Human Flower Project

Ash Assassin

Taking out one endangered tree seems to cause more alarm than the threat to a whole species. Allen Bush takes out an ash and takes on the neighborhood.

imageThe Emerald Ash Borer (Agrilus planipennis B)

Photo: Zin

By Allen Bush

Arborists cut down our big white ash tree a few weeks before Christmas. It had stood in the front yard since 1974. My neighbors weren’t happy with me. My pleas for any understanding fell on deaf ears throughout the holidays in coffee shops, at parties, on the street. I promised everyone that there would be a better tree that goes in its place.

“Good luck,” I was told.

“We’re tree huggers!” one critic added. No one seemed to know what kind of tree it was, or even care why I’d taken it out. None of that mattered. Our tree was their tree. “What a bummer,” one passerby lamented.

At least the neighbors weren’t marching down Top Hill Road in solidarity, carrying Louisville Slugger baseball bats made from white ash wood, at least not yet. “I see you took the down the tree,” is not a neutral declaration. It means I have looted the neighborhood. I am the ash assassin.

Nobody cared that the tree removal was a preemptive strike, ahead of the emerald ash borer (EAB). This insect has already launched an assault on tens of thousands of ash trees in Louisville alone. 

Our white ash (Fraxinus americana) should never have been planted in the first place, at least not in our front yard. (White ash grows naturally from Cape Breton Island, Nova Scotia, south to northern Florida.  It extends west to eastern Texas and eastern Minnesota.)

The tree was planted after a 1974 tornado took out a big oak that had stood since the house was built in 1938. White and green ash trees have long been popular landscape trees. They grow very quickly into salable trees and are a tempting option for homeowners and municipalities who think cheap translates into a good deal.

The good deal often comes at a price. There have been far too many planted on city streets, in parks and in home landscapes because they were inexpensive, easy for nurserymen to produce and readily available.

The sad, expensive loss of American elms – to Dutch elm disease - in private and public landscapes was a wake-up call.  Louisville’s Metro Parks’ designers and horticulturists learned a lesson. They have methodically begun more diverse tree plantings along parkways as replacements for the monoculture of pin oaks that were planted more than one hundred years ago.


Big white ash in Holliston, Massachusetts (2006)  cbh 17’ 10” 

Photo: Native Tree Society

As for the white ash, no one suspected that our thin, clay soils would be a problem. The tree grew quickly, so did its roots – marauding, giant bicep-shaped, surface feeding tendrils that zigzagged erratically toward our foundation. During a summer dry spell a few years ago, they stretched-out and found a moist crack in the foundation. The roots pried the crack wider, and the basement, when it rained again, was covered in mud slurry. That wasn’t a cheap fix. Neither were periodic winter pruning jobs to take-out dead limbs that had been afflicted with one of diseases common to ash trees.

I never bothered to figure-out whether a canker or a fungus caused these non-lethal ailments. I had no interest in treating the tree. And I knew that preventive options for emerald ash borer (EAB) weren’t cheap, either. But clever marketers know how to appeal to the merciful. The Tree-äge insecticide folks must have been polling along my street to come-up with such a heart tugging come on: “Losing important trees in your community can be visually and emotionally devastating. Be proactive.”

But couldn’t cutting down the ash, and planting another tree that stands a chance of being alive ten years from now, be proactive, too? (I’ve planted dozens of trees and shrubs on our one-third-acre urban lot.  I’ve not always succeeded but I’ve tried to be a good steward to all of them.) Treating our white ash with any of the available broad-spectrum insecticidal options could kill EAB, but I worried it might kill beneficial insects, too – including honeybees.  Chemical life support might have helped avoid the enmity of the neighborhood, but, in the end, treatments would have been little more than heroic triage. (To his credit, my friend the arborist Robert Rollins of Greenhaven Tree Care discussed the treatment options with the skill of a marriage counselor. He never tipped his hand to make a recommendation. “It’s up to you,” he said.)

imageAllen Bush making nice with a white ash in Cherokee Park, Louisville, KY

Photo: Rose Cooper Bush

Confession: I have had nothing but a bad relationship with the ash for 16 years – as long as we’ve lived with it. I am a little surprised that I cannot find a single photo of the ash. I was sure there was a photo of Rose and our granddaughter sitting on the tree swing. There is no evidence, now, the tree existed at all, save for the pile of wood chips that remain from the 42” stump that got ground to pulp.  (Interestingly, when I mentioned my ash “issues”  – as a desperate defense – one holiday assailant asked, “Why didn’t you say that in the first place?”)

Rose had more heart than I. For five years I bedeviled her that the tree was doomed. She believed that no tree should be taken-out until it had become completely skeletonized and looked like a bare coat rack. I pleaded that we shouldn’t wait in agony to watch the tree go down within 3-5 years of infestation.  (The adults feed on the leaves and the larvae burrow into the cambium.) We could plant something, now, and enjoy it – for years to come – or at least until our children pack us away to a rest home.

