Guest Post: Our Exotic Urban Forest

This is a guest post by Nancy Nordman from Our City Forest, San Jose’s urban forestry group. Our City Forest is a non-profit organization that provides free trees and tree advice to San Jose residents and promotes greenery in our urban environment. They’ve planted some 65,000 trees in San Jose! Here, Nancy takes us on a tree walk of the urban forest around San Jose’s Rosicrucian Egyptian Museum. Why not poke around and see what’s growing in yours?

When I first started as an AmeriCorps member at Our City Forest, I probably couldn’t name even ten different tree species, let alone classify the species I was standing under.  I knew plenty about how trees used photosynthesis to make food and I definitely had an appreciation for the benefits trees provide to us and the environment.   But ask me to tell the difference between an Ash and an Elm?  At that point, your guess was as good as mine.

Once I found out I would be leading tree tours around the city, I began to poke around looking for any information that could help me – field guides, the internet, and my enthusiastic co-workers.   I found there to be incredible diversity just among the 65,000 trees planted by Our City Forest. I  began to see opportunities everywhere I looked for more greenery to be added to this city to make it healthier, more efficient, and more beautiful.

At Our City Forest, we are often asked why we allow any planting of non-native trees.  While we are a strong advocate of planting native trees, there are numerous situations where planting non-natives actually makes more sense.  As the city of San Jose has grown, urbanization has drastically altered the native environment, so some natives can no longer thrive in the urban setting.  Oftentimes we plant drought tolerant non-native trees from similar Mediterranean climates that can handle harsh urban challenges such as smog.  Species diversity is also incredibly important to maintaining the health of an urban forest so that if a disease comes through, the tree population can make a comeback.

The wonderful thing about all this diversity is that you don’t need to go somewhere special to see a bunch of different trees!  I encourage you to take a walk along your street and just try to notice the urban forest around you.  To get you started, here are some great trees to check out at the Rosicrucian Egyptian Museum in San Jose.  (There are around 50 different tree species within the grounds of the Rosicrucian Museum alone!)

Canary Island Palm. Photo credit: Our City Forest

Canary Island Palm (Phoenix canariensis)

Where better to start than a “tree” that is not really a tree?  Palms are technically classified as grasses.  Unlike true trees, palms do not undergo secondary growth and therefore do not produce true wood, but rather a fibrous trunk structure.  There are also differences in their growth and structure as well as their root system.

In contrast to the equally common Mexican Fan Palm, Canary Island Palms are shorter and stockier and have pinnate feathery leaves instead of the fan palmate structure of the Mexican Fan Palm.  If you still aren’t sure which palm it is, look underneath the feathery stalks hanging down and you can usually see what looks like a large pineapple.   The Canary Island Palm does in fact come from the Canary Islands and is highly ornamental, sporting large, orange, edible dates.

Jacarandas in bloom. Photo credit: Frank Reyes

Jacaranda (Jacaranda mimosifolia)

If you are looking to see some color in our urban forest, keep your eyes peeled for the gorgeous Jacaranda trees!  Though found all over San Jose, these trees originate from the tropical environment of Brazil and Argentina and have since been introduced all over the world.  Their popularity is thanks to the large showy violet flowers that appear in late spring or early summer.  Also interesting to note is the large brown clamshell seedpods and the fern-like compound leaves.  These trees are located throughout the museum grounds, but are mainly located near the obelisk.

Irish Yew. Photo credit: Our City Forest

Irish Yew (Taxus baccata)

On the side of the museum directly across from the Starbucks, you will see two short stocky bush-like trees.  But don’t be fooled, they may look tiny but these trees are some of the most formidable trees on the whole grounds!  Bearing toxic wood and leaves, these trees are also extremely long-lived, up to 4000 years!  It is said that bow makers and other wood craftsmen would get sick from working with this wood.  Originating in Europe, this tree was often planted in cemeteries as a symbol of transcendence after death.  They can be identified by their flat dark green leaves and red seeds, which are very much enjoyed by bird species that don’t find them toxic.

