Is the western soapberry the tree for you?

(sapindus drummondii)

Western Soapberry full tree

Flickr| David Elckhoff

Named because of the lather the fruit gives off when mixed with water, western soapberry is a North American native and an excellent shade or ornamental tree to adorn your landscape. If you’re looking to add a little more green to the yard and want something drought tolerant, then this tree may be the tree for you. Below are a few attributes that make the western soapberry stand out.

Environmental conditions

  • This tree grows well in a variety of soils with dryer climates in the South and Southwest (hardiness zones 6-9). It prefers full sun and partial shade, meaning a minimum of 4 hours of direct, unfiltered sunlight each day would suffice.
  • Tolerates wind, drought, compacted soil and infertile soil
  • Transplants easily and establishes with minimal irrigation

Physical traits

  • The western soapberry will grow two feet a year and reach 25-50 feet in height with an equal spread
  • Blooms May to June with loose panicles of yellowish-white flowers
  • Produces orange fruits that resemble cherries and lather when mixed with water. Fun fact: Native Americans used the berry-like drupes as a soap substitute.
  • The western soapberry is a favorite of butterflies in early summer


western soap berry

Flickr| David Elckhoff

If you’re looking for something unique to add to your landscape then the western soapberry may be a good choice.  It requires little care and offers great shade from the summer heat. Check out Inviting all butterflies! Create an oasis designed for them! If you’re looking to attract more butterflies to your garden.

Do you have a western soapberry? Share a picture below.

Paul Weckman & Emily Wolff, restaurant owners, Covington, KY

Trees Bring People Downtown to Shop and Dine

portrait-Paul-Weckman[1]When Paul Weckman and Emily Wolff opened Otto’s restaurant, they selected downtown Covington because they value the historical significance of its 1850s structures. But something was missing.

“The neighborhood didn’t seem complete without trees,” Paul says. To do their part in restoring trees to the business district, the owners of Otto’s and a neighboring restaurant entered a partnership with the city. The resulting project transformed four parking spaces into a new outdoor dining area with trees.

figure1-Paul-Weckman[1]The cost of the project was split 50/50 between the city and the businesses, and the newly designed spaces proved seating for 25 additional customers and changed the ambiance of the street. City officials work with business owners to enhance the customer experience throughout the area.

“These trees created a desirable outdoor dining area and increased overall traffic,” says Paul. “Significantly more people are visiting the area for dining, shopping and strolling.”

figure2-Paul-Weckman[1]Were it not for this innovative private/public partnership, this historic business district would have missed out on increased vibrancy and people.

“We tell our staff that our restaurant should look like a beautiful painting,” Paul adds. “Trees make that possible.”

Check out our other Faces of Urban Forestry.

What you should know before planting a sycamore

Largest Sycamore

Flickr | Ted Van Pelt

Choosing the Right Tree in the Right Place can be a daunting task. Should I plant a fruit tree or flowering? Will it be fast growing or slow? Will it even grow in my zone?

There are numerous factors to consider with each tree. Here are a few more things to note if you’re flirting with the idea of adding a sycamore tree to the family.

  • There are 10 species of sycamore, most of them sharing similar characteristics.
  • Sycamore trees are majestic in nature, averaging 40-100 feet in height and spreading 40-70 feet in width.
  • They are fast growing, growing more than two feet a year.
  • With its natural inclination to establish a sturdy trunk, it tends to have an aggressive root system, so be prepared to plant your sycamore at least 15 feet from your house or sidewalk. Planting it too close to surrounding structures not only threatens the tree’s health, but you also risk spending a bunch of money repairing any damage it may do to your home’s water lines, foundation, or driveway.
  • Some sycamores develop multiple trunks.
  • These trees are nicknamed “buttonball” trees because of the 1-inch balls that hang from the tree. These dry, hairy fruits hang in groups of 2-7 and encase small seeds. Their fruits will also drop in the fall.
  • Sycamores are among the oldest species of trees on Earth, known for their longevity and hardiness.


Sycamore Seed Strand

Flickr| Curandera vision

Sycamore trees can add character to your landscape, with their ashy white bark and lush green foliage. They also house food and nesting sites for birds including red-tailed hawks, woodpeckers, and hummingbirds.

Do you have a Sycamore tree? Share a picture in the comments.

Evan Matszuyama, student, Kailua-Kona, Hawaii

Tree Planting Helps Preserve Culture

portrait-Evan-Matszuyama[1]When Evan Matszuyama was 8, he would accompany his mother to classes at the University of Hawaii. There he came to know Dr. Richard Stevens who spent years bringing Hawaiian communities together to plant native trees throughout the islands.

