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Chicago in 2080: Like Oklahoma, with more ginkgo trees

You probably know not to plant ash trees—the emerald ash borer is in the process of wiping them out by the millions.

But it isn’t as if the ash borer is the last threat to our forests and urban tree landscape, alas. There’s always the looming disaster of global warming, and scientists expect that to wreak havoc on our environment and, by extension, our trees.

The Chicago Botanic Garden has just released a study of what trees will do well for the next 70 years as the climate grows warmer, looking at trees on the City of Chicago’s urban tree planting list.

“We picked 50 from that list and did climate change modeling for each tree,” said Andrew Bell, curator of woody plants at the Botanic Garden. Forty of those trees are expected to do well.

Others, not so well.

“The American basswood is really poor performing,” he said. “By 2050, American basswoods will have lost 50 percent of their climatic adapability for the Chicago area.”

And what kind of trees will thrive?

“Gingko biloba is one of the top performers,” he said, referring to an ancient tree, a unique species sitting alone in a classification by itself, a living fossil that has existed unchanged for 250 million years, so naturally is able to take just about any changes to come its way.

Anything else?

“If looking at middle century, American sweet gum performs well. Sweet bay magnolia , pecan, all these plants right now we are on the northernmost limits where they can be cultivated, it’s surprising some of these species will continue to perform well.”

Pecan? Sweet gum? So what kind of climate can Chicago expect in 2080? “New Orleans?” I said, hope dawning.

“Not New Orleans,” Bell said. “A little West – think Eastern Oklahoma, Eastern Kansas.”

Lovely. So it isn’t just the coastal areas that will be affected. Chicago too. Any chance of avoiding this?

“If we don’t make drastic changes in how we live, it could be a very different palate of plants in Chicago, and everywhere,” said Bell.

Well, we know we aren’t making those changes, are we?. Better start planting ginkgos. A sun-baked prairie dotted with carefully-tended fossil trees. You heard it here first.

To read thoughts from Neil Steinberg about planting trees, go to his personal blog by clicking here.