When I announced that the emerald ash borer had reached Louisville, Rose reluctantly agreed that we could take-out our ash. Later, when neighbors stopped her on the street and asked about the fallen tree, she blamed it all on me.


White Ash (Fraxinus americana)

Image: TAMU

Six eastern North American ash species face the “threat of functional extinction” according to Mark P. Widrlechner, writing in The Public Garden.  This is a staggering thought in light of the near elimination of American elm and the American chestnut.  And the Thousand Cankers Disease (TCD) is now posing a threat to black walnuts. Widrlechner has done horticultural research within the National Plant Germplasm System (NPGS), for the U.S. Department of Agriculture, at Iowa State University in Ames, Iowa.

EAB Agrilus planipennis was likely introduced to southeastern Michigan from Asian shipping containers in the 1990s but only discovered in 2002 in Canton, Michigan. In little more than ten years EAB has spread north into Ontario and Quebec and south to Tennessee taking-out “tens of millions of ashes,” according to Widrlechner, “with billions of dollars invested in tree removal, disposal (to prevent EAB reproduction), and replanting.”  Dennis Fulbright, a professor of plant pathology at Michigan State, has called EAB, “ a capitalist disease.” He believes there weren’t adequate inspections at the borders. “These seem like boring regulations but they need to be done.” Quarantines have been implemented. And attempts have been made to avoid the movement of infected firewood. Neither has stopped the march of the emerald ash borer.

Since EAB’s discovery, little has slowed its progress; the potential downside is frightening. Widrlechner forecasted, “… this is only the beginning; future costs may be enormous, considering the estimated number of remaining ash trees (as high as 8 billion).” Widrlechner is attempting to gather and preserve germplasm seed samples of ash species across their native range. To preserve ash species, insecticidal injections on targeted botanic collections do make sense. And, there is always an evolutionary chance that there may exist some errant, resistant rogues that survive the EAB.

But none of these pros or cons mattered much to my neighbors. The prevailing feeling - or hope - was that our tree was bigger and stronger and might miraculously survive. The odds of its survival were slim to none, but it was the Christmas season of miracles. I had cut down all hope.

imageRosella Rudd’s original beech tree, damaged in a 2009 storm

Photo: Allen Bush

I have a better understanding, now, of why our white ash played a vital part in a larger landscape. I created more neighborhood anxiety than could any concerns with the looming emerald ash borer (EAB).  Few, if any, have thought about the “functional extinction” of ashes.  The projected threat means less today than the loss of the one ash tree I took down last month. In part, that’s because there is a communal hole; much of the loss is cumulative. 

It’s been a rough few years for trees in Louisville. Winds and ice have devastated the city over the last three years.  The remnants of Hurricane Ike blew through in September 2008, packing winds in excess of 65 mph that knocked-out power for a week and left scattered fallen limbs and trees in its wake. Convoys of out of state electric workers pitched camp in Louisville for weeks. Local arborists were flooded. Black market tree operators arrived from as far away as Florida. They filled-in, chopped-up, took cash, paid no local or state taxes and went home a month or two later.

They were back in late January 2009.  The eerie sound of trees being torn apart by a burdensome half inch of ice lasted through the night.  Limbs and age-old tree trunks, strained by more weight than they could carry, came crashing to the ground. The power went-out again for a week; the debris took weeks to clean up. Indigenous, native trees including oaks, hickories, black gums and ashes generally held-up better than river birches, lacebark elms and silver maples that took a pounding. Bradford pears and southern magnolias didn’t fare much better.


The base of a mature white ash tree, with “bicep-shaped, surface feeding tendrils”

Photo: Fine Art America

I presumed, by 2011 that every weakened or dying tree had been eliminated by wind or ice.  But a straight-line 60 mph wind this past August proved me wrong.  This freak storm that lasted less than five minutes knocked down a bunch more. We lost power for a day. The clean up lasted a couple of weeks.

University of Louisville biologist Margaret Carreiro, and graduate student Shannon Scoggins, did a random survey of 10 of Louisville’s 26 Metro Council districts and found that 7.9% of the tree canopy had disappeared in the two storms of 2008 and 2009. They also surveyed residents and found that one-third said they would replace lost trees; the remaining two-thirds felt they had enough standing trees or thought replacements would be too much trouble to maintain.