Dr. Stevens’ influence was so great that Evan is now working to become a university professor and follow in the footsteps of his mentor. He has also gained an understanding of the significance of natural habitats in cultural traditions and the need to preserve or restore native vegetation.

figure2-Evan-Matszuyama[1]“Aside from physically giving back to my community by planting, I’ve gained an understanding of the value of diverse indigenous species that are fragile and need to be preserved,” says Evan. Through the work of Dr. Stevens more than 10,000 trees have been planted by students, veterans and citizens around veterans’ memorials, in communities, and in rural landscapes.

figure1-Evan-Matszuyama[1]Most of these projects would not have been possible without funding and technical assistance provided by Hawaii’s Urban and Community Forestry Program. As Evan continues his education, Dr. Stevens’ good influence lives on and bodes well for the future. Through the connection of teaching and tree planting, indigenous trees are being restored and preservation of Hawaiian culture is helping to enrich the land and its people.

Check out our other Faces of Urban Forestry.

Celia Garcia, Conservation Corps, Los Angeles, CA

A Single Mom Found a Good-Paying Job Planting Trees for the City of Los Angeles.

portrait-Celia-Garcia[1]Planting trees changed Celia Garcia’s life. A high school drop-out and single mom with two children, she faced bleak career prospects and worried about paying her bills before she connected with the Los Angeles Conservation Corps.

It was not a passion for trees that brought Celia to the Corps, a city jobs training program aimed at struggling young adults. Rather, Celia was drawn to the possibility of completing her high-school education and finding meaningful work.

Celia not only found a job, she began building a career. After finishing her coursework, she gained valuable experience in the Corps’ tree nursery. Later, she started working on the Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa’s Million Trees LA project, contacting residents to gauge their interest in new trees along their property and then following through with the planting herself.

figure1-Celia-Garcia[1]“You can see your work grow,” Celia said, with pride. “Once we plant a tree in a school or a parkway, I can go back in the future and say, ‘I planted that tree.'” Since 1986, more than 1,300 young adults each year have benefited from the Corps’ job training and educational opportunities.

Check out our other Faces of Urban Forestry.

Tree Care Tips for the Tree of Life: Arborvitae (thuja occidentalis)

Arborvitaes are among the most popular trees to plant because of their numerous benefits, including their fast growth, tall heights, and year-round green foliage. In fact, arborvitae is a Latin form of the French phrase “l’abre de vie,” or “tree of life.” Arborvitaes prove this to be true through their versatility in tolerating a wide range of soils and climate conditions.

American-ArborvitaerowArborvitae trees are a great choice if you’re looking to install a windbreak or natural privacy fence. There are numerous varieties to choose from, including American Arborvitae, Emerald Arborvitae and Green Giant Arborvitae. If you’re looking for fast growth then you might lean toward the green giant arborvitae, growing three feet a year and reaching up to 50-60 feet in height at maturity. If you don’t mind the wait and prefer something with a narrower spread, then you’ll appreciate the uniformity of American arborvitae.

Despite being low-maintenance, arborvitaes still need some care. Here are a few tree care tips to foster the best growth for your arborvitae in its early years.

Environmental conditions for fast growth

Depending on the variety of arborvitae you select, you’ll want to be sure to plant trees approximately three feet apart to avoid root crowding and competition of nutrients and water; even trees don’t like to starve.

  • Arborvitaes do best in soil that is well drained but moist, rich and deep
  • pH of 6.0 (slightly acidic) to 8.0 (alkaline)
  • Full sun exposure is ideal, but they will grow in partial shade
  • Geographic regions with high humidity

Tree Pruning

green giant arborvitaeArborvitaes dense foliage provides sufficient privacy and at the same time are attractive additions to landscaping. Many arborvitaes take on a nice pyramid shape without pruning. If you must prune then limit it to once a year and keep the following in mind:

  • Prune in the fall or early winter, if pruned in the summer the tips of the pruned branches may turn brown
  • Never remove more than ¼ of a tree’s crown in a season
  • Ideally, main side branches should be at least 1/3 smaller than the diameter of the trunk

It may not be a sour idea to read Keys to Good Pruning just to be sure you’re not crippling them.

Potential threats

  • In times of drought, tree watering is important, but too much of a good thing can be bad so don’t overdo it (Proper Summer Watering of Trees has some helpful ideas)
  • Young landscape trees will need protection from deer in many areas, consider a Tubex tree shelter to keep wildlife away
  • Pest and Disease Problems: Bagworms are sometimes attracted to this species, but can be removed by hand in winter, or controlled with a biological pesticide
  • In forest or land development situations, large openings can lead to windthrow—trees uprooted or broken by wind— due to its shallow root system

Whichever selection you go with be sure to nurture your tree with proper care.

Check out additional Tree Care Tips & Techniques or share some in the comments below.

Dave Bowman, Retired U.S. Air Force pilot, Fayetteville AR

The University of Arkansas, businesses, homes and parks are tied together in Fayetteville with a 28-mile system of trails.

portrait-Dave-Bowman[1]The University of Arkansas, businesses, homes and parks are tied together in Fayetteville with a 28-mile system of trails.

“Sometimes as many as 1,000 people a day use the trails,” says Dave Bowman, a member of the volunteer Trail Trekkers that serve as ‘eyes and ears’ for the city.

