Navigating  the urban forest

Navigating the urban forest

Timothy Snider has made care of trees and plants his life’s work

By Christopher Nyerges 05/07/2009

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When you’re driving around a neighborhood, or driving on the freeway and looking at all the trees in the city, most folks just see green. Pasadena resident Timothy Snider glances at a tree and will tell you its Latin name, the common name, and many things about the tree. He knows how to identify trees better than just about anyone, and he knows their history and uses as well.

Snider began his study of botany at Riverside City College and continued at CalPoly Pomona. He had thought he might have a career in the US Forest Service, but when he realized they weren’t hiring, he shifted his focus to ornamental horticulture. At RCC he learned how to key out plants using the technical botanical books.

“Everyone was into the ‘back to nature’ thing back then and I was mostly interested in wild plants that I could use for food,” says Snider.
A quick learner with a seemingly encyclopedic knowledge of trees and plants, he was hired out of college to do street inventory work in Riverside, which involved walking Riverside streets, cataloging the trees in the computer with a number. Snider smiles and points to the tree beside us. “This is a number 83,” he tells me, “a Cupaniopsis anacardioides, a carrotwood tree, and I would record this in my computer as an 83.” His inventory work included noting the tree’s exact location and condition.

His tree identification work has taken him near remote Indian sites and from mountaintops to deserts. He says that though there is greater diversity of trees today than in the days when only Indians lived here, the trees that are here now are not necessarily more useful. “There was mostly a grass savanna here, with lots of oak trees producing acorns, and lots of open space to hunt game. Today, the greater diversity of trees does not produce more food, plus much of the open space is taken up by buildings and roads.”

Snider is keenly aware of the health of trees, and how this relates to the general health and well-being of the local populace. For example, Snider points out that the ideal number of trees in the Big Bear area was figured out to be about 40 per acre. However, before the massive burn six years ago in which everyone on the mountain had to be evacuated, the ratio was about 300 trees per acre. “This meant less water per tree, which allowed the bark beetle to cause devastation. The drought made things even worse,” he explains.

People were unwilling to thin their trees; “The residents said the trees were too pretty and wouldn’t cut them.” So when the wildfire came, it burned out of control. Snider was called in after the fact to assist with tagging trees that had to be removed.

Snider, who is working on a plant identification book mainly utilizing photos, also has a gripe with tree-pruners who don’t know trees.

“Most tree-pruners know nothing about trees or pruning, and some only know how to use a chain saw. Most do not know how to shape a tree, and they overprune in hopes that they will not need to come back to the tree soon. But, in fact, trees grow twice as fast when they are overpruned, since the tree is trying to compensate for the imbalance between the root system and the leaf system.

“You should never remove more than 20 to 30 percent of the foliage of a tree in any one season,” says Snider.

If looking for a good tree-pruner, Snider suggests talking to the Ornamental Horticulture Department at CalPoly Pomona. If you ask Snider to name the best tree for your backyard, he’ll tell you that’s the wrong question. “There is no best tree,” he explains, “since we need to take into account the lighting and shade conditions, the soil, the amount of space, the size of the mature tree, and maybe other factors.”

To see examples of trees in a variety of conditions, Snider suggests going to Rancho Santa Ana Botanical Gardens in Claremont, the LA County Arboretum & Botanic Garden in Arcadia or Huntington Gardens in Pasadena.

Another interest of Snider’s is the natural history of the area, especially unique Native American sites. One nearby example is Mockingbird Canyon, where the light of the sun makes a dagger through a circle on the winter solstice. This site was used by the desert Cahuilla Indians and others.

For more information, contact Urban Semillas through Miguel A.Luna at


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