Barton Springs Pool Pecan to be Removed

The beloved leaning pecan at Barton Springs Pool

The pecan tree that leans heavily over the Barton Springs Pool is scheduled for removal.  This iconic tree has been in poor condition for decades, at least since the 30’s when its heavy lean is first documented in historical photos.  The city of Austin has done everything possible to physically support the tree, from using tar, concrete and rebar to fill the massive cavity in its trunk (where decay created a hollow large enough for a man to easily fit inside of it), to installing steel support posts, to anchoring support ropes to nearby structures. They even planted a replacement tree next to it in the 70’s.  For decades it has been poked, prodded and even internally examined with high tech radar equipment.

The question on everyone’s mind of course is, “Can’t it be saved?”  This is not the first time the question has arose in recent history.  Surely back in the 40’s, 50’s and 70’s, when other support materials were installed in the tree this question was asked.  But it was asked again in 2009, when the city was planning to remove about 24 huge trees around the pool area, including this tree.  In fact, this tree was one of four that received the highest risk rating out the 58 trees assessed at that time. But during public hearings regarding these trees, I and several other local arborists advocated for a more thorough assessment of trees the city thought should be removed. It was my opinion that most of them would be deemed worthy of keeping after such an assessment.  I did not think this tree would (or should) be one of them.

The assessments were done, and only about five or six trees were removed over the following year or two.  But public sentiment was so strong during the hearings that “Flo”, as she came to be called, was shored up with yet more steel supports, and then I guess everyone just crossed their fingers.

Now, indications of further decline have led the city to reevaluate Flo yet again.  One of the most troubling indications is the recent appearance of a fungal structure that was identified by Texas A&M plant pathology lab as a decay fungi known as Kretzschmaria deusta.  This serious decay fungi almost always leads to rapid, total root failure or tree death. This, and the widening of the separation between what little remains of actual trunk tissue and the massive concrete filling installed over a half century ago (and then replaced again years later- see photos)

separation of trunk from filling 2023

city of austin photo from the 70's

city of austin photo from the 70’s

city of austin photo from the 70's

city of austin photos from the 70’s

led the city to have an in-depth assessment done by some of the city’s most respected arborists.  A prominent local environmental group also asked me to look at the tree.  I basically explained that the tree was in worse shape than in 2009 and the best course of action was removal. After the other city-ordered reports were done, the city was asked by several other concerned citizens if they would have me also look at the tree.  Given that my opinion of the tree for 14 years earlier hadn’t changed, I agreed to provide a more basic assessment.    All four arborists were unanimous in our recommendation that the tree be removed.  The city has put our reports on their website.

There are dozens of photos on the city website that make the condition of the tree quite obvious.  Yes, it has a lush green canopy of leaves, but this has nothing to do with a tree’s structural integrity (see my post on tree decay).  In fact, in an urban environment it’s usually a tree with a full green canopy that topples, and is found to be totally rotten inside.  The dead and dying ones are often cut down before they fall.

While it is possible to add even more steel support posts sand cables to truss up even more of the tree (like this cedar in Switzerland) it would still be necessary to construct some kind of barricade to keep people out from under it should part of it fall, and this would mean a permanent structure of some kind in the pool itself.  This would obstruct part of the pool and pose a significant obstacle and possible hazard to swimmers.

If the city decided to do those things, and something still happened, it would be hard for the city to justify having kept the tree in light of its condition.  To put it mildy.  And after $100K is likely spent, the tree will still die from root rot, probably within five years according to some of the experts.

Now the prominent environmental group (who valued my opinion for decades) has decided that I and the other arborists (who have a collective 100 years of local experience) don’t know what we are talking about. They have hired another local arborist who stated he does not have the experience and training to properly assess what level of risk the tree poses. The group that hired him says that he is the only one of the arborists who looked at the tree to “acknowledge” that he does not have that expertise.  They do not say why he was the only one.

The city has done an amazing job (and endured significant liability risk in my opinion) to keep this tree for the more than 50 years that it has been in poor condition. Unfortunately, it’s time to say goodbye.

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Texas Ice Storm Tree Damage 2023

Texas was hammered again by severe winter weather on February 1st and 2nd  2023.   Unlike the more statewide “Snowmageddon” of 2021, this time the tree damage was not as widespread.  Based on state disaster declarations, the worst of the damage occurred in 23 counties, including all of central Texas and extending intermittently northeast to the OK-AR border.  In 2021, damage was mostly from freeze rather than breakage. This time the amount of limb and tree breakage was far worse in the Austin area, necessitating a more urgent clean-up response, versus the more gradual clean-up that occurred in 2021 as we waited to see what trees had survived.

Due to temps hovering right around freezing for two days, with a slow constant drizzle, central Texas had ice thicknesses up to three quarters of an inch.  Countless limbs snapped throughout the day on February 1, and even more failed on the second as more ice accumulated.  Although weather persons in Austin referred to it as the “worst ice storm since 2007” this oft-made statement left many a seasoned arborist around here scratching their heads.  In 43 years of doing tree work in central Texas, I’ve never seen ice storm damage that came close.

