various species of woodpeckers to find food and a place to nest.” But dying trees also pose a safety risk for homeowners and neighbors. So how can you tell when it’s time for your old tree to go? Here’s a list of questions to ask when deciding whether or not to remove a tree from your property.
*Before we share the list, we’d like to share a disclaimer from the University of Maryland that expresses the importance of relying on a highly knowledgeable professional to help with your tree removal. Tree pruning and removal jobs are often too much and are very unsafe for the average do-it-yourselfer. For those reasons, homeowners should consult a professional for tree services.
Questions to Consider When Deciding Whether or Not to Remove Your Tree
Tree species. There are some trees that are considered undesirable because of weak wood that’s prone to frequent breakage, frequently dropping large quantities of debris, shallow roots that damage lawns and pavement, frequent infestation with diseases or insects specific to the tree species or being an invasive species by prolific reseeding in the landscape. Undesirable trees include:
- Black Locust
- Siberian elm
- Box elder
- Bradford pear
- Norway maple
- Tree of heaven
- Empress tree
Overall tree health. A tree should be eliminated if at least 50% of the tree is damaged. That’s because a tree that is in decline can continue to survive for many years but will always have limited or abnormal growth and appearance. Trees that have been damaged by herbicide frequently have misshapen leaves, but frequently can recover.
Trunk damage. Internal decay can be characterized by vertical cracks, seams, dead branch stubs and large, older wounds. A tree usually needs to removed if there has been severe damage to the tree. A tree can typically recover if the damaged area is less than 25 percent of the circumference of the trunk. With that much damage, the wound could gradually heal over and no permanent injury should result.
Hollow trunk. Many trees can live for many years with a hollow trunk. However, a hollow tree is dangerous if the trunk is not strong enough to keep it erect. According to the University of Maryland website, “A guide to help in decision making is if one-third of the interior of the tree is hollow or rotten, it probably should be removed.”
Large dead branches. Trees that pose a danger to people or property should be removed immediately. Dangerous trees are have often had their tops broken or have large damaged limbs that are dangerous. However, a tree can survive if less than 25% of branches are damaged. Additionally, the University of Maryland points out that “Crossed or rubbing branches should be removed. Narrow branch angles especially of the main trunk are particularly prone to splitting and should be corrected. This is best done when the tree is young.”
Dead branches on one side only. A lopsided tree is potentially hazardous, so you don’t want to see all the dead branches of a tree on one side. It can be a symptom of root or trunk damage on the affected side. Contact an arborist right away if you see dead branches only on side of your tree.
Sprouts coming from the base of the tree or small branches coming from the trunk. These sprouts are referred to as epicormic shoots and are a response to severe stress indicating that there is something wrong with the tree. This is can be more often be found in new home communities, as this type of damage is more common among trees that have endured recent new home construction injury. It can also be caused by over-exposure to the sun after thinning a forest or soil compaction. Such trees need to be evaluated by an arborist, as these symptoms are an indication that all is not well with the tree.
Trunk rot or a large fungus growing near the base of the tree. Although not all mushrooms growing under trees are associated with root diseases, fungi growing on the tree are an indication of internal rot and should be evaluated by an arborist.
Root damage caused by excavation. If at least half of the root system is damaged, it will likely need to be removed.
A leaning tree. Leaning trees are more of a hazard than those growing vertically, especially trees that have suddenly started to lean. It indicates breakage or weakening of roots. The tree should probably be removed immediately. Also, a tree leaning more than 15% from vertical probably should be removed.
Power lines. For obvious reasons, trees under power lines should mature at heights less than 25’. Make sure that a tree growing into power lines is thinned out. “During wet weather, electricity can arc as much as ten feet to wet tree foliage and ground out causing a power failure or property damage. Removal of trees limbs anywhere near power lines is never for the homeowner to do themselves,” says the University of Maryland.
The tree’s history. Some previous pruning jobs can cause problems years later. As with the White House tree, which had a portion of the trunk that broke off and was filled with cement. The practice was considered the optimum solution at the time but is not advised today. Another cause of the gradual decline of trees is a change in the soil level over the root system. If three or more inches of soil has been piled over the root system of the tree, it will probably die. Many trees can be saved if caught early before stress symptoms develop.
The tree environment. Another important factor in a possible tree removal is its environment. “Trees growing on rock ledges or near a body of water frequently have shallow root systems. The removal of nearby trees is a common problem after new construction. Trees that are suddenly exposed to sunlight are severely stressed by the sudden change in exposure.”
Available space for growth. In a residential situation, trees should generally be at least 20 feet from your house. Small trees such as Dogwood, however, may be planted as close as 6 feet from the house.
The University of Maryland gives additional things to consider when deciding if you should remove a tree include:
- Are there other nearby trees whose growth will be enhanced if the tree is removed?
- Is the location of the tree such that it interferes with sight lines in traffic flow, stoplights, etc.?
- Does the tree have historic or sentimental value? When a tree has historic or sentimental value, more expense is justified to salvage it. However, if a tree is losing large branches, it is likely time for it to be replaced.
If you have questions about the health or safety of any tree, consult a certified arborist to have an onsite evaluation. Locate arborists certified through the International Society of Arboriculture (ISA). For a local arborist, visit the ISA website.
More advice for homeowners: Keeping Your Home Secure.