Farewell to the trees

On Wednesday morning the tree people arrived to deal with the last stand of trees in back of my Ramona St. condo — a silk tree and a (Chilean) potato vine — in a neighbor’s garden on the south side. A long, astoundingly noisy, and rather dusty operation that completely removed the last of the trees (though I was expecting something a bit less drastic). Now there is (sun)light.

I’ve posted about the silk tree  (Albizia julibrissin) before, and also about the privet trees (Ligustrum) back there, but not about the potato vine, Solanum crispum, a pretty and not very large shrub, which had gotten a bit ratty and was obviously in need of judicious pruning, but was completely removed anyway (for good reason, as it turns out).

The potato vine in bloom:


(More on the plant below.)

The lay of the land. I have a (tiled) garden space in the front of my house and a narrow (also tiled) patio in back, with a wooden fence, of roughly my height, providing privacy for my upstairs neighbors’ gardens. The garden on the north had the infamous privet tree, the one on the south side the silk tree and the potato vine; these were apparently planted by previous owners.

In addition, in the very narrow gap between the tiles on my patio and the fencing, volunteer privet saplings had sprung up. They made a nice green screen, but eventually got alarmingly tall.

Step 1. The saplings. These were my responsibility, and early in the summer I undertook to get rid of them, by cutting them down, as far as I could with the tools I had, and chopping the greenery up into pieces that could be bagged up and sent away.

Then came a war of attrition against the stumps, which I girdled repeatedly, until the wood weakened and then could be cut off close to the ground. There was, of course, no way to remove the roots (without taking up the fence and my tiles), and in fact some of them are sending up fresh shoots. But these are easily removed every so often; eventually I’ll wear the plants out. Eternal vigilance and all that.

Step 2. The privet tree. The original privet tree, meanwhile, had grown enormous — it was scraping against the second- and third-storey walls and windows — and it was producing great clusters of flowers (seen in my privet posting) that let off clouds of highly allergenic pollen that afflicted me, several of my neighbors, and a number of friends visiting me.

Eventually the garden’s owner had tree people in, to cut down everything above ground and shred it (in one morning), then to grind out the roots, leaving only a modest pile of fluffy compost where the tree had been. They also cleaned up the garden space very nicely, so that its owner is essentially in position to do whatever he wants with that space, including nothing.

Step 3. This Wednesday. Emboldened by this, the other neighbor brought the tree people back to deal with his two trees.

I actually liked the silk tree, despite the fact that it reduced by back patio to a shade garden and made a series of messes (see my silk-tree posting). It’s really a very pretty small tree.

But it seems that it’s notorious for having an aggressive root system that threatens the foundations of buildings, so it was going to have to come down — root and branch, as they say.

Then there was the potato vine. After they cut it down (to my surprise) but before they ground up the roots, I went to view the corpse — and saw that the core of the root system had rotted out.

This is a surprisingly common problem around here, especially with California live oaks (which are, of course, everywhere); the trees look sturdy and healthy, but some of them are dying from the inside. And then one day they just keel over, taking down whatever is in their path — mostly other vegetation, or parked cars, but sometimes (alas) people who happen to be under them and are wiped out by a Killer Oak Tree. Et in Arcadia ego.

Now I’ve never heard of a Killer Potato Vine — they don’t get big enough to do much damage if they come down — but if you like the plant (as, it turns out, a number of my neighbors do) you’ll like to have them around.

The potato vine. From Wikipedia:

Solanum crispum is a species of flowering plant in the Solanaceae [“nightshade”] family, native to Chile and Peru. Common names include Chilean potato vine, Chilean nightshade, Chilean potato tree and potato vine. Growing to 6 m (20 ft) tall, it is a semi-evergreen, woody-stemmed climbing plant. The small blue fragrant flowers, 2.5 cm in diameter, with prominent yellow ovaries, appear in clusters in summer. They resemble those of the closely related potato. Very small poisonous berries are produced in autumn.

The genus Solanum includes the food plants potato, tomato, and eggplant and a number of poisonous plants like the potato vine. (Well, for that matter, all parts of the potato plant are poisonous, except for the edible tubers.) The Solanaceae family takes in these plants, plus tobacco, deadly nightshade (Atropa belladonna), Jimson weed, and much more.

Solanum species have strikingly similar flowers. Compare #1 with potato (Solanum tuberosum) flowers (which come in white, pink, red, blue, and purple):


with tomato (Solanum lycopersicum) flowers, which are yellow:


and with eggplant (Solanum melongena) flowers, which are purple:


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