Trees stressed by drought

Nov 19, 2013

Drought can kill a tree quickly or it can take years to do its damage.
Credit Gary Grigsby / KBIA News

As you watch a a tree grow you can grow attached to it.

At the same time trees are something probably all of us take for granted at one time or another.  Until they begin to die.  And watching them die slowly can hurt.  Last year's drought in Missouri was its worst in more than 30 years.  It killed some trees and put stress on all of them.  Stress that can build up over time and kill a tree years after a severe drought.  People in mid-Missouri have watched their trees die from drought while others are doing just about anything to save them.

Erin Wagoner's back yard in Columbia is full of trees, most of them in good shape.  But the biggest tree in the yard, a walnut with limbs that spread out for dozens of feet, is ailing.  "From the front it looks totally dead," said Erin Wagoner.  "This is my top priority for you guys."  The you guys she is talking about is arborist Chris Haubner who spent 30 minutes walking around in Wagoner's yard evaluating the health of the trees.  "There were some stresses there before and then the drought which was a huge blow to this tree," said Haubner. 

Haubner runs Tree Wizard in Columbia and says the walnut is "borderline" and that he might not be able to save it.  Wagoner wants him to try and keep it alive.  "These trees are much older than I am and it is just a shame to disregard them," Wagoner said.  "If that could be a full tree and all the leaves were bloomed and all the limbs were alive, it would be an amazing tree.  It is still.  It deserves some sort of respect for living so long."  Haubner knows it won't be an easy task.  He said, "we will try to get some nutrients back into the soil and get it going in a better direction.  Help them combat the stresses they have been through in the past couple of years."

Since last years drought Haubner has seen a lot more trees like the old walnut.  And he's been increasing his efforts to help people deal with drought-stricken trees, everything from fertilization to pest management.  Both Wagoner and Haubner want the walnut to survive.  And survival is sometimes easier for a much older tree because it can often more easily adapt to stress over time.  That's not always so easy for young trees just getting started.

Just ask Jamie Coe who planted a lot of spruce and pine trees on his small Christmas tree farm in Callaway County 18 months ago.  We walked his land recently and saw some of the browned remnants of those Christmas trees to be.  He remembers walking these same fields in the middle of last year's drought.  "These dead little seedlings were 12-15 inches tall and there would be a dead one, a dead one and a dead one.  One after another and bummer.  It was discouraging."

Coe who had planted Christmas trees on his land for 30 years said the drought of 2012 changed him.  "When you lose 95% of your seedlings, 80% of your two-year-old trees, and 75% of your three-year-old trees are dead, man I gotta find something else to do."  And he did get out, deciding not to plant trees this year.  But Coe said the money he made selling Christmas trees was just a small part of his income.  He did it because he liked it.  He is a professionally trained forester who has spent his life working with trees in one way or another.  "If drought and climate change keep happening," said Coe, "we could have a species shift.  Trees from the south and southwest expanding into the midwest."  

And this year you might say he helped that expansion along.  Coe said he planted some southwestern white pine on his property.  Trees that were grown in Arizona and New Mexico.  He says they are doing quite well.