I live on 80 acres in Northern Michigan in the Manistee National Forest. There are easily thousands of trees spread across the property. Most create a beautiful canopy and really put on a show in the Fall.
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Some trees, on the other hand, give me fits and have quickly found their way to the woodpile. I’ve learned the hard way that knowing how to identify trees and understanding their limitations makes a lot of things on the homestead a little bit easier.
What’s the Problem?
There are 6 things that can make a tree not worth the trouble of planting, let alone tolerating on your property. Here are the problems in no particular order, and there are certainly others.
Some trees take their time maturing. I planted an oak in my front yard once and 10 years later, it still looked like a sapling. Generally, oaks are great trees for both firewood and furniture, but given that many of us move from house to house a few times in our lives, it can be a bit frustrating to plant a tree that never gives us the benefit of decent shade, let alone fruit and firewood.
As a general rule, hardwood trees grow slower than softwood trees. If you’re just starting to landscape your property and are anxious to create some shade, you might want to favor some softwood varieties to get a head start and then mix in some hardwoods.
For some reason, some tree species gradually die off. Branches die and eventually fall. I had a small one hit my shoulder while sitting in a lawn chair once. Shame on me for not pulling down the dead branch first, but with some trees, that can be a regular chore.
Die-off occurs when a tree is planted in an area that is not its natural habitat or in an area that is too dry or too wet, causing undue stress. Then again, some trees just seem to live, grow, and gradually die regardless of where they’re planted. It’s bad enough when a small branch hits you on the shoulder, but it’s whole lot worse when a large branch dies and smashes your house or car.
Another reason for die-off is insect infestation or disease, but that’s a whole other problem.
Like any plant, trees produce flowers, seeds, bark, leaves, and occasionally—fruit. Fruit is great if you can eat it, but there are some fruits we either can’t eat or choose not to.
Many times, those seeds, fruits, bark, leaves, and flower petals just decompose into the soil or get chewed up by regular lawn mowing. But some trees like eucalyptus make a mess of their bark regardless.
Soil Nutrient Hogs
Trees are very big plants and it’s no surprise that they’re heavy feeders, but some trees fall in the category of nutrient hogs. The obvious sign is the appearance of large patches of bare ground where even weeds won’t grow.
And it’s not just about small plants like grass and weeds. Some of these trees can deprive surrounding trees and shrubbery of nutrients to the point that their growth is stunted, or they start to show signs of gradual die-off.
In some instances, the sheer age and size of a tree will cause it to draw a significant quantity of nutrients from the soil.
It’s highly unlikely that anyone would intentionally plant a toxic or poisonous tree but it’s possible to have them on your property if you’ve purchased land with a mature and developed tree population.
And it’s not just about trees being poisonous to people; some trees are toxic to surrounding plants and trees. In the same way that some vegetables don’t get along in the garden, you have to stop and think about how compatible some trees are with the surrounding vegetation and other trees.
Get rid of them, and think twice about burning some of them if they’re toxic to humans. The smoke can be equally toxic.
They’re Susceptible to Insects or Disease
Like many plants, some trees are delicate and not particularly hardy. Then again, even the hardiest trees can fall victim to a word we’ve become all too familiar with: pandemic.
In the late 1950s and into the ’60s, bark beetles spread the Dutch Elm Disease, a fungus that essentially wiped out Dutch Elm Trees across North America. To this day, few survive. It should be noted that any plant—including trees—are susceptible to a range of diseases. If you are aware of a disease for a specific species or a less-hardy species -don’t plant it.
6 Bad Trees You Don’t Want
Poison Sumac (Toxicodendron vernix)
Poison Sumac trees are surprisingly common and spread easily and quickly, so I’m listing that one instead of Poison Oak, which is also toxic. Contact with both the leaves and the bark causes a rash similar to Poison Ivy.
A primary problem is that they look very similar to Red Sumacs, which are harmless. Be careful, however.
Poison Sumacs look like Red Sumacs in autumn. If you suspect a Sumac tree is of the Poison Sumac variety, cut it down (while wearing gloves) and have it hauled away. If your only option is to burn it, do it at a distance from your home and stay out of the smoke.
Boxelder (Acer negundo)
Boxelder is actually a member of the Maple family and produces a sap that can be boiled down to a syrup. If you want, give it a try and tap it in the spring. Then cut it down.
The biggest problem with Boxelders is die-off. It doesn’t matter where it’s planted or what the weather or soil conditions happen to be, Boxelders just seem to gradually die. The problem is that they die-off in a big way. Large branches wither and die, so with time—or as a result of any big storm—those branches are going to come down.