White mulberry. Photo credit: Our City Forest

White Mulberry (Morus alba)

If you cared for silkworms in elementary school, you may know that they will only eat mulberry leaves.  The White Mulberry is appreciated here in San Jose for its fast growth and ability to handle pruning.  Less known but certainly more impressive is its ability to shoot out pollen at 350 miles per hour — one of the fastest movements in the plant kingdom!  There is a particularly great White Mulberry on the museum grounds next to the Akhenaten Shrine and near the Peace Garden.

Olive tree. Photo Credit: Our City Forest

Olive (Olea europea)

Possibly my favorite tree yet is the Olive tree, mainly for its incredibly beautiful silver-gray leaves and whorled trunk.  You likely know this tree for its production of olives, or perhaps from its history of use for crowns in ancient Olympic games. The Olive tree does very well in San Jose’s climate because it originally comes from the Mediterranean Basin, making it quite drought tolerant.  Worldwide, the olive tree stands for peace and wisdom and the museum has dedicated a large section of the grounds to these magnificent trees.

Dawn Redwood. Photo credit: Our City Forest.

Dawn Redwood (Metasequoia glyptostroboides)

Tucked in a corner by the library and rose garden of the museum, you will find a gem of a specimen—a huge Dawn Redwood!  These fantastic trees were actually widely thought to be extinct, but as they were attempting to classify fossil records of the leaves, a matching specimen was found in an area of central China.  Similar to the ginkgo, this tree is considered a “living fossil.”  Don’t be surprised if you find this tree looking dead in the autumn and winter.  The Dawn Redwood is the only living deciduous redwood species and so it will turn a beautiful bronze color and then drop its feathery leaves, taking on a skeletal appearance.

Bunya Pine (Araucaria bidwilli)

To the left of the main entrance to the museum are a couple of Bunya Pines, which are an interesting evergreen species from Southeastern Queensland.  Take a close look at the branches which have tufts of leaves at the ends and few by the trunk — but do watch for large falling seed cones!  The edible cones get as heavy as 10-15lbs, so during fruiting season this tree can be quite dangerous!  From far off, it is very pretty with its branches forming a rounded dome structure toward the top.

***

I hope you enjoyed this brief tour of the unique non-native trees you can discover in San Jose!  As I continue to learn more about trees, I find my appreciation of their beauty and function is constantly growing.  Trees are already working hard filtering pollutants out of the air, cleaning our water, and providing home for critical wildlife species.  I hope you will join Our City Forest in advocating for a vast and healthy urban forest!  If you wish to learn more about trees and urban forestry, check out the Our City Forest website, like us on Facebook, come out and volunteer with us, or consider getting a tree from our nursery!  We also have free educational tree tours and classroom presentations.  Our City Forest is a nonprofit that has been providing free trees for residents, schools, and parks across San Jose since 1994.  For more information on our planting, tree care, and educational programs, visit our website or call (408) 998-7337.

Jennifer: Do you know what’s growing in your urban forest? On my street are maples, ashes, sweetgums, olives, birches, redwoods, redbuds, gingkos, and Chinese pistachios, just to name a few. Going on a tree walk with a knowledgeable local is a great way to learn about the forest you live in. Thanks, Nancy!

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5 responses to this post.

  1. While these trees won’t survive in my climate, it was interesting to learn a few new things I hadn’t known before. I had no idea the Irish Yew was toxic or that there was only one species of redwood that is deciduous. Thanks

    Reply

    • Glad you learned something! Yews are toxic, but they’ve also managed to extract something from the toxin of the Pacific Yew tree which is used in cancer treatments. I find it fascinating how many things that can kill us in large doses have other uses at smaller ones!

      Reply

  2. [...] It’s Not Easy To Be Green [...]

    Reply

  3. Great stuff! Thanks for sharing!

    Reply

  4. Posted by Allan on 09/03/2014 at 09:53

    Related article on trees. This is a great link with information about America’s forests…

    http://www.internationalpaper.com/apps/gopaper/index.html

    Reply

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