Friday, May 25, 2007

Tamarisk--The Big Ugly

This monstrous Tamarisk tree, (Tamarix aphylla) also called Athel Pine, is located near Goodear Arizona, and is at least 50 feet tall and 50 feet wide. Imported to the United States beginning about 1850, the Tamarisk was used as an ornamental plant and as erosion control. The tree in this photo is probably 75 years old, and is able to transpire about 400 gallons of water a day, or, the weight of its foliage every hour at 80 degrees. It has a deep taproot that can extend 100 feet or more in depth, with lateral roots that reach out 150 feet or more.

These trees were common when I was a kid--almost every farm had several. They were mistakenly called Tamaracks, but the Tamarack (Larix laricina) is a different genus altogether and doesn't grow in the low desert. Tamarisks were originally planted in the West Valley the 1920s and 1930s as windbreaks and fast growing shade, but that was before folks realized the extent of the thirstiness and invasiveness of this species. The trees were slowly eliminated in more populated areas, although stands can still be found here and there. The Tamarisk's cousin, the Saltceder (Tamarix ramosissima) has decimated riparian areas throughout the Southwest. Athel Pine may be sterile but it can hybridize with Saltceder, so it is still a threat to native vegetation.

I've always thought these monsters were ugly. They thrive in alkaline soil because the tree expires the salt through its leaves, which then drops around its canopy. The heavy salt content in the surrounding soil prevents anything else from growing around it, and the soil gets very powdery all around the tree. Birds and wildlife don't even like it.

We had several of these trees growing on our childhood farm. My dad tried everything to get rid of them--from burning the stumps after the trees had been chain-sawed down, blasting the stumps, and finally, trying to pull out the stumps with a tractor. Nothing worked, so he gave up and just trimmed off the new growth that was constantly sprouting up from the stumps. He would have had to use a giant bulldozer or herbicides to kill the monsters. Nothing else works.

Developers have been building all around the tree in the photo, so I doubt it will be around much longer. I'd like to watch the removal process on this one! It should be quite a production. I, for one, will be glad to see it go.

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