Saving Thessaloniki’s monumental plane tree

THESSALONIKI – The massive plane tree on Navarinou Square in downtown Thessaloniki overshadows the entrance to the Arch of Galerius archaeological site. Having stood there for some 200 years, it is one of many monumental trees that have become interwoven with the landscape, tradition and history of Greek towns and villages. In contrast to other European countries, where historic trees are documented, numbered and systematically monitored, Greece has no means of recording such trees. Damage Experts proposed instituting a register after what happened to the age-old plane tree on Navarinou Square. The tree had lost some of its massive boughs, which either fell in strong winds or because they had rotted, harming the tree itself and making it a danger to pedestrians. When the 16th Ephorate of Prehistoric and Classical Antiquities pointed out the danger and the historic importance of the tree, the Thessaloniki Municipality arranged to have it pruned. They undertook the project in cooperation with Theocharis Zagas, an associate professor in the silviculture laboratory of Aristotle University’s faculty of Forestry and Natural Environment who specializes in urban forestry. In the past, Zagas had helped conserve old plane trees on Vafopoulou Street and a venerable elm on Martiou Street in Ano Thessaloniki. The aim was not to alter the shape of the plane tree but to thin it out drastically and protect it from insects by smearing the damaged areas with special preparations. The project was noteworthy in that it took an approach that was the polar opposite of the standard practice of pruning trees in Thessaloniki, which has raised bitter opposition. Recently, 150 academics, including foresters and horticulturalists as well as local residents, signed a letter of protest to the municipal authorities, demanding they adopt a scientific approach to caring for urban greenery. «Very old trees in cities, which are linked to the history and landscape of a neighborhood, must be treated differently from other trees, though that is not to say that all trees are not important to a city’s viability,» said Zagas, who is also president of the Hellenic Forestry Society and vice-president of the Thessaloniki’s Friends of Greenery association. This is even more vital in Thessaloniki and Athens, explained Zagas, where urban greenery is nowhere near the minimum stipulated by the World Health Organization (8010 square meters of greenery per inhabitant), with a mere 2.7 square meters per capita in Thessaloniki and 2.8 square meters per capita in Athens. There are many monumental trees scattered around the city of Thessaloniki, explained Zagas. Their number includes the plane tree in Lefkou Pyrgou Square on the waterfront, for which similar treatment is planned. Special register If these old trees are to be systematically tended, a special register must be established, Zagas believes. «In that way the trees would receive better care with less effort,» he said. He wants to see the Environment Ministry record all monuments of Greek nature, among them the plane tree in Tsangarada, Pilio, and another in Mesokomi, Evrytania, both over 1,000 years old. For the moment, the Thessaloniki Municipality is compiling a register of urban trees. So far, it has documented 40 percent of the city’s 50,000 trees, according to the deputy mayor’s green department.