Be part of the solution: Plant drought, heat, and pest resistant trees to combat urban heat islands

Our population of urban trees is shrinking! You can help turn this around by protecting your own trees and by planting new ones recommended for your climate and the conditions around your home. For more on this topic, please revisit my February blog for specific selection and care recommendations: https://ucanr.edu/b/~ZuB.

In addition, please encourage your city to plant a wide range of recommended species today for a healthier tomorrow. Why is this so important? Many of our current street trees are in the 11th hour of their lifespans. While some that were planted decades ago are simply aging naturally, in other cases, they are perishing prematurely due to poor selection and care. This leads to a downward spiral; trees not adapted to the climate they're planted in and not receiving proper care are much more susceptible to invasive pests (shot-hole borers, etc.) and diseases than are healthy, well- chosen and maintained trees. Even the loss of one front yard shade tree can significantly reduce shade, increase the surrounding temperature, and diminish energy savings.

Another reason we're losing our trees is due to the negative impacts of urban heat islands (UHIs) which shorten the lifespan of many species of trees dramatically. Some trees (even many natives!) just aren't able to withstand the higher temperatures (sometimes exceeding 20 degrees) they are subjected to due to UHIs.

What are urban heat islands and why should we care? Urban heat islands are caused by reradiated heat from paved concrete and (especially) asphalt surfaces.

Hard surfaces of UHIs absorb large amounts of heat generated during the day and release it at night, slowly but steadily warming average nighttime (mostly) and daytime temperatures. Together, these negative impacts on our urban trees lead to a sad reality: the average lifespan of an urban tree is only about ¼ of its potential. While our stately shade-producing ficus, oak, maple, pine, rosewood and magnolia trees have potential lifespans of 80 -120 years or longer in unstressed environments, most perish much sooner.

And, our cities are growing and expanding. Very few Southern California residents reside in rural areas. Instead of living near pastures, field-filled crops, and forests that cool the surrounding area through evapotranspiration, the vast majority of us reside in warmer urban city centers. Conditions we expect our city trees to endure in 2021 are very different from even 20 to 30 years alone, let alone decades ago.

The good news is that, through proper tree selection and care, we can be a part of the solution. In fact, trees offer many benefits that offset the impacts of UHIs. Cities with larger tree canopies are a testament to this fact and have fewer adverse impacts from UHIs than do cities with low tree canopies. Trees reduce the impact of UHIs by shading parking lots, buildings, and vehicles), deflecting the sun's radiation, and cooling the atmosphere through evapotranspiration. Trees also absorb and store carbon which lessens the impacts of pollution from fossil fuels. A well-tended mature landscape tree can absorb 40 tons of carbon over its lifespan.

The solution? Augment our current urban tree palettes with heat, drought, and pest-resistant native and adapted non-native species. A case in point of a native tree in trouble is our beautiful Joshua trees (Yucca brevifolia) which are dying off in their namesake National Park and seeding 500 or more feet higher elevation than parent plants. Planting trees that withstand UHIs today is crucial for tomorrow.

We are well on the way to identifying landscape tree species that can remain healthy under adverse urban conditions. In our study examining the performance of 12 species of underplanted but promising landscape trees, several candidates are standing out for their heat, drought, and pest resistance.


By Janet Hartin
Author - Area Environmental Horticulture Advisor and County Co-Director