According to Texas electric utility reps, half an inch of ice is right around the breaking point, literally, for trees. This of course depends on the species, and evergreens like  live oak, Ashe juniper and TX mountain laurel were the worst hit in Central Texas.  Based on my observations, cedar elm was the hardest hit deciduous species, with Arizona ash, red oak and crepe myrtle damage also common.  Strangely, “self-pruning” pecans (don’t you love that term?) barely lost a twig, from what I saw.

Most of my clients rarely see storm damage, whether it be from ice or wind.  This is of course because well maintained trees statistically experience far less storm damage. However, the severity of this event was exceptional in that even perfectly managed trees suffered extensive damage. My observations were that larger broken limbs (bigger than about 7 inches diameter) almost always had some decay which was almost always visibly associated with an old pruning wound.  So it is vital to remember that pruning does cause injury, and especially if it is not done properly, that injury can lead to decay and failure years later.

So how should ice-damaged trees be cared for?  As soon as possible after the ice melts, completely broken branches, especially larger and/or longer ones, should be cut right below the damaged area (see pictures below). The reasoning for this is that with species likely to resprout, I believe it is better to leave these stubs, with the intention of doing some restoration pruning in the future.  Also, the cleanly cut end reduces the surface area for decay.  If these broken limbs are cut all the way back to a sizeable fork, then there’s a possibly permanent “hole” in that part of the canopy, as well as a possibly quite large pruning wound, which, even if made perfectly, is not likely to close over for decades on a mature tree. For species unlikely to sprout from large stubs, like junipers, these branches should be cut back to a fork.

Broken limbs after remediative pruning

live oak limbs broken by 2/3 inch of ice

Now that we have reached bud break and are starting to see buds emerge near these broken stubs, it may be best to leave completely broken stubs alone.  If too much of the diameter of the branch tore off, it may be best to cut off the most badly damaged area while trying to preserve as many of those buds or sprouts as possible.  This is really a judgment call best left to an experienced arborist.

Of course the big question in central Texas is always, “What about oak wilt?”  With the recommendation from the joint task force I chaired in 2012 (see my oak wilt page) being to avoid pruning oaks beginning February 1, the question is what will the impact of the storm and subsequent pruning be in regards to oak wilt?  The good news is that due to the cold weather that persisted for a few days after the storm, the probability of oaks becoming infected during that time was pretty much nil. Too cold for flying insects, and with the drought we’ve had, fungal spores have been far less common. And the accepted theory is that after about three days, exposed live tissue on an oak is no longer a viable infection point for oak wilt.  So the wounds on branches that completely broke off within those first few days were extremely unlikely to be infection courts and so painting was not necessary, unless of course the torn ends were cut off afterwards.

But what about the countless cracked/ hanging limbs still out there?  As the weather warms up, and many of these then break off, new tissue is exposed, and the risk of oak wilt theoretically increases.  These limbs obviously need to be removed for safety reasons.  How far to cut them back is again best determine by a competent, qualified arborist.  Immediate painting is recommended on all wounds on oaks that expose live tissue.  One problem with many less skilled and/or less scrupulous tree services in Austin is that they often only paint oak wounds after they’ve finished cutting on an entire tree (if they do it at all), sometimes hours later.  This leaves the tree vulnerable during that time, but more importantly leads to many (if not most) of the wounds being missed.  Many of the services doing this are also doing all the actual pruning from the ground, which leads to a very large percentage of the cuts being made very poorly and injuriously. For more info see my pruning pages and posts.


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Drought Care for Texas Trees

This year’s drought has been quite reminiscent of the ones in 2011, except this one started earlier (and thus far seems to have ended earlier). Unlike the 90 plus days of 100 plus degree heat in 2011, this year’s number of super hot days was much lower (again, thus far), but because it started earlier, many trees still struggled or died. In fact, this was the first spring in my business’ 40 year history that I was calling my clients to recommend that they irrigate their trees.

Yet the good news is that probably because we had far fewer hot days, we have not seen near the tree losses state-wide that we did in  2011, when losses were in the millions. There were areas around Brownwood (aptly named after 2011) that had acres and acres of trees die (many of them junipers). Here in Austin, it seemed as if we lost 5 or 10% of the pecan trees on the east side, and even live oaks, the sturdiest tree in the forest, suffered significant losses, especially on high grounds. The area uphill from Barton Springs Pool, near the polo fields (better known as the overflow parking dustbowl) lost quite a few live oaks. So the losses were city- and species-wide.

