As a certified arborist, I guess you could call me a professional tree hugger. I recently attended the International Society of Arboriculture conference and I have a lot to share with you all about trees. In this 3 part series, I will dive into the reasons why we need trees, the types of trees we need, and where to plant them. My goal is to educate people so that they will see the importance of trees just as I do.
The Importance of Trees
You’ve probably heard it before: Save the trees! Save the trees! In fact, I know you’ve heard it if you follow our blog because we’ve written so many blogs on trees in the past. We’ve highlighted native trees for fall color, Japanese maples, trees for pollinator gardens, hemlocks for homeowners, trees that provide foliage and privacy, how to prune trees, and many many more tree topics. But now, I want to talk about something a little more general: Why trees matter.
Have you ever wondered, why all the fuss? What is so special about trees? What about other plants? Are they not just as important?
For one, trees are special because there are so many of them. Did you know there are more trees on earth than there are stars in the Milky Way?
They are also some of the biggest and oldest living organisms in the world. Known as Methuselah, there is a Great Basin Bristlecone Pine (Pinus longaeva) found in the White Mountains of California that is nearly 5,000 years old, making it the oldest known non-cloned living organism on Earth.
There is a sequoia (Sequoiadendron giganteum) known as General Sherman in California’s Sequoia National Park that is about 52,500 cubic feet in volume, making it the largest tree by volume, and a redwood named Hyperion that is 379.7 feet tall, making it the tallest.
Because of their size, age, and number, trees impact our planet more than any other plantlife. Let’s look at what that impact is exactly.
Climate Resiliency, Cleaner Air, and Cleaner Water
This one is simple. Trees operate through photosynthesis, a food-making process that involves absorbing carbon dioxide in the air and generating oxygen as a byproduct. This function of trees is important because it keeps our atmosphere balanced. Trees store carbon dioxide throughout their lives which helps slow the buildup of greenhouse gasses that can cause climate change.
This process also means trees act as a filtration system for the air around us. Pollution that arises from burning fossil fuels can become dangerous to our lungs, causing a myriad of ailments like asthma and heart disease. Trees trap pollutants in their leaves and in turn, produce oxygen and clean air that is good for our bodies.
Trees also filter our water, making our drinking supply cleaner and more reliable. When it rains, the roots of trees hold water, filter it, and then release it back into waterways. Any pollutants or sediments that were there to begin with have been filtered out.
As you will see throughout this series, choosing to plant and preserve trees is one of the most cost-effective decisions you can make for your home, business, community, country, etc. One of the ways in which they can save you money is in regards to conserving energy. Strategically placing trees around your home to shade from the hot summer sun can reduce air conditioning costs by as much as 30%. If you have deciduous trees, their leaves will fall in the colder seasons, exposing your home to the sun and thus reducing the energy needed to heat the house. Even more, trees serve to reduce the effects of wind on a home, which can also lower heating costs.
Heatwaves and Heat Islands
If you’ve gone outside at all lately, you’ve probably noticed the heatwave most of the US has been experiencing in the past month. Whether it has caused you to view popsicles as its own food group or you’ve considered shaving your head just to cool off, this heatwave has everyone thinking of both short-term and long-term solutions. But desperate times don’t always have to call for desperate measures. Here is how trees can help.
On one hand, trees provide shade, which is an obvious solution to needing shelter from the sun’s hot rays but still very effective. EPA.gov says, “Shaded surfaces, for example, may be 20–45°F cooler than the peak temperatures of unshaded materials.” But a less obvious way in which trees can help has to do with heat islands. Ever heard of them? And no, we aren’t talking about the Bahamas. Heat islands are essentially urbanized areas where temperatures are higher than outlying areas due to structures like buildings, roads, and pavement that re-emits the sun’s heat. If you’ve ever been in a parking lot in the middle of the day in the summer, you might know what I mean. “Daytime temperatures in urban areas are about 1–7°F higher than temperatures in outlying areas and nighttime temperatures are about 2-5°F higher.”
Trees lower surface and air temperatures through a process known as evapotranspiration, the combined processes of evaporation and transpiration. Essentially, trees transform liquid water into vapor by absorbing heat. They then release this vapor into the atmosphere through their leaves, moving heat from the surface and land into the air. “Evapotranspiration, alone or in combination with shading, can help reduce peak summer temperatures by 2–9°F.”
So instead of blasting our buildings with air conditioning during these hot months and spending millions of dollars on energy that will in turn hurt our bodies and our lungs even more, why not plant a few trees in our cities and urban areas? It would be cheaper, healthier, and better for everyone. What’s an “urban jungle” without actual greenery?
Trees help more than just our air and environment. Surprisingly enough, they actually even protect our precious manmade structures! For one, tree leaves intercept rainfall, reducing runoff that erodes pavement and other types of surface materials overtime. The roots of trees hold soil in place which also reduces flooding and other types of erosion. This saves building owners money on maintenance and costs from drainage issues.
Mental and Physical Health
This one is something less tangible but has proven time and time again to be true. Our mental and physical health is so intertwined, it only makes sense that the more oxygen our brain receives, the better we feel emotionally and mentally. Researchers have found that hospital patients with a window view of trees recover faster than those without. Another finding is that children with ADD are better able to concentrate after time spent in green settings. Here is another study that shows how a walk in nature can reduce anxiety and stress.
Increased Home Value
So we’ve talked about how you’ll save money with trees but let’s talk about how you’ll also make money. According to the National Wildlife Federation, “The value of homes near trees is 9 to 15 percent higher than homes without.” Even more, HGTV reports, “Several recent nationwide surveys show that mature trees in a well-landscaped yard can increase the value of a house by 7 percent to 19 percent.” This means it is even more fiscally significant to maintain your current trees than to plant new ones, though new ones aren’t a bad idea either.
The initial cost of planting a tree includes purchasing materials, planting, and ongoing maintenance such as pruning, irrigation, and pest/disease control. A study on 5 US cities found that, on a per-tree basis, the cities accrued benefits ranging from about $1.50–$3.00 for every dollar invested. These cities spent roughly $15–$65 annually per tree, with net annual benefits ranging from approximately $30–$90 per tree. The value of tree planting almost always outweighs the costs.
Other benefits of trees include beautiful natural aesthetic, a special place to gather, reduction of noise pollution, a home for wildlife to thrive, a sense of pride whether it’s from a community or private space, and a visible sign of change and growth for us all to reflect on. We may live in North Georgia where there are lots of trees, but I never want us to take that for granted. Environments and neighbors are constantly changing and the more we know about what’s important, the better we can advocate for our overall health.
Stay tuned for more blogs on what types of trees to plant and where to plant them.