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Community grapples with aging redwoods

The redwood trees in Center Park appear young and healthy in this photo taken in the 1930s.

Sonoma County Library
Published: Monday, June 18, 2012 at 8:00 a.m.
Last Modified: Friday, June 15, 2012 at 3:00 p.m.

Petaluma's small, downtown island now known as Center Park was once nothing more than a dusty median where people hitched their horses and buggies while going about their business. But all that changed about 80 years ago when someone, for a forgotten reason, planted three small redwood trees there. Until recently, the trees grew steadily skyward, becoming majestic symbols of downtown and rooting themselves in the hearts of many Petaluma residents.

But at least one of the three trees is dying, and now Petalumans are facing a philosophical, as well as an environmental, question: should redwoods remain in Center Park?

At a recent public workshop on the subject, and in an Argus-Courier online poll conducted last week, the overwhelming consensus was yes.

Most acknowledged that the sickest of the three, which has developed the scraggly appearance of Charlie Brown's Christmas tree and had to be trimmed in 2011 to reduce the risk of limbs dropping on passers-by, will have to be removed. Still, most want the other two redwoods to remain and a new redwood to be planted in the place of the one removed.

“They are trees that mean more than just pieces of wood with branches on them. There's something beyond the tree itself,” said Peter Ehrlich, a member of the tree committee and a urban forester in San Francisco, explaining the community's dedication to the redwoods.

“The trees are emotionally important because of the Hospice ceremony,” added Cinda Gillaland, a local landscape architect who facilitated the recent workshop on the park. Each December, Hospice of Petaluma, which helps families deal with life threatening illnesses, illuminates the three evergreens with thousands of lights. Each light is dedicated to the memory of a deceased loved one.

For downtown store owners and shoppers, the redwoods have become a fixture, a symbol of passing time.

“I've been staring at them for 31 years,” said David Minner, who runs the nearby Shutterbug Camera Shop. He peered out of his store's front window on a recent weekday and fondly recalled the tree lighting ceremony.

“You sure would miss ‘em if they were gone,” said Mike Hollingsworth, of Hollingsworth Jewelry near the camera shop.

Indeed, the California redwood, state tree of California, seems to be more than just a tree for people across the state.

For that reason, coast redwoods, like the ones in Petaluma, can be found around the state dotting yards, lining highways and anchoring town centers — in many cases, places they're not very well suited to grow.

Petaluma is one such place, experts acknowledge.

While there's not one easy answer to why the redwoods are struggling in Center Park, it's clear that the environment is part of the problem.

Coast redwoods love cool, wet places that are foggy year-round and the loose, rich soil of riverbeds, according to Todd Dawson, a biology professor at UC Berkeley and an expert on the giant trees.

“Petaluma is actually a case study for what redwoods can and cannot do,” he said, explaining that the city is on the eastern edge of where the trees prefer to live.

Petaluma offers the prehistoric trees part of what they require: cold, wet winters. But the winters aren't enough to offset the hot, dry summers, he said.

And according to climate forecasts, the situation isn't likely to get any better. “The data shows the climate is going away from being hospitable” to redwoods, he said, adding that the zone where redwoods can happily grow is shrinking and moving farther west and north.

“Smaller trees in yards will do OK, but as they grow larger and larger and as we get into warmer and drier climates here in California, they'll run up against the water limit,” he said, explaining that trees require more and more water as they grow taller.

“People are seeing it for themselves,” he noted.

Ehrlich agreed that the downtown trees show the telltale signs of being out of their ideal habitat. The branches have thinned out and some have dropped. The top branches of the sickest tree have died or had to be removed.

But despite this, people plant redwoods throughout Petaluma and show no signs of stopping. They're in yards, commercial developments, and called for as a buffer for wind and noise along Highway 101.

While most redwoods planted in Petaluma won't thrive, Dawson said, with proper care they'll live for decades.

Dawson and Ehrlich both predicted that the two healthier redwoods in Center Park could live for at least another 50 years with proper treatment, though probably not as healthily as a redwood in its native, coastal habitat.

Since 2006, city staff have tried numerous fixes for the sickest tree, including putting misters into the tree to recreate the effect of fog, giving the tree soil supplements, and mulching the area.

In order to keep the healthier two alive, staff will likely have to continue doing so. Ehrlich suggested taking the additional step of deterring people from walking through the park, as doing so compacts the soil and harms the roots.

“It's a challenging place for redwoods, but they're worth taking care of,” he said.

(Contact Jamie Hansen at jamie.hansen@argus courier.com)

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