2013-05-24 / People

Horticulturist speaks for the trees

By Jack Flagler
Staff Writer

Mary Lou Fathke Mary Lou Fathke About this time each year, tourists start streaming up I-95 to Maine. When summer turns to fall, leaf peepers will come to enjoy the multi-colored canopies and send postcards home of Victorian homes or farmhouses on small, picturesque, tree-lined roads.

Trees are responsible, in part, for Maine’s character, its economy and its tourism industry. But the people responsible for planting those trees may not receive the same recognition as, for example, a building architect or a team of engineers who design a city block.

During South Portland’s Arbor Week from Sunday, May 19 to Saturday, May 25, Mary Lou Fathke will make sure the trees in South Portland get some additional attention.

Fathke has been the city’s horticulturist for nearly 16 years, planting trees on city property to replace the ones that have come down, whether from age, illness or a powerful storm.

The celebration of Arbor Week began Monday afternoon, May 20, when Fathke attended an event in Auburn joined by representatives of 18 other Maine communities that participate in the “Tree City USA” program. The federal program recognizes cities and towns that show a commitment to maintaining trees on public property.

South Portland is one of six Maine communities, along with Farmington, Portland, Yarmouth, Westbrook and Kennebunkport, that have participated in the program for more than 30 years.

Fathke was then slated to visit South Portland’s five elementary schools, one each from Monday through Friday, to teach fifth-grade students about different types of trees, their importance and how to successfully plant one. Each student, if they choose, will receive a seedling to plant a balsam fir tree at home.

Following her visit to the schools, Fathke will lead an Arbor Walk at 9 a.m. Saturday, May 25 starting at the Mill Creek Park gazebo. The walking tour will give members of the public a chance to learn more about the trees in the city and Fathke’s experience as a horticulturist. Fathke said she usually leads the walk in the fall, but wanted to show participants the budding arboretum in the redesigned park and have the walk coincide with Arbor Week.

The main challenge of being the city’s horticulturist, Fathke said, is “finding the right tree for the right location.”

Usually, that means a tree that comes down will not be replaced by a tree of the same type. Fathke said she has to consider a number of factors when she selects which tree to plant. Those include the preference of nearby homeowners and, in an urban environment like South Portland’s, space restrictions, parking requirements, nearby utility lines and telephone poles.

Adding to the challenge is the need to stay away from what Fathke called “monoculture,” or a cluster of similar trees. If too many similar species are bunched together in one location, they are vulnerable to disease spread by insects or fungi.

That’s what happened in the 1960s and 1970s, Fathke explained, when a fungus carrying Dutch elm disease wiped out elm trees across the United States and Canada.

Fathke also takes aesthetics into account when making horticulture decisions, but said she can’t quite recreate postcard canopies because of the need to vary species. However, she recognizes there are certain things both residents and tourists look for, whether it’s fall colors or flower blossoms.

“I find all trees interesting,” Fathke said, “but I still hit on some good aspects the public will notice.”

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