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A Tree’s Life

A Tree’s Life

By Therese Ciesinski, GardenSMART

It’s easy to think of trees as the “permanent” plants in our landscapes. Their growth is slower compared to other plants, so their changes are less obvious. But just like people, trees have natural life spans, which differ from species to species. Some trees live for decades, others for centuries. A rare few live for thousands of years.

It’s helpful for maintenance purposes to know which trees are on your property, and how long each is likely to live. For instance, many ornamental flowering trees have short life spans (under 50 years), and some of these species are susceptible to pests and diseases. There’s no point in trying to save an ailing tree if it is already towards the end of its natural life.

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Knowing how old a tree may get is even more important when choosing one for your yard, because life span usually correlates to size. You can’t stop a tree from growing. Sounds obvious, but not taking a tree’s mature size into consideration can lead to problems down the road.

The longest-lived trees usually grow big – really big – with huge canopies and even bigger root systems. Plant one too close to your house and it may eventually cause problems with your foundation, sidewalks, or driveway. A tree too large for its space can grow into power lines or drop limbs and will eventually need to be removed. Knowing your tree’s mature size can be the difference between being happy with your choice or dealing with an expensive and usually unsightly fix.

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Generally, the smaller the tree, the shorter the life span. And if you’re looking for trees that grow fast – for screening, a windbreak, or to divide property lines – keep in mind that usually the faster a tree grows, the shorter its life and the weaker its wood. That can make these “problem solving” trees susceptible to breakage from wind, storms, and heavy snows.

Here are a few commonly planted landscape trees and a general estimate of how long they live. It’s important to remember that a tree’s life span is influenced by factors both in our control and out of it. The estimates below are predicated on a tree growing in ideal conditions.

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Long-lived trees (100-plus years):

Ginkgo (600 years)

Douglas fir (400 years)

Sugar maple (400 years)

Oaks (300 years)

Red maple (300 years)

Blue spruce (200 years)

Tupelo (250 years)

Elm (200 years)

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Medium-lived trees (50-100 years):

Magnolia (100 years)

Japanese maple (100 years)

Palm (100 years)

Dogwood (80 years)

Persimmon (75 years)

Crapemyrtle (60 years)

Apple (50 years)

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Short-lived trees (50 years or less):

Birch (50 years)

Willow (30 years)

Ornamental pear (25 years)

Ornamental cherry (20 years)

Redbud (20 years)

Peach (15 years)

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Keep in mind that no tree can live up to its potential if not given the conditions it needs to thrive: healthy soil with the correct pH, adequate sunlight, airflow, and moisture, proper planting and maintenance.

This is especially true for trees grown in urban and suburban areas, where there are many stressors. Heat reflected from surfaces, too much or too little sunlight and water, cramped growing space, pollution, lawn care chemicals as well as mowers and weed whackers often shorten a landscape tree’s life considerably.

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A great way to get an understanding of a tree’s mature size and appearance is to visit your local arboretum or botanic garden. These trees are grown in conditions as close to ideal as possible so they can develop their full potential. Seeing a “grown up” tree in all its glory can help you determine whether it’s the best tree for you.


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