Local arborists pose beneath their impressive handiwork, the preservation of the Collins Street magnolia tree in East Liberty. | Photo courtesy of Megan Higgins Palomo of Tree Pittsburgh.

This story was originally published on page 8 of BGC’s The Bulletin.

Nobody seems to remember [exactly] how long a southern magnolia tree has been towering over traffic at the intersection of Collins Street and Negley Run Boulevard. Everybody is fond of the tree’s presence, but few know about its provenance.

This is one of western Pennsylvania’s last remaining fully blossomed, southern magnolia trees. With a slate of new construction threatening the tree’s survival, a dedicated group comprised of professionals from East Liberty Development, Inc. (ELDI), The Davey Tree Expert Company, and Tree Pittsburgh are now joining forces to save East Liberty’s most unique arboreal specimen. The roots of this story stretch back to 2016, when ELDI was appointed conservator of a deteriorating house at 529 Collins St.

“With only a handful of these trees left in Pittsburgh, this gives us all the more reason to save every last one of them.”

– Shivam Mathur, ELDI project manager

“One thing we knew from the beginning,” Shivam Mathur, project manager for ELDI, explained, “is that we were not only inheriting the structure on the site, but also the magnificent southern magnolia tree on the same lot.”

After analyzing the site’s potential functions, ELDI suggested that it could be used as a parking lot, which would reduce congestion on Collins Street.

“We had to design the parking lot so that there was zero, or minimal, disturbance to the tree,” Mathur revealed.

Brett Carter (Space Development, LLC), who owns the neighboring apartment building at 531 Collins, also wanted to make use of the parking lot. He eventually worked out an agreement with ELDI; Carter extended a loan to cover the cost of not only finishing the lot but also preserving the tree.

According to Matt Erb, director of Urban Forestry at Tree Pittsburgh, the Collins Street magnolia is remarkable for many reasons. Somehow, a plant designed to thrive in warmer climes has taken root in East Liberty; no native to Pittsburgh, or anywhere in the region, this tree is truly one-of-a-kind.

“We always noted how special [the tree] was,” Erb said, “when discussing its historical function in the neighborhood.”

A tree rooted in East Liberty’s history

A certified tree tender hoists his way up the trunk of a southern magnolia tree on Collins Street. The rare tree, which has lived in East Liberty for 60 years, was recently safeguarded against any threats posed by new construction. | Photo courtesy of Megan Higgins Palomo of Tree Pittsburgh.

Estimated to be more than 60 years old, this tree has lived through many phases of East Liberty. After witnessing the grand opening of a Home Depot store in 2000, the tree was also present for the 2005 demolition of Penn Towers – a neighborhood casualty that made way for new mixed-income developments and still resonates with long-time residents.

Robert Kruljac, Assistant District Manager at the north Pittsburgh office of The Davey Tree Expert Company, said his organization is working to ensure how the magnolia will remain front-and-center throughout East Liberty’s next life-cycles.

“The environment around the tree has changed significantly. With the recent removal of a nearby house, it’s now exposed to wind and light coming from new directions. The tree’s root system likely sustained damage during the removal of the adjacent structure, and it will again be impacted during scheduled construction on neighboring parcels,” he explained. “Surrounded by buildings and concrete, there aren’t any new areas for the tree’s roots to grow into; just like any living creature, the older it gets, the less it can possibly adapt to stress.”

By revitalizing its root system and infusing organic material and “bio-char,” Davey Tree is working to provide an optimal environment for tree growth.

Tree Pittsburgh offered to collect the southern magnolia seeds in an effort to supply its Heritage Nursery, which seeks to preserve and propagate various plant species and sell them to reforestation efforts.

“We don’t know if this southern magnolia’s seedlings will be quite as ‘cold-hardy’ and tolerant of Pittsburgh’s winters,” Erb noted. “However, with climate change and uncertain weather in the near future, it’s worth propagating these seedlings just to see how they fare.”

ELDI has pledged to work with both organizations to protect the tree’s root zone, keep it watered, and ensure that any future use of the site has minimal impact on its health. During a year defined by its division, this tree has become something of a uniting symbol.

“In these challenging times, this tree has given us the strength to persevere despite the doom and gloom,” Mathur said. “With only a handful of these trees left in Pittsburgh, this gives us all the more reason to save every last one of them.”

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