Trees, solar panels and city shortsightedness: Plantings must be better chosen for the future
There’s a popular adage: “You plant a tree not for yourself, but for the next generation.” Walking around Cambridge, we see beautiful mature trees: maples, oaks, locusts, gingkoes – and lots of mistakes made a generation ago that burden the current generation. Someone planted a blue spruce in front of a nearby house, which has taken over their house and keeps it in perpetual deep shade. Another house has a female horse chestnut, and is plagued with smelly, toxic fruit. Misshapen trees, continually hacked away by utility companies, are everywhere. Trees with invasive roots are ripping up our sidewalks. And the city’s misguided planting of Bradford pears will haunt us for many years.
In 1978, foreseeing the future, California passed the Solar Shade Act, which prohibits a neighbor from planting a tree that would block the sun from neighboring properties. Oddly, despite one department in Cambridge promoting home solar panels, another seems to be working to destroy that possibility for the next generation.
While protecting and reestablishing our tree canopy is important, the misguided selection of trees on offer will destroy the possibility of solar energy for the next generation. Almost all that are being offered are upper-canopy New England forest trees. For example, liriodendron tulipifera is the tallest native hardwood tree in New England. At a maximum 100 feet and known for its invasive roots, it is entirely inappropriate for any urban setting.
Such tall trees, besides being out of scale for most urban settings, preclude most other garden activities, including flower and vegetable gardens and native fruit trees. They will shade gardens, preclude the use of rooftop solar and destroy the viability of existing solar installations.
There are many native understory and shorter trees that would be appropriate for our urban environment. If planting native trees is a goal – which would help restore and feed native birds and insects – there are many trees that could be better candidates, such as sassafras, red buckeye, downy serviceberry, American hornbeam, flowering dogwood, eastern redbud, sweetbay magnolia, fringe tree, chalkbark maple and fox river birch. In addition to these shorter trees listed, there are many more trees that are native to states a bit farther south that, due to climate change, are now better suited for New England.
Even though we don’t have a “Solar Shade Act” in Massachusetts, when planting any tree, it’s important to keep in mind what it will look like when it’s mature. Will the roots destroy your foundation or your sewer pipes? Will it preclude the installation of solar panels on your rooftop or your neighbor’s rooftop?
Oddly, every tree on the city’s “giveaway” list is entirely inappropriate for every home in the city. The city should have learned from their mistakes of the Bradford pear, Norway maple, white ash and the many other inappropriate tree species that we’ve planted and instead look forward 20-plus years when these trees are mature.
Phillip Sego, Norfolk Street