Louisville’s Courier-Journal reported in 2011 on a nearly forgotten 1994 task force recommendation for the creation of a tree board. The article mentioned that Nashville, Cincinnati and Indianapolis have tree boards and – perhaps not surprisingly—better-maintained trees.  “The condition of Louisville’s urban forest has really declined,” according to Peter Barber, urban forester with the Kentucky Department of Forestry. There is a renewed push to create a Louisville tree board but it will require sustained community involvement and political leadership.  The most visible centerpiece is parks.

imageMike Hayman, parks activist and arborist, in front of a targeted big pin oak near Bowman Field

Photo: Allen Bush

Katy Schneider, who is attempting to jump-start the Louisville tree board for Mayor Greg Fischer, attended an early January public meeting. The Louisville Regional Airport Authority plans to cut down, or seriously mangle, as many as 800 trees surrounding Bowman Field to make airplane landings and take-offs safer in bad weather. (Pilots could divert to the nearby Clark County [Indiana] Regional Airport that has a runway 1,000’ longer than Bowman’s and is only a few minutes away.) The Airport Authority has concentrated its tree removal around private landowners, in the neighborhoods of Kingsley, Seneca Gardens and Seneca Vista, but Schneider sees the larger picture.  She told the Courier-Journal, “It will affect the whole community. It will affect Seneca Park. That’s what bothers me.”

Louisville has an extensive parks system covering over 14,000 acres on 122 parks. The magnificent Frederick Law Olmsted-designed parks and parkways are the most historic. There is a significant, new privately funded public parks expansion in eastern and southeastern Jefferson County underway, too. But Louisville’s parks and parkways need improvements in infrastructure and maintenance. The can has been getting kicked down the parkway for a long time.  John Charles Olmsted, nephew and adopted son of Frederick, complained in 1915 that Louisville’s parkways were “inadequate.” He blamed it on a “lack of power and money.”

Louisville has parks advocates who think big and are undaunted, but know the City of Parks slogan is as yet unmerited. The Olmsted Parks Conservancy has raised over $25 million since 1989 to restore, enhance and preserve the Olmsted parks and parkways. And Twenty-First Century Parks is adding nearly 4000 acres with their Parklands at Floyd’s Fork project, unique public/private collaboration and one of the biggest parks expansions in the country.

The ambition to be the City of Parks is a worthy goal, but change —if only to achieve parity with Cincinnati, Indianapolis or Nashville - will require broader community support and political leadership.

The Sacramento Tree Foundation has established a bold mission to plant 5 million new trees in the Sacramento region by 2025. One million new plantings will replace trees in decline and four million will be new additions. The Sacramento Tree Foundation’s ambitious goal will account for half of the 5 million total. Homeowners and businesses would plant the balance of 2.5 million trees.

Could Louisvillians, already anxious that they’re losing too many trees - - yet unsure they can maintain what’s left—buy into a vision to plant and maintain new trees? Planting five hundred thousand trees, or even one hundred thousand new trees, might not be the hardest part. Nurturing the new tree canopy would be a taller order. Trees need care. They have to be watered the first few years, periodically pruned and inspected, and protected from mowers and string trimmers. Expanding and strengthening the urban tree canopy can produce cost savings and a healthier environment.  The noble justifications of carbon sequestration, reduction of storm water runoff and cooling the urban heat island sound too bland to sell to an uncertain public. Developing and maintaining the feel-good City of Parks brand could produce the same positive outcomes. Timidity means Louisville becomes known as the City of Many Parks.


Rosella Rudd and Allen Bush with their newly planted beech trees, January 2012, Louisville, KY

Photo: Rose Cooper Bush

I visited Goshen Garden and Landscaping in nearby Goshen, Kentucky in November a few weeks before the ash takedown. My next-door neighbor, Rosella Rudd, and I drove out to look for new trees. The 2009 ice storm severely damaged her huge American beech tree that was already weakened by decay. It was mercifully taken down last fall – another huge blow to the street. Rosella’s beech and our ash had kept company on either side of our property lines, a little more than ten yards apart, since 1974. 

Nurseryman Paul Bachmann walked us around. We didn’t want puny tree whips. We hoped to plant something that would make us proud, that might even look majestic one day. There were gorgeous red maples, oaks, bald cypresses and even some black gums, but we kept circling back to several rows of American beech trees. Rosella liked one and I liked another. We put tags on them. The beeches are planted, now. They look beautiful. My neighbors are smiling, again, and waving as they walk by. Rosella and I didn’t plan on having a matching pair, but we like our two beeches. Rose does, too.

Posted by .(JavaScript must be enabled to view this email address) on 01/14 at 05:25 PM


Allen, thank you for sharing this story with us.  I am particularly impressed that you linked your action to larger issues of tree planting, routine maintenance, and the range of positive effects of tree planting.  Also, your essay is a reminder that the decisions we make regarding trees should not be taken lightly as the consequences can have adverse impacts on our physical environment and our quality of life.
p.s. The American beech is a magnificent tree—great choice!

Posted by Georgia on 01/18 at 11:34 AM

Thank you, Georgia. I went to an interesting public meeting last night that was focused on the concerns about the potential loss of trees in neighborhoods and the park around the small Bowman Field airport here in Louisville. The FAA has issued new requirements that may require that trees, around a broad swath of the airport, be taken out or severely pruned. The neighbors, and parks people, aren’t too happy and are trying to find-out what their options to preserve hundreds of trees might be. Too early to tell, but there was a big turnout.

Posted by .(JavaScript must be enabled to view this email address) on 01/20 at 11:39 AM
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