TLC for a prized Capitol tree

May 23, 2019

Standing on a grassy slope on the northwest side of the state Capitol, the sole weeping willow in a botanical garden dedicated to the late Clay Buchanan, a onetime Roundhouse official who designed the building’s landscaping, looks like the queen of the trees.

Its two longest branches — nearly denuded of greenery — reach high, as if to proclaim the willow’s endurance or cry for help.

Both interpretations are valid.

Fungus, bacteria and parasites seem to have teamed up to take the old tree down.

But the weeping willow, estimated to be 50 to 60 years old, could still have a long life in front of it, said Steve Thomas of Tree Doctor 911, a local tree service company that treats dying trees.

Thomas and his ensemble think they can give the willow another chance at life. They plan to inject about 50 different pesticides into the willow’s phloem, or inner bark, which acts as a food supply line by carrying sap from the leaves to the rest of the tree.

“This is the first chance this tree has to heal,” Thomas said after he and his team spent a couple of hours treating the willow Wednesday morning.

The pesticides won’t hurt the tree, he said, and soon it will be able to survive insect infestations and visits from leg-lifting dogs without fear of faltering.

Thomas and co-worker Lilliana Sandoval said people too often cut down trees that seem to be dying rather than try to save them. This willow, standing about 40 feet tall, is a unique specimen in a garden of sequoias, firs, evergreen, piñon and other trees, many of which got their start in the late 1960s.

That’s when Buchanan, the Capitol’s first Legislative Council Service director, began bringing seedlings from his own home and planting them around what was then the barren grounds of the Roundhouse, built in 1966. Soon, other Capitol employees, working on their own time, began planting seeds as well and took turns watering and caring for the growing trees, bushes and flowers.

Drhett Baca, the Capitol’s building superintendent, who hired Tree Doctor 911 to examine the trees, said he wasn’t sure when the willow was planted.

The weeping willow is not the only tree hurting in the state or region.

Forest mortality increased nearly 50 percent across New Mexico in 2018, the first jump in five years, according to a recent report on the health of the state’s forests, based on aerial surveys conducted for the New Mexico Department of Energy, Minerals and Natural Resources.

More than 120,000 acres of ponderosa pine, spruce, piñon and other trees were lost, the study said, thanks in part to both near-record heat levels and drought conditions, which make it difficult for trees to fight off beetles and other pests.

Trees that grow faster — like the willow — are more susceptible to such ailments as they age, Thomas said.

“Like us, trees get sick and weak as they get old, and like us, when your immune system goes down, so does your health,” Sandoval added.

Online research sites on trees say willows generally live 50 to 75 years.

If his medicine works, Thomas said, the Capitol’s weeping willow “could live indefinitely.”

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