Dieback in pecan from drought stress

The dieback shown here is typical of what is seen with drought stress.  It may look very familiar to those who experienced the frozen hell imposed on us by Governor Abbott and his PUC cronies on Valentines Day 2021 (yeah, I said it-  this is my damn blog!). It is not unusual for plants to have a similar reaction to very different problems; overwatering and underwatering can both make a houseplant’s leaves turn yellow. With drought though, there’s usually some browning on the edges of the leaves first. Continue reading

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Ice Happens

As I write this, central Texas is experiencing its worst winter weather event in decades (so what else can I do but write?).  Having done tree work here for 40 years now, I’ve seen quite a few cold weather episodes in Austin.  There was a five day stretch in December of ’83 where we never got out of the 20’s.  Many palms and most tallow trees around Austin froze to death that year, but there wasn’t any precipitation, so breakage from snow and ice wasn’t an issue.

Ice damage to live oak central Texas

A couple years later  (’85) we had two events a couple weeks apart that totaled about 7 inches of snow but also pretty bad icing, and we got some breakage with that.  In ’89 we got the coldest blast I can remember, down to about 4F, but it was a quick dip, and I don’t remember a lot of breakage with that one.  (Am I sounding like an old man yet??)  Over my four decades here, I’d say I’ve seen at least 8 ice events bad enough to result in at least some breakage.  So they happen more often than you might think.

Okay, so what can you do about it?  Continue reading

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Oak wilt Pruning Guidelines

Oak wilt continues to be an issue throughout Austin, central Texas and much of the central part of the U.S.  This often fatal disease is spread by a fungal organism known as Bretziella fagacearum (previously Ceratocystis f., but scientists often change organism names just to mess with us arborists!)  Other than the name change, there’s little new about this disease, other than some news about DNA testing, but the likelihood of fast, accurate field test kits being available anytime soon is small.  For more details on oak wilt, see my previous posts and my Oak Wilt Page.

At this time of year, whether you should or shouldn’t prune your oaks is quite forward in the minds of many neighborhood activists.  You may have seen signs saying not to prune at this time of year.  For years it has been recommended by various government agencies that one should avoid pruning oaks in the “spring”.  The definition of spring has changed quite a bit over the years.

My advice to homeowners is Continue reading

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Pruning Young Trees

© 2019  guy leblanc  all rights reserved

Pruning young trees requires an understanding of how trees grow.  Sounds obvious, but in truth many people lack even a basic understanding of this.  There are three key points one needs to know about how trees grow in order to get them off to a healthy start.  Without this knowledge you can make mistakes that could persist for the life of the tree, reducing its aesthetic value, and even possibly leading to catastrophic limb failure years later.

The first thing to understand is Continue reading

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Cabling Support Systems for Tree Limbs

©  2018- 2019 guy leblanc. all rights reserved

Cabling is the use of hardware to support trees or branches that are defective or weak but that the tree owner does not wish to remove. Sometimes weak limbs are retained because removing them would be very stressful on the tree. Cables are also sometimes used to keep healthy limbs from settling lower over time with gravity.

Proper cable installation

Defects could include a cavity or decay, a weak connection between two branches or inadequate branch strength.  It is critical for a property owner to realize that such defects make the risk of limb or tree failure higher, even when cabled, and that complete removal of the weak part is safer than cabling, especially if the consequences of failure are severe.

There are many cabling techniques out there, but only a few meet industry standards, which are fairly detailed.  A few things you can look for to determine if a cable was properly installed include Continue reading

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Pruning and Oak Wilt

©  2017-2019 Guy LeBlanc all rights reserved

Well, it’s that time of year again, when most arborists are inundated with the question “Is it safe to prune my oaks now?”  or, “Why are there signs in my neighborhood saying I shouldn’t prune my oaks now?”  These signs are particularly prevalent in northwest Austin.

live oak leaf symptomatic of oak wilt

For more details about oak wilt,  see my dedicated oak wilt page, or go to my previous post on it.  But since it is that time of year, I thought I’d revisit the issue here.

Regarding those signs, you’ll notice most of them say “Do NOT Prune Oaks…”, etc.  Well, the guidelines they were derived from never said “do not prune…”.  They recommended avoiding oak pruning in the spring.  The latest version of those guidelines (on my oak wilt page) indicate what oak pruning can (and actually should) be done year-round, but really should be left to professionals during those springtime months. Continue reading

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Tree Pruning

© guy leblanc 2015-2019 all rights reserved

While tree pruning is probably the most commonly performed tree care service, if done incorrectly it can have severe negative long term impact on tree health and safety.  For a detailed explanation of what correct pruning is and isn’t, see my “Pruning Tips” page.

One quick way to determine if you are dealing with a professional is by the language they use.  Continue reading

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Ball Moss and Mistletoe Removal

© guy leblanc 2015-2019 all rights reserved

Ball moss and mistletoe are two common tree pests in Central Texas that are frequently removed during tree pruning.  Here is some info on what these plants are, how they are harmful and how they can be treated.

ball moss

Ball moss is not really a moss, but an epiphyte or air plant, meaning it’s roots are exposed to the air.  It is in the bromeliad family, and so is related to pineapples, believe it or not.  While the majority of experts believe it is not harmful, Continue reading

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