Trees are more than trunks, leaves and roots. They filter the air we breathe, and they’re crucial to the character of the city. They provide shade, keeping homes and humans cool. They’re a pillar of Durango property values.
And there are thousands of them in Durango representing dozens of varieties. Humans planted some in the past few decades, and others took root naturally centuries ago. There’s a champion Rio Grande cottonwood, one of the tallest trees of its species in the United States, in north Durango that stands more than 100 feet and continues to grow. Massive oak trees planted along East Third Avenue create a tunnel-like effect that blocks the sun’s rays at midday.
The biodiversity of trees in the city makes it hard for people like Tom Bridge, owner of Durango Nursery and Supply Inc., to pick favorites.
“My favorite trees change with the seasons,” he said. “It depends on what’s catching my eye and what’s catching my nose.”
Durango Nursery sells more than 1,000 trees each year to people all over La Plata County. The city of Durango manages more than 10,000 trees in parks and rights of way around town, said city arborist Greg Sykes. The city has at least 40 species of trees, and “when you take in all the other cultivars and varieties, then we have over 100 different trees,” he said.
Of all the trees in Durango, there’s one in particular Sykes said he’s partial to.
“It’s an Atlas cedar – that’s my favorite tree,” he said. “There’s only one that we know of (in Durango). It gets these real large cones on it, and supposedly the tree originated somewhere in North Africa.”
The more, the merrierThe city of Durango, private businesses and individuals all fuel the biodiversity of trees in Durango, all the time introducing tree species and cultivars – plant varieties produced in cultivation by selective breeding.
“We like to try as many different things as we can. We’ll try newer species in parks and cemeteries to see if we can put them in our right of ways,” Sykes said. “(Biodiversity is helpful) especially because of insects or disease, those sort of things. You don’t want a certain insect – let’s say Emerald ash borer that’s taking out a lot of ash trees. If you have a diversity of species, you won’t wipe out what you have in your tree inventory.”
Durango is in what the Colorado State University Extension considers the “foothills life zone,” which, in Southwest Colorado, is dominated by “piñon-juniper woodlands and sagebrush,” according to the Extension service. Look to the hillsides in the Animas Valley for a sampling of native trees, including the small, bushy piñon pine and the scraggly, rounded Rocky Mountain juniper.
But trees in inhabited parts of Durango are different – the biodiversity is, in part, thanks to American settlement and development in the past 150 years, Sykes said. People have brought trees native to other regions to Southwest Colorado for decades.
“If you take Viles Park, for example, a lot of those trees were planted upward of 100 years ago, and there’s photographs of those trees in the late 1800s and 1900s that show them being planted,” Sykes said. The photo, he said, is probably buried somewhere.
‘They have to be tough’It’s hard for trees to grow at 6,512 feet above sea level, Bridge said. Higher elevations are typically colder and have harsher winters.
“Our environment is strenuous on plants,” he said. “There’s a huge spread of nocturnal temperature changes. Trees have to handle that – the cold winters – and sometimes there’s cold with no snow to insulate the roots, so they have to be tough.”
“And then there is the effects of elevation,” Bridge told The Durango Herald. “It affects some plants like it would affect humans: It limits ability to grow and perform. It’s not every tree, but some of the plant material is definitely limited by elevation.”
Bridge said he has two basic kinds of buyers: private homeowners and contractors, including landscape contractors, developers and builders. The latter are likely to buy in bulk, making them Bridge’s largest customer base, he said. Homeowners are a close second and may buy only one or two trees, he said. But they’re likely to be more “adventurous,” he said.
“There’s usually more variation in homeowner palettes,” Bridge said. “Builders want to stay with everything that’s tried and true. They don’t want to come back, they want something that’s going to work.”
The city of Durango’s “Tree and Shrub Guide” suggests planting trees like weeping birch, hackberry and honey locust, all of which are deciduous, or seasonal, trees with canopies that provide shade.
The more “adventurous” people may take a risk with a tree that may not normally grow where it’s planted, Bridge said. Beyond what the city suggests, there’s “a lot of ornamental cultivars and trees and shrubs,” he said. Some people grow fruit trees, but Bridge said those may require more care and can attract wildlife.
“If you don’t have a relationship – a lasting relationship – with your garden, then you should be sticking to the mainstay of tree pallet,” he said.