To just about anybody who visits downtown Tempe, the lush ficus trees are nothing short of iconic.
But to arborists, nearly half the trees on Mill Avenue are hazardous.
Experts have advised Tempe to remove some of the worst trees as soon as possible — despite what that would do to downtown’s leafy atmosphere.
The city is preparing to cut down some trees, but it’s first debating whether to keep the beloved ficus or switch to something else.
Tempe experimented with a less problematic tree about two years ago and has had complaints about the new Chinese pistache.
The biggest problem was how small they were compared with the ficus, said Nancy Hormann, executive director of the Downtown Tempe Community.
Hormann said merchants refer to the pistache as “Charlie Brown’s Christmas tree.”
DTC’s board of directors voted unanimously to keep the ficus.
“Our goal is a fast-growing tree, which ficus is,” Hormann said.
Tempe planted the ficus trees in 1987 to rave reviews. But many trees have struggled in recent years or even been removed. And the larger the trees get, the more they draw grackles in the winter, which results in bird droppings on sidewalks, cars and people.
Now Tempe has discovered that a fungus commonly referred to as sooty canker has set in, further damaging the trees. News reports indicate the fungus has devastated ficus-lined streets in many Southern California cities.
The Tempe City Council will take up the issue Thursday and potentially determine the ficus’s fate. Options include replacing unhealthy ficus with more of the same, switching to the pistache or having several kinds of trees while highlighting the ficus by putting it at intersections.
Some of the ficus trees were destined to an early end from the time they were at the nursery, the city learned in an evaluation by West Coast Aborists Inc. The California-based company inventoried the trees in late 2009 and late 2010, saying 49 of 113 trees were hazardous.
Among their findings:
• A large number of trees were improperly pruned at a young age and developed branches that are too low and too close to each other. These pruning techniques aren’t common today, but it’s too late to correct the problem on trees this old. Some branches or even entire trees should be removed because of the defect, the arborist recommended.
• Many of the trunks are sunburned because the tropical trees need more shade then they get in the desert. West Coast Arborists recommended a tree more suitable to this climate.
• Many trees are leaning and could injure people or damage cars if they fell. The arborist recommended pruning canopies to keep them as light as possible and removing as many hazardous limbs as possible.
Some hazardous trees could last another decade with proper care. But the city is expecting many will need to be replaced in three to five years, said John Osgood, deputy public works director.
Whatever tree is selected, the city expects to buy them years ahead of time, Osgood said. That allows the city to plant a bigger tree that’s pruned for the streetscape.
“We definitely will be exploring the best practices for pruning and developing trees before planting,” he said.
Any replacement will cause some heartburn. The new trees will eventually cover signs on buildings, and than it will take several years before the trees are tall enough to reveal the signs by pruning lower limbs. That’s why merchants want the fastest-growing tree, she said.
Merchants are ready to have a decision so the city can replant some empty planters and fill in barren areas, she said. She doesn’t expect ficus-loving merchants will get too upset if Tempe changes trees.
“Whatever works best is what we all want, but our goal is to keep our icon, to keep our tree-lined streets,” Hormann said.
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