The other day, while wandering City Park with my daughter, we stopped to smell a magnolia blossom. The lemony-sweet smell sent me back to my early childhood on Porteous Street. The magnolias along the sidewalk there filled the air with fragrance and reached out protective branches to shade our summer days.
Then memory zoomed forward 30 years, to the day that I returned to the old house for a post-disaster visit. I peered through broken windows: Gray mold now haunted the walls against which the dramedy of our family’s 1970s had unfolded. And in the front yard, the magnolias that had presided over our Big Wheel races and plastic light-saber duels were now three skeletons, toppled earthward.
These were among the estimated 320 million trees that the disaster killed, according to a study Tulane University researchers published in November. Although the vast bulk of those died in the timberlands of Mississippi and Louisiana, New Orleans homeowners have faced the task of removing their share of dead trees –– sometimes from the attics of their houses. That has turned many a yard into the landscaper’s tabula rasa.
I went to local horticulturist, landscape architect and contractor Peter Raarup for his thoughts on how to fill in the blanks. Raarup has been turning local yards into paradisiacal gardensfor 20 years. He has picked up a thing or two about how to deploy trees.
Trees are like living sculptures, Raarup says. They can be strategically located to screen unsightly views from the houseor to direct attention to focal points in views of the house. Then there are practical matters, Raarup says. Trees can create privacy or a shady place for relaxation.
Properly placed, the right tree can also lower utility bills. In general, Raarup recommends a deciduous tree for this purpose. If placed in the northwest quarter of the property, it will shade the house during the hottest months of the year at the hottest times of day. In the winter, it will drop its leaves and allow the sun’s rays to warm the house. “There’s an element of seasonality and timing,” Raarup says.
the right tree
The setting will largely determine which tree is right, Raarup says. A small yard takes a small tree. A crape myrtle, for example, will “create a canopy that relates to human scale,” Raarup says.
Roots also come into play. Never place a tree less than 4 or 5 feet from a house, Raarup says, because of the damage the root system can do to the foundation. For the same reason, he says you shouldn’t plant trees closer than 3 or 4 feet to a sidewalk or patio. Of course, these rules aren’t hard and fast. An oak tree needs a wider berth because of its aggressive root system; a palm tree, by contrast, will have a relatively contained root system.
But in this tempest-tossed, termite-tormented city, there’s also the question of durability. Raarup says fast-growing, soft-wooded trees are the most delicate in a windstorm and the most vulnerable to invasive insects and disease. River birches and most dogwoods are to be avoided. Camphor trees are graceless, fragile and toxic to neighboring plants. And they drop a lot of trash. “It’s like living next to a Burger King,” Raarup says.
Slow-growing, long-lived trees that are dense-wooded will hold up better against wind, bugs and disease. Oaks fare well here, as a stroll through Uptown will attest.
Raarup recalls that during the evacuation of the city, he had a recurring nightmare that the oak trees had been killed and toppled. Not only is the oak an iconic New Orleans tree, Raarup says, but the city’s oak canopy also protects drivers and pedestrians from the sun.
Other local standards –– the Louisiana swamp cypress and the magnolia tree –– are beautiful but come with drawbacks. The cypress will put up knees. The magnolia has a thick canopy and a shallow root system that deprives its surroundings of sunlight and sucks the surrounding ground dry, killing off grass and other plants. It’s also easily destroyed by floodwaters. “They really can’t take anything mucking around with their roots,” Raarup says.
Raarup advises investing extra money to plant older trees –– “unless you’re planting it for your great-grandchildren to enjoy” –– but also to be mindful of the ultimate size of what you’re planting. “A lot of times people plant things without knowing what they’ll end up with,” he says.
In general, the best time to plant trees is from October through April. Palms are the exception; it’s best to plant them during the hot months. Regardless, Raarup says to water the heck out of your new plantings.
For my own part, I recently removed a magnolia tree that had been killed during Katrina. There’s a blank space to fill now, maybe with another magnolia. As delicate and bothersome as the tree may be, the trade-off comes from an occasional perfume that recalls simpler days.