Urban trees live a precarious coexistence with power lines strung up on poles 25 to 35 feet in the air.
In some places, so many wires seem to be held aloft that you might think you are looking up to some mystical dreamcatcher, albeit one that seems to prefer collective nightmares at times of tornadoes, wind shears and ice storms.
We don't perch domestic gas lines or water mains up in the elements — they're snugly buried beneath the road, along with newer power lines — so why power cables? The short answer is that it's expensive to bury them, but it has to do with history, too.
Many areas received basic electricity supply in the first decades of the last century, at a time when trees that had grown from the mid-19th century were already of great height and girth. A single, innocuous power line brought power well below where these lofty giants began to branch. But during the course of the 20th century, homes became loaded with air conditioners, refrigerators, washer-dryers and other appliances, requiring an increasingly powerful network of electricity transmission and distribution. At the same time, new development led to wholesale removal of old trees and the planting of new ones that were destined to grow amid the utility wires.
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When the tree limbs and power lines meet, the trees are often pruned to the point of mutilation.
How can you best manage the coexistence of trees and power lines?
Small, upright trees make great alternatives to old, mutilated shade trees that have lost their battle with overhead power lines and the utility company's tree "trimmers."
Municipal arborists call these alternatives "understory trees" because in nature, the trees grow below the forest canopy. Pressed into street-tree service, they need to be upright in habit and tolerant of all the ills of growing in a narrow curbside strip, among them poor soil, heat stress, limited root space and road salt.
Trees to plant near power lines
The trees listed below also make good candidates on the edge of private lots where shade trees might, in time, grow into power lines.
All are approved as street trees by the Lexington-Fayette Urban County Government and because of their small stature are recommended for planting under power lines. All varieties are suitable for Kentucky's USDA hardiness zones.
American hornbeam (Carpinus caroliniana): This small tree with beech-like leaves and silver bark deserves more use. Not a showy bloomer, it develops an upright rounded canopy and grows to a tidy 20 feet. The upright form of the European hornbeam is more common, used as a screen in tight spaces.
Crab apple (Malus): It is important to pick a variety that is both upright in growth habit and bred for disease resistance. The crab apple is gorgeous in bud, flower and fruit, although its dropped fruit can be messy. Suitable street-tree varieties include Adirondack, Donald Wyman, Autumn Glory, Naragansett and Professor Sprenger, all white-flowering. Prairifire has magenta flowers. Thunderchild is a 15-footer with pink blossoms.
Eastern redbud (Cercis canadensis): This beloved native woodland tree functions nicely as a street tree, growing to 15 to 20 feet when pressed into curbside duty. It's somewhat short-lived in a stressed environment, but worth replacing every 20 to 30 years.
Flowering dogwood (Cornus florida): Like the redbud, this iconic native tree is unlikely to reach great, spreading age at the roadside. It's particularly suited to front yards near power lines. An alternative is the more upright and larger kousa dogwood (Cornus kousa).
Serviceberry (Amelanchier): Amelanchiers grow as large shrubs or small trees, depending on species and individual form. Select one that has a single trunk. Autumn Brilliance is a hybrid favored for its tree form and red fall color. In particular, Lexington recommends the Allegheny serviceberry (Amelanchier laevis).
Washington hawthorn (Crataegus phaenopyrum): This is a heat-tolerant species of hawthorn that grows to about 20 feet in a street setting. Princeton Sentry is a near-thornless variety. A suitable alternative is the Winter King variety of green hawthorn.
More recommendations: Lexington also recommends these trees as suitable for planting under power lines: amur maple (Acer ginnala), fringe tree (Chionanthus virginicus) and tatarian maple (Acer tataricum).