Main Street’s trees: A perspective, Part I

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By Thursday, May 15 Environment, News  7 Comments
David Scribner
Bradford pear trees in full splendor along the Main Street corridor in Great Barrington.

Editor’s Note: Although no starting date has yet been set, sometime this year Great Barrington’s Main Street Reconstruction Project will remove the Bradford pear trees, currently in bloom, that line the downtown corridor. This is the first of two articles explaining the reasons behind replacing the Bradford pears, splendid as they may be in May, with varieties of trees more suitable and durable for an urban streetscape.

There is something of a déja vu going on when it comes to Great Barrington’s Main Street trees. Back in the early 1980’s, a heated debate arose about removing the rows of crabapples planted by the Junior Chamber of Commerce in 1960. The project was called: “Operation Trees.” Intriguing.

Once upon a time, the town, like hundreds across the United States, was graced by elegant American elms. Losing them over the years to Dutch Elm Disease was a tragic blow. Great Barrington was not alone in recovering from this loss. In a certain way, it still is. It is estimated that by 1989, 66 million elms had been decimated across the U.S., victims of the Asian elm bark beetle “imported” in a shipment of logs from The Netherlands. Town identities were changed forever.

Great Barrington's Main Street as it looked a century ago, lined with elms.

Great Barrington’s Main Street as it looked a century ago, lined with elms.

Unfortunately, the choice of replacing these “signature-style” elms in 1960 with flowering crabapples may not have been optimal. Not only do they drop their brightly colored fruits making for a big mess on the sidewalks (and a sliding hazard), but, as we all know, require stringent pruning to maintain. Lots of suckers; a major nuisance.

In 1985, “to the relief of some store owners who felt they blocked views of their establishments, but to the dismay of others” (The Great Barrington Historical Society Newsletter, 2003 ), the crabapples were cut down and another alleé, this time consisting of another monoculture, in this case, 39 “Bradford” pear trees, was installed.

Almost overnight town residents grew attached to what proved indeed to be quite lovely flowering trees. Who would not agree that there is something magical about the pears’ delicate pearl white flowers blooming before the leaves emerge and shedding their petals like a splash of confetti at a wedding?

What many may not have taken into account is their “shelf life” of about 30 years. This is particularly true of all street trees since they undergo stress on many levels. Alas, the pears, too, would one day need replacing but that would simply happen in the next millennium. Unbeknownst to many, however, is that this species, native to Korea and China and introduced in the 1960s by the USDA, would come with a hefty price. And not simply financial.

For a few days in May the Bradford pears create a blossomy canopy for pedestrians.

For a few days in May the Bradford pears create a blossomy canopy for pedestrians.

Fast forward to the 21st century and other issues became apparent. As the “Bradford” pear grows, its primary leaders split easily. This is due to a weak, poorly “designed” trunk system which places stress on the lower joints. Such stress is compounded by their shallow root system which is further challenged by compaction due to traffic. Poor pruning maintenance, of course, doesn’t help either. The bottom line is that such trees can become a hazard to pedestrians and others in harm’s way. As many towns across the U.S. have discovered, these somewhat fad-like cultivars did not make for good street trees — especially if planted, en masse.

To deal with this and other related streetscape improvements, an ad hoc tree committee consisting of arborists, landscape designers, and concerned citizens was formed. By 2011 it was officially commissioned by the Town Selectmen. This committee, consisting today of nine members and chaired by Dennis Gibbons, has been one of many parties involved in the “Main Street Reconstruction Project.”

Involving a major re-vamping of Main Street between Taconic Avenue and Cottage Street, the project was set to begin this spring. Will it be in the fall? “For sure any tree planting will come last so we are looking at 2015,” according to Dennis Gibbons.

For those who may need a little refresher: “This reconstruction project will involve the total replacement of the roadway and pavement, and will include improvements to the entire corridor, including sidewalks, curbs, traffic signals, crosswalks, trees and landscaping, benches, lighting, and bicycle and pedestrian-friendly design.”

Much research and work has gone into how to best enhance this historic New England town with a diverse and multi-layered canopy of trees.

In Part 2, I will attempt to explain what is on the horizon. For now, Michael Wise, secretary of the town Tree Committee, and a member of the Finance Committee and of the Zoning Board of Appeals, recently explained: “There are two big elements to the plan. For sure we are going to replace the allée with some new flowering trees such as cherries and shads. We also plan to bring back in key locations a few majestic trees the town once knew such as the American elm.”







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7 Comments   Add Comment

  1. Jonathan Hankin says:

    Can’t wait for part two!

  2. Laury Epstein says:

    Thanks, Honey, for addressing this contentious issue with an historical viewpoint. Along with Jonathan, I look forward to Part Two. Laury

  3. Bob YOUDELMAN says:

    And perhaps for diversity and nostalgia they could leave a few (or many) of the Bradford pear trees that are currently so beautifully lining Main Street. Maybe in part two, Honey, you can be more specific as to what damage is currently being caused to pedestrians and/or traffic by these trees that are expected to be so hazardous over their lifetime. Would a good pruning solve the expected problems?

  4. Ellen says:

    These trees also stink when they begin to bloom. Hope the replacements are charming, safe, colorful and won’t stink.

    1. Honey Sharp says:

      Hadn’t notice that issue but I did learn that they are invasive too. The other trees proposed such as shad and cherries shouldn’t be a problem – at least in the smell realm. Next week, will have the Part 2 published.

  5. Maria Nation says:

    Nice work Honey! Putting it into historical perspective helps lessen the blow of losing this signature aspect of town. The many of us who love the trees can now feel a cross-historical connection with past residents of GB who similarly mourned the end of their tree era.

    1. Honey Sharp says:

      And we will also be taking a step further in the past since the plan is to plant two elms on either side of the entry to the town from the south. This would form a gateway. I love the idea and I hope they can plant them in just the right spot. But as you know plants take time to grow!

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