10 Feb 2017

About Urban Trees

Many little people
In little places
Doing little things
Can change the world
Eduardo Galeano
It is an unquestionable fact that human beings are capable of making valuable contributions to this world. I would like to focus on one particular contribution: planting trees. Planting trees serves as a reminder that the human drive, even as individuals, is amazingly powerful, and that it can certainly be multiplied. It is better explained through the above quote from Eduardo Galeano.
Planting at least one before leaving this world is not complicated at all. We can find the right spot for a tree, even if we do not have a backyard. Caring for the tree is also crucial, since trees are most vulnerable during the first few years after being planted. However, it is more than just planting them and cross our arms and watch. They might not grow or thrive if we sit and just do this. It is even possible that their growth becomes so uncontrollable that it could carry unwanted or even tragic consequences for us.

Now that the dry season has begun, I have been watching some of the trees planted close to our home. It is impressive to see how much some of them have changed throughout the years. Mireya, our neighbor, has a mango tree on her backyard. This tree has branches that go over into our yard. I noticed that, on the first week of January, it had a lot of new leaves, and that it shed all the old leaves in a short time. A large amount of dry leaves fell down, and shiny new leaves replacing them on the tree were seen in a matter of just two or three days.

The same thing happens with the mahogany trees and their renewed foliage and fruit. The fruit of this tree resemble a big cone. “Winged seeds”, as botanists call them, are then released from these cones to be dispersed by the wind during the dry season. For growing a strong tree, it is necessary to select the best seeds. This is a great time for this, since there are definitely enough seeds this month for anybody who wants to plant a mahogany tree.

I have been thinking a lot about what happened in November last year, when a student’s life was cut short by a falling tree in front of his school in Ancón. I drive by that place very frequently because it is on my way home. No words that I could say would comfort this student’s parents and relatives.
However, we need to control our reactions when a tragedy like this happens. I am talking about reactions like aimlessly cutting down trees everywhere in the city. We can fool ourselves by thinking that this is the best way of solving the problem, and that this is a good remedy for the lack of planning. The fault is not on the trees, is on us. To begin with, we have the responsibility of knowing which trees to plant and where. I was informed that even trees in our countryside, miles away from Panama City, were cut down because of a similar tragedy at the parking lot of  Hospital del Niño years ago.
The association of communities in the Panama Canal area (Asociación de Comunidades del Área del Canal), and other civilian associations as the environmental association of Panama (Asociación Ecologista de Panamá) and environmental law association (Asociación de Derecho Ambiental), sounded the alarm last December when a few trees were about to be chopped down in the area, with no valid technical reason. These associations justifiably requested an inventory of sick trees and preventive and curative treatment for these trees, according to the findings or inventory.
It takes all kinds to make a world.  Many people would fail to acknowledge the role of trees in the improvement of air quality, as beautiful ornaments or as providers of shade, and only can see their commercial value, thus seeking to make a profit out of the fallen tree.
For the last part of this newsletter, I would like to list some species that, because of their root system, are not the best options for urban areas. This information was kindly provided by Ricardo V. Osorio, arborization coordinator of environmental management (Dirección de Gestión Ambiental, Municipio de Panamá). Thank you engineer Osorio! On a future newsletter, I will bring more information about trees that are more than suitable for urban areas, and also about their benefits.
The country-almond tree (Terminalia catapa) that is commonly planted on many houses and avenues in Panama requires a lot of moisture for its growth, and its roots tend to spread in trying to find water reservoirs around houses and avenues. The rubber fig (Ficus elástica) and the benjamin fig or Ficus tree (Ficus benjamina) also have very aggressive roots.
The breadnut tree (Artocarpus spp.), is a “long-lasting” tree. The roots of this tree can damage constructions, floors and even roads. A minimum distance of 10-20 meters is recommended between these trees and any type of construction. The royal poinciana or flamboyant (Delonix regia) has very thick and superficial roots. A separation of at least 20 meters must exist between this tree and any constructions or roads. In fact, the ideal thing is to plant them on open spaces.
The African tulip tree (Spathodea campanulata) has a shallow, highly destructive, radicular system. It is a menace to foundations and sewage facilities. Besides, it can be easily knocked down by the wind. The guanacaste or elephant-ear tree (Enterolobium cyclocarpum) has thick and shallow roots that can also damage structures. Because of its weight and composition, it can fall down easily, and without a warning.