Legacy of Leafless Trees

Salt spray from storm hampers the London planes
The salty winds of Tropical Storm Irene combined with a dry early spring may spell doom for many London plane trees. Russell Drumm

    Further Lane, between Indian Wells Highway in Amagansett and Egypt Lane in East Hampton, has to be one of the most beautiful residential byways in the country. Tony homes and former farm fields on its south side overlook rolling dunes and the Atlantic Ocean. Those on the north side are buttressed by hedgerows and stately old trees.
    But this spring there is one stretch of the lane that seems not exactly naked, but unsuitably dressed — a long row of London plane trees on the south side of the road with nary a leaf unfurled.
    The same is true of London planes in other parts of town and elsewhere on the East End, and the stunted leaf growth can be seen in other species too, including black locusts, sassafras, pin oaks, birches, willows, sweet gums, elms, silver maples, and tulip trees.
    Tropical storm Irene, which slammed the East End last Aug. 28, is largely to blame, according to Neil Hendrickson, an arborist with Bartlett Tree Experts, a nationwide company.
    Mr. Hendrickson was called in when local arborists reported the strange absence of spring foliage. He said that because the East End is practically an island unto itself, it was normal for trees to be salted by storm-driven winds. But the salting they got from Irene was heavier by orders of magnitude, he said, both because of the strength and duration of the wind’s attack.
    “It’s very common for a storm of that magnitude, 70 to 80 miles per hour, to drive the salt into the tree. And, high velocity adds up to more salt. The wind lasted up to 12 hours. It reduces the boundary layer,” Mr. Hendrickson said, comparing a tree without that layer to a person without clothing in a driving wind.
    Potential buds “desiccate, dry out. It creates reverse osmosis. It’s like salting a slug, except on trees,” Mr. Hendrickson said. “We did see trees located below the blast of wind with good leaves.”
    “We could weave this into a bigger story, with climate change, and the odd weather. It’s hard to tease out the actual cause.” However, Mr. Hendrickson said Irene’s salting was followed by an extremely dry early spring. “The abnormal spring had the trees leafing out in an asynchronous way. Some trees that I’d never seen leaf out before March 31 leafed out three weeks early and then dried out.”
    The arborist explained that when leaves first emerge, they do so using starch stored in the branch. “They come out like a bird from an egg and start photosynthesis. They reach down for water. If there’s no water, they don’t have the strength. We can’t link it directly, but there’s probably an interaction between the salting, the very early bud break, and the dry spring.”
    “Even though planes are tough and exist in about every city in the country, they may not be tough enough for the unusual set of circumstances. We think it’s a compelling story,” Mr. Hendrickson said. 
    Strangely, the related native American sycamore — “the one with marbly bark” — was not affected by Irene’s salting. Most London planes were nursery-grown transplants, he explained.
    He said some of the planes may not come back. “Most trees have stored energy. They have enough for only one good refoliation. This makes them more susceptible to disease. They have less ability to defend themselves. They can spend the interest, but now they’re spending principle.”
    The tree expert said time would tell. In the meantime, he told tree owners to give the planes plenty of water in hopes it will help them “push more leaves. If not, do things to encourage them like mulching, fertilization, and disease management, he said. 


Wonderful story. Thanks. Marjorie Chester