“It’s the best thing since peanut butter,” Dave laughs. He credits trees, which were planted deliberately to enhance the recreational experience, for making the trail special.

figure2-Dave-Bowman[1]“I’ve seen trails that just go through grass, and that’s no way to do it,” he says, whereas trees provide shade, a windbreak and a feeling of being in the country. “They offer a chance for people to get back to nature, and provide habitat for wildlife.” One youngster counted 300 bird species in one year.

As the caregiver for two family members, Dave is especially grateful for the several days each week he spends on the trails. “You see a lot of smiling faces,” he says.

Check out our other Faces of Urban Forestry.

Protecting Trees From Lightning

sky lightning tree

Flickr | Doug Wertman

As we transition into summer we pay adieu to colder climates and prepare for vibrant home landscaping projects. While the colder months are behind us, there are still proactive measures we should uphold in maintaining healthy trees. Rainy season is upon us in different parts of the country and there are certain steps we can take in reducing damage to trees caused by lightning strikes. Bartlett Tree Experts reports that more than one million trees are struck by lightning every year.Trees are most vulnerable to lightning because of their tall heights, providing a pathway for positive charges from the ground to lead to the negative ions in thunderclouds and vice versa. Additionally, their tree sap and water serve as good conductors for lightning.

tree lightninig

Flickr | Micky

If a lightning strike doesn’t immediately kill a tree, then it may weaken it to the point that insect and disease do. Lightning strikes affect the biological functions of a tree. Along the path of the strike, sap boils, steam is generated and cells explode in the wood, leading to bark peeling. Not all is lost; if only one side of a tree is struck the chances of survival are good. If the strike passes through the tree trunk and has splintered bark or exploded wood, chances are the tree didn’t survive.

You can install a tree lightning protection system to minimize your trees being harmed. A lightning protection system is basically a copper cable line that runs along the tree, intercepting a lightning bolt and guiding it to the ground opposed to striking the tree.  It’s important to have it professionally installed to avoid doing more harm to the tree, or worse, collateral damage to the surrounding area.

tree lightning far away

Flickr | Spiros Bolos. A tree struck on one side by lightning

It may not be the most cost-effective route to install a lightning protection system to all your trees, especially if you’re living on acreage or have hundreds of trees on your property. Narrow your options down by selecting trees of historical significance, high value trees, or trees that are within 10 feet of a structure or with limbs overhanging the structure. If a tree within 10 feet of a home is struck, side-flashes (jumps) may pass to more conductive materials such as downspouts and other metal objects. Tall trees are the most susceptible, especially those growing alone in open areas such as on hills, in pastures, or near water, as well as certain species including tulip tree, oak, pine, and maple.

Installing a lightning protection system to trees is an investment, but the cost of installation is likely to be less than the repair or removal of a dead tree once it is struck. Check out our When a Storm Strikes bulletin to read up on other safety measures and steps to post-storm damage.

Wayne Miles, Pastor, Blades, Delaware

A Removed Tree Goes on Serving

portrait-Wayne-Miles[1]For years, Pastor Wayne Miles worried about a large street tree next to his Baptist church. The tree was buckling the sidewalk creating a tripping hazard and its roots threatened the building’s foundation.

It wasn’t until a city official suggested he contact Mandy Tolino that something was done about the problem. Mandy was Wilmington’s newly hired urban forestry administrator, a position funded with start-up money from the U.S. Forest Service. Within a week, Mandy arranged to have the tree removed, the roots ground up, the sidewalk repaired and a new tree planted.

Pastor Miles saw another benefit from the experience. “They cut up the wood,” he says. “The nice part about that was that a man who had just been let go from his job asked us for the wood. He had a small child and winter was coming on.”

“Maybe this tree had a purpose,” reflects Pastor Miles. “When there is a conscientious-minded administration and sincere people like Mandy, then they can blend that together where man can coexist in terms of what God has provided us in nature.”

Pastor Miles sees the old tree as “there for a blessing.” He also reports that his congregation is delighted with the new tree and it will be there providing even more benefits for many generations.

Check out our other Faces of Urban Forestry.

Jason Worley, Technology manager, Deutsche Bank

Trees Transform Mixed-Use Commercial Property

portrait-Jason-Worley[1]An un-used air field in Jacksonville, Florida is being converted to a mixed-use commercial area, but thanks to Greenscapes of Jacksonville and its partners, part of the barren area is being restored to native habitat. With the help of Deutsche Bank, the Florida Forest Service and the city forestry department, 6,000 longleaf pines are being planted.

figure1-Jason-Worley[1]As a participant in the project, Jason Worley says, “I want to build a generation of stewards who can see how important it is to restore areas to their natural state.” He notes early success of the project saying, “When we checked back we already saw mammals and reptiles back in the space.” Jason believes this project will benefit not only the area’s wildlife, but also his family and future generations.

figure2-Jason-Worley[1]Jason says there was a role for everyone in the project, including local residents. The project required site preparation, fund-raising, managing a volunteer work force, equipment logistics, and professional forestry advice. The result is an area converted to a sustainable, natural forest that will benefit wildlife and local residents of all ages while at the same time enhancing nearby commercial property.

Check out our other Faces of Urban Forestry.