Reds, Greens Wage the Berkeley Foliage Battle

By Steven Finacom Special to the Planet
Tuesday December 02, 2003

It’s that time of year again—Fall, when there’s visible evidence on the streets of a major divide in viewpoints between Berkeley residents. I’m talking about the possibly irreconcilable differences between Berkeley’s Greens and Reds. 

These aren’t political differences, however. In this context, Green and Red are not political ideologies but, rather, the colors of street trees at this time of year. 

You see, Berkeley has a vocal contingent of residents who believe that “Fall color” is a necessary element of the autumn season and should be constantly increased. They’re the Reds. 

On the other hand, there are those who believe that Berkeley’s natural color this time of year is, and should primarily remain, green. 

Let me declare my allegiance right off. In terms of the Fall color question I’m generally a Green, with a tinge of Red. 

I came to this viewpoint gradually after multiple conversations along these lines. 

Me: “Berkeley should have more street trees.” 

Red: “Yes, I agree. But they must be trees that provide Fall color.” 

Me: “And why is that, exactly?” 

Red: “Because in the Fall you need Fall color.” 

Me: “Why?” 

Red: “Because.” 

In these exchanges that often come to resemble kindergarten conversations, I’ve come to this conclusion about the motivation of Berkeley’s Reds: They have an idealized view of Fall as it’s experienced in the American Northeast and they want it here, too. 

It’s no surprise. Berkeley has lots of expatriate New Yorkers and New Englanders, and while some of them have adjusted to the more salubrious Bay Area climate, others pine (or should I say, maple?) for visible reminders of home. 

It’s funny, though, but I don’t hear similar arguments being offered for the importation of other memorable reminders of Northeastern weather—slush and snow, ice storms, humid summers, or swarms of biting flies and midges, for instance. No, it’s just Fall color some people want. 

I don’t mind some Fall color, but too much of it is wrong for Berkeley. 

Real Fall color often requires sharply dropping temperatures and frosts. Berkeley just doesn’t have those on a reliably regular basis. And the trees often show it.  

Take the gloriously named Scarlet Oak, for instance. It sounds red, doesn’t it? Really red. Wouldn’t you be tempted to buy one just because of the name? In reality, in most places I’ve seen it planted in Berkeley, it’s not at all red in the Fall. It’s more like dead. As December approaches the leaves turn a lovely fawn brown and mournfully hang on the tree until some mid-winter storm finally shakes them off. 

I have no doubt that Scarlet Oaks blaze vivid red or purple in sharper climates, but here they can be a profound disappointment as far as Fall color is concerned. As are elms, sycamores, and other trees of their ilk, with leaves that turn, at best, a feeble blotchy yellow or tan as Fall approaches.  

Another reason why too much Fall color is undesirable in Berkeley has to do with the essential fact that Fall color means leaves are dropped. Beyond the clogged gutters and endless raking that result, the trees are barren during the winter. And that’s a disappointment hereabouts in late January or February when we’ve had a few months of chilly, wet, weather and it’s important to see some green, instead of just gray branches mournfully dripping rain.  

You may have already noticed that on some of Berkeley’s major commercial streets, including Shattuck Avenue, replacing evergreen street trees with deciduous species has been the trend in recent years. Take a look later this winter, and consider whether trees that are green all year might not have made more sense. 

That’s the way nature made Berkeley. Two of Berkeley’s keystone native tree species—live oaks and bay laurels—are green year round. Of the larger trees that once flourished in Berkeley’s natural landscape only buckeyes entirely drop their leaves, and that usually happens in the dry late summer, well before conventional autumn weather arrives.  

And remember that the Berkeley Hills themselves, come Fall, turn green. Autumn in the Bay Area is when the rains return bringing the quickening and reinvigoration of much of the landscape, not the beginning of annual dormancy. 

Another problem with too much emphasis on Fall color is that it reduces the opportunity for one of the benefits Berkeley’s climate offers that the Northeast can’t—winter flowering trees. A fair number of evergreen trees thrive in Berkeley and bloom in the late winter or early spring, which can come as early as February in some years. Eucalyptus, acacia and melalucas are all good examples.  

In contrast, there’s no major “Fall color” tree commonly planted in Berkeley that also bursts forth with blossoms right when we most need them, in the first three or four months of the year. 

This is not to say I’m against some Fall color on Berkeley’s streets and in her front yards. Liquid ambers and gingkos are, from my perspective, welcome stalwarts of Berkeley’s color scene, reliably providing brilliant reds, oranges, and yellows at this time of year. Some smaller trees such as Japanese maples also provide beautiful color. 

These are great on some streets and as accents, but they and their gaudy cousins shouldn’t be everywhere. Berkeley’s not Boston. Color me winter green. Most of the time, at least.