Real Estate

Finding the right tree

Online library is an endless resource

Home buyers have to consider many things before ending up at the title company signing their escrow papers.

The first time they go back to look at their new home may be the first time they notice the trees on their property, and the fact that they've bought more than a home, but a yard full of plants and trees.

That's where Canopy's Tree Library and program director Michael Hawkins come in. Canopy, a Palo Alto nonprofit, seeks to expand the urban tree canopy in Midpeninsula communities and part of that mission is helping homeowners know the best trees to plant for the greater good and for the health of their trees and gardens.

Hawkins and a crew of arborists created the online Tree Library in 2010, but are constantly tweaking it to make it easier to find the right tree for the right purpose.

"Tree information is so local you have to have a resource that's hyper local," Hawkins said.

The soil in East Palo Alto, which tends to be more alluvial ( fine or sandy), influenced by the bay, is very different that Palo Alto's mostly clay soil, he said.

To create the tree library, various arborists created lists and categories of trees and then reviewed each other's work before finalizing the entries.

The main reason they created it, was "There are lots of trees we try to grow here that we shouldn't," Hawkins said. Also, lots of trees have varieties more suited to grow certain places, like under power lines, than others, or in hedges versus in an open field.

The Canopy Tree Library can be found at under the Tree Info tab under Explore Tree Species. The online library has a range of filters to select from, with details about each tree's size to whether it produces fruit or litter. Categories include "low water," "shade providing," "thirsty," and even "not recommended."

The idea is to help people understand that a tree species they may love from another region of California or the United States might not thrive here for various reasons. Some trees might look beautiful and even grow well and then suddenly attract pests because they are not native and don't have the defenses that local trees do. For example, certain maple trees do well where there are four distinct seasons, but might attract aphids where the temperature range is more Mediterranean like the Bay Area.

Canopy has contracts with the cities of Palo Alto and East Palo Alto to help residents plant trees and even assist them financially. Palo Alto also has a program to help residents remove inappropriate trees from under power lines.

Canopy offers a community forestry school (a new session starts Saturday) to educate and empower people to plant trees themselves, and to make sure they make wise choices.

The first statewide tree library database, Selectree, was created by Cal Poly San Luis Obispo ( with a tree characteristics glossary, a "right tree, right place" list, and much more.

Before homeowners embark on choosing trees themselves, "I recommend getting some training but it isn't necessarily difficult," Hawkins said.

"Most arborists spend days caring for big mature trees," he said, so if you need on-site advice about which trees to put where in your yard, it's best to find an arborist who specializes in that, rather than just in maintaining mature large trees, Hawkins said.

Look at factors like how much sun it would get, existing irrigation, distance from hardscape like patios, sidewalks, and the home itself.

Canopy and Hawkins always encourage people not to be afraid to plant baby oak trees, which are native to this area.

"The population of oak trees we see are old trees," he said, with heavy gnarled limbs. They need to be cared for as you would any old mature tree. But, he pointed out, there is no need to fear planting new oaks, as they are very beneficial and take a lifetime to grow into large trees.

If you're interested in planting an oak and you live in south Palo Alto, you can contact Canopy and get a free tree through their South Palo Alto Tree Initiative. Residents of East Palo Alto can do the same through their Branching Out East Palo Alto Initiative.

Oaks are some of the best, Hawkins said, but toyons, ceanothus, California sycamore, buckeye and manzanita all support local wildlife like squirrels and birds. Also, if you search the tree library, you will find species that do a nice job mimicking natives, with the same results.

Hawkins said time is another important thing to consider, since trees don't generally grow that fast. Note the plants you have as your "understory," that would potentially be under the tree, and may actually live their entire lifespan before the newly planted tree provides enough shade to help or hurt.

To save energy, he suggests planting trees on the west and south sides of homes to create pools of shade.

One of Hawkins' and Canopy's goals is to help educate Realtors, since they're on the front lines when homes (and their trees) transition from owner to owner.

When she's preparing a home for sale or helping a buyer to find one, Xin Jiang, an Alain Pinel Realtor, said she does "very limited" research to find out whether the trees on the property are protected by the city's ordinances or not. She noted that in the case of helping clients to plan for rebuilding, an extensive tree report from an arborist is a " must."

"You should always assume if the tree is heritage in size or species, that the tree is not going to be removed or moved, said Tim Kerns, a real estate agent with Coldwell Banker who sells homes in Atherton. "Sometimes the city arborist will work with developers or end users if the tree is leaning or looks unhealthy, but cutting trees down to build new construction is very difficult and (cities) take it very seriously if you are going to apply for heritage tree removals."

Hawkins acknowledges that the upfront cost of trees can be high, but the benefits "leak out to all the surrounding area ... Proactive care, especially structural pruning when the tree is young, is much cheaper than dealing with issues when the tree is older."

Most mature trees, he said, don't even need to be pruned annually, despite what tree-trimming companies may tell you.

Canopy will offer a "Tree Planting Basics" session of their Community Forestry School coming up on Nov. 3 at East Palo Alto Charter School at 1286 Runnymede St. in East Palo Alto. To register go to Or, Hawkins can personally help walk people through the process of selecting the right tree for the right place and give some pointers on how to find a good specimen.

Elizabeth Lorenz is the Home and Real Estate Editor at the Palo Alto Weekly. She can be emailed at

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