Weather withers trees

Falling leaves are an autumn fixture.

This year they’re falling in summer.

“It’s really gotten bad in the last week,” said Bruce Chladny, a horticulturist with K-State Extension. “We’re seeing a lot of trees with drought stress and heat stress.”

By next year, up to 10 percent of Lawrence-area trees may be beyond help.

With Thursday’s showers arriving too late to help, thousands of trees have gone dormant early, their leaves turning a sickly brown instead of gold or red.

“It’s a protective mechanism,” said Chladny, standing beside a red maple with almost bare branches at the Douglas County 4-H Fairgrounds. “Every day without moisture is another day the tree has to try to keep itself alive.”

Chladny said many trees could have survived this season’s drought conditions and intense heat — if precipitation had been normal in the past three years.

“But when you have two or three years of drought, you start to see the cumulative effects,” he said. “You start to see the plants start to decline.”

Trees in Lawrence city parks and along Massachusetts Street are no exception. The intense heat of August has burned the crowns of several trees in South Park, and city officials say as many as 10 percent of the city’s trees may have to be replaced next year.

At Kansas University, a man walks along Jayhawk Boulevard with a closed umbrella as storm clouds linger above. Umbrellas opened and closed Thursday across the Lawrence area as rainstorms passed in the morning, afternoon and evening. More rain is expected today, but experts say it's probably too late to save many ailing trees.

“We’re in survival mode,” said Crystal Miles, the city’s horticulture supervisor. “We give (the plants) just enough water to let them survive — not thrive, but survive.”

City crews try to water trees and shrubs at least once every 10 days, but it’s not enough water to keep city-maintained trees on Massachusetts Street from turning brown and shedding their leaves early. It probably will be enough to keep them alive in the hopes of a better 2004.

“We’re doing the best we can with limited resources,” Miles said.

Chladny said even watering the trees might not be enough to save them, if more rain didn’t arrive soon.

“A tree’s root system can stretch twice as far as its canopy,” Chladny said. Only nature can adequately hydrate a plant.

“Rain,” he said. “Rain is the only thing that can do it.”

Horticulturists say there’s not much you can do if the tree in your back yard is dying, but there are a few ways to tell if it will need to be replaced next year.¢ Try to break a branch on the tree. If the branch has flexibility, it will bend and twist, indicating there is enough moisture in the tree to keep it alive. If the branch snaps off, that branch, and probably most of the tree, is dead.¢ Use a knife to scrape away part of the bark on a good-sized branch near the ground. If the layer of wood immediately under the bark is green, the tree is fine. If it’s tan or brown, the branch is no longer drawing water and will die.¢ Do your homework before replacing trees. Several species of trees are drought resistant and native to the area.