For Cameron Stearns, the most hopeful thing he knows how to do is to plant a tree.
But the 72-year-old Baltimorean doesn’t get as many opportunities as he once did to put his shovel into the ground and gently pull away the burlap covering from delicate roots. There are fewer occasions when he can settle a trunk into a hole that’s been dug exactly deep enough and wide enough for the top of the tangled rootstock to be level with the surface of the soil.
Stearns is retired now and no longer owns a landscaping company. A few years ago, he moved from his home in Roland Park with its generous yard to a rowhouse in Upper Fells Point.
So on Saturday, a morning when it was cold enough for the water in puddles to freeze, Stearns drove to Druid Hill Park with friend Phyllis Fung for the launch of Flowering Tree Trails. The initiative by a coalition of city departments, environmental groups and volunteers aims to plant 39 miles of ornamental trees along 39 miles of Baltimore trails.
“The single best thing you can do for the environment is to plant a tree,” said Stearns, who was among the approximately 50 volunteers who showed up for the planting. “This is something I can get out and do to help the city.”
Saturday marked the first phase of what will be a multi-year effort to plant about 6,000 flowering ornamentals that in the spring will visually link the city’s neighborhoods through a canopy of pink and white blossoms. Amanda Cunningham, an arborist who helped organize the planting program, estimated the initiative’s total cost will be in the low seven figures. Fundraising efforts, she said, are underway.
Jill Jonnes, a member of the city’s Forestry Board, told the group she came up with the initiative after strolling down tree-filled avenues, including New York’s High Line, Atlanta’s Belt Line and the boulevards in Kawasaki, Japan, during cherry blossom season.
“These trails are green and lovely, and city dwellers absolutely flock to them,” she said. “I wondered, ‘Why can’t we have a network of trees like that in Baltimore?’”
She and the initiative’s co-chair, Russ Moss, approached city officials and promoted the many ways that such trees benefit urban dwellers, including environmental (they reduce air pollution, provide a sanctuary for wildlife and decrease electricity consumption) and personal health (spending time in a beautiful and peaceful place can reduce blood pressure).
“When people go to places of natural aesthetic beauty, they are more active,” Moss said. “They exercise more. The crime rate goes down.”
Erik Dihle, chief of the forestry division of Baltimore’s Department of Recreation & Parks, said that planting ornamental trees will also help the city reach its goal of increasing its canopy — the amount of ground covered by shade when viewed from an airplane — from its current level of 28 percent to 40 percent by 2037. That’s the amount of coverage that the U.S. Forest Service estimates is optimal to improve air quality in a city the size of Baltimore.
Shade trees — oaks, maples, hickory, and poplar — would accomplish that goal as well. But Cunningham said that the city’s parks are relatively well stocked with shade trees, which grow quickly and reach great heights. Though they turn spectacular hues of crimson, orange and gold in the fall, in the spring their flowers are small and relatively insignificant. In contrast, the ornamentals are shorter and their fall colors are more muted. But each spring, they are adorned with showy, fragrant flowers that bloom practically at an adult’s eye level.
“Our canopy of upper-story trees is relatively well developed,” Cunningham said. “But, we need more of the understory trees that will be closer to people who are walking or biking down the paths.”
On Saturday, volunteers planted seven species on the almost quarter-mile-long path that connects Druid Hill Park’s Victorian-style conservatory to Mansion House Drive: crabapple, dogwood, white fringe, silverbell, stewartia (a tree with a white flower resembling a camellia) and two types of cherry trees.
Dihle said the array has been designed to create the longest possible bloom time.
“We should have something in flower starting in late March or April and continuing almost until July,” he said.
The 50-year-old Fung lives in Canton and works in marketing. She said she welcomes the chance to dig into ground and plant trees.
“In marketing, you don’t always see right away whether you’ve achieved your goal,” she said. “When you plant a tree, you do. It’s a concrete accomplishment, and that’s tremendously rewarding.”