And it’s not just about the danger of falling branches; the sight of a tree that is half dead in front of your house isn’t exactly attractive. To make matters worse, Boxelder is susceptible to a wide range of diseases.
Don’t plant Boxelders, and if you have them growing, think about taking them down. They’re pretty good firewood, but they burn fast, so maybe have a bonfire in the back yard. You could always use the fire to boil down the sap and make some Boxelder syrup.
Black Walnut (Juglans nigra)
Black Walnut is a hardwood tree prized for furniture making. It also produces black walnuts that you can eat and makes for decent firewood if you’re not in the mood to make furniture. Unfortunately, they have a dark side, and it’s not about the wood.
Black walnuts fall in the “nutrient hog” category. Look around the base of any Black Walnut tree and you’ll most likely see bare ground and few shrubs or bushes. If that’s what you want, plant a Black Walnut, but they have another problem.
They are toxic to other plants due to a chemical they release called “juglone.” This chemical kills surrounding plants, giving the Black Walnut ample opportunity to get rid of any nutrient competition.
Black Walnut trees are also messy. The Black Walnuts that fall from the tree are quite large and heavy and, if one hits you on the head, it will most likely leave a mark. It will definitely leave a dent in any car or truck parked under the tree, and even if you and your vehicles manage to dodge the walnuts, they make a mess everywhere around the tree. I have slipped and hit the ground a couple of times after stepping on one.
If any of these things bother you, cut it down. It makes great firewood, and you could always get around to finally building that porch swing you always thought about. Oh, and one other thing. Did I mention they’re slow-growing?
Pine Trees (Pinus pinaceae)
I actually surprised myself by including pine trees on this list, but after thinking about it a while, they do have a downside. Something I love about pine trees is the way their carpet of needles creates an open and relaxing space in a pine forest. And that’s great, if that’s what you want.
And it doesn’t take a pine forest to get that natural blanket of pine needle mulch. Even one pine tree will eventually carpet the ground beneath it, and not much will grow through those needles. Pines are also susceptible to a range of diseases.
The great thing about pines is that they’re evergreen, so you have green foliage year-round. But if you’re planting them, think about the location and whether you want to intentionally create a circle of mulch where little will grow. They also aren’t the best firewood and are not the first choice for furniture making, but few homes are framed and constructed without it.
Crab Apple Trees (Malus)
This is another tree that may come as a surprise on this list. You can harvest crabapples and make a great jelly, and the wood is great for smoking fish and game and makes decent firewood. They also have beautiful blossoms in the spring that can be quite fragrant, and the petals quickly dissolve into a mulch. But they do create one challenge.
They can be a real mess. I once had a home with 40 crab apple trees on the property.
In the spring, when they were in full bloom, neighbors would walk by and actually take pictures. It was beautiful. Until the crabapples showed up.
After making a couple dozen jars of crabapple jelly, there were still thousands of crabapples left on the trees and soon, all of them fell to the ground. When I mowed over them, the wheels of the mower turned them into a mash that killed the grass.
The crabapple mash on the ground then rotted and fermented, attracting yellow jackets and every other bee and wasp on the planet. Walking barefoot in the yard was out of the question, not only because of the squishy mess but also because of the ever-present threat of a bee sting.
If you want a blossoming tree in the spring, you might be better off with a regular apple or cherry tree. Crabapple trees are beautiful, but their beauty comes at a price.
Ash Trees (Fraxinus)
It’s hard to say when the Emerald Ash borer first showed up, but it continues to decimate Ash trees across North America. Remedies are both complex and extreme, and most Ash trees eventually succumb.
Ash trees are generally healthy, fast-growing, and maintain lush growth without die-off. They’re a softwood and not the best for firewood or furniture, but they have always been prized for their shade and general appearance. Until now.
Don’t plant an Ash, even if you plan on taking preventative measures against the Emerald Ash Borer. We’re just going to have to wait and see if the Ash joins the ranks of the Dutch Elm as a tree we once knew and may never plant again.
Are There Others?
No doubt, and you’ve probably had your own experience with a few. The key is to know your trees. From trees that make a mess like Mulberries and Cottonwood to fragile trees like River Birch and Eucalyptus, there are certain species that might not be worth the trouble.
If you’ve had your own experience with a problem tree, share your knowledge in the comments section because the last thing any of us want is to plant a tree and regret it for years afterward.
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