Experts issue warning: beware of ‘zombie trees’

BEWARE OF THE ZOMBIE TREE — Trees that look healthy but have defects can topple over during a storm, like this one that fell and blocked Orange Avenue in Cranford in May.

SPRINGFIELD, NJ — They may look alive, but they’re dead. And due to recent super storms in New Jersey, they’re all around Union County.

“Zombie trees,” as they’re referred to by arborists, are trees that may look healthy but now have defects. With winter approaching, and the heavy wet snow with it, tree experts recommend trimming or even completely removing the trees because the next storm could turn these “undead trees” into hazards for power lines and houses.

“In general, as a storm blows through the area, there is a lot of unforeseen damage that can occur to the tree including cracked limbs that become weak and broken branches that aren’t evident right away,” Union arborist Bob O’Rourke stated in a phone interview with LocalSource on Wednesday, Oct. 24.

O’Rourke, an arborist for more than 20 years, has been in the tree-trimming industry for more than 30 years. He said there are warning signs that property owners can look for, but it’s always best to have a tree evaluated before making any decisions.

“There are things that the homeowner can look out for, but having an arborist on your go-to tree company is important,” he added. “There are things that arborists will recommend that a usual tree-trimming company won’t. It can be hard to tell with these ‘zombie trees’ so you definitely need an arborist.”

Common tree defects property owners can look for are cracked limbs, discolored foliage and certain kinds of fungus growing on and around a tree.

Joe Pomesil, a lead foreman at Davey Tree, also recommended that a property owner who believes a tree could be hazardous should contact an arborist or licensed tree expert.
“With the changing of the season, it’s a really good time to get out and look up into the canopies of the trees,” he said in a phone interview with LocalSource on Friday, Oct. 19. “But to the naked eye, sometimes it isn’t easy to see all of the defects so it’s best to contact an expert.”

Aside from removing dead branches or completely removing the “zombie tree,” arborists can offer solutions such as attaching cables to broken branches or bracing the trunk.

“There are proactive things an arborist can recommend because we ultimately want to save the trees,” O’Rourke
stated. “Mature trees add to the beauty of the neighborhood and that’s what we are trying to keep.”
O’Rourke recommended that all trees be evaluated at least once a year or after any severe storm.

“A tree can look perfectly healthy but could be completely hollowed out. Until you take a rubber mallet out and pound around the trunk of the tree, no one would even know that it’s hollow,” he said.

While property owners can look for tree defects, local municipalities and power companies are doing their part as well.
“We have a running list of trees and we prioritize the trees through the year,” Robert Boettcher, head of the Springfield Department of Public Works, said in an Oct. 25 phone interview. “So, anything that is in jeopardy of being compromised in the event of a storm will immediately come down throughout the year.”

Boettcher said his department does everything from removing dead limbs near wires to completely removing trees.
PSE&G has a vegetation-management department, comprised of state licensed tree experts and arborists certified through the International Society of Arboriculture, which is currently on a four-year trim and maintenance cycle.

“We visit and trim almost every tree in our system over a four-year period,” Guy Vogt, a PSE&G forester, said in a phone interview on Wednesday, Oct. 24. “During our inspection we look for regrowth, dead wood and overall hazards.”
Vogt added that PSE&G arborists are out every day with contractors to check on their wires and said it’s important for residents to stay away from downed power lines.

“We do know where the areas are that we need to do work in and areas that we can wait for the trim cycle to come through,” he said. “It’s also important to add that customers should stay at least 300 feet away from downed lines because it’s hard to tell which are live and which aren’t.”

Along with a list of trees that need to be evaluated, Springfield has a forestry replanting program.
“I have an aggressive forestry program where I budget so much money per year for planting,” Boettcher said. “We’re passionate about our trees and we make decisions based on what’s best for them.”

Through the Union County Open Space, Kids Recreation and Historic Preservation Trust Fund, Springfield was awarded $8,000 in a “tree for tree” matching grant by the Union County Bord of Chosen Freeholders at their Oct. 25 meeting. The grant will allow the township to plant 50 trees.