Pasadena resident Timothy Snider is a man of the trees. When you’re driving around a neighborhood, or driving on the freeway and looking at all the trees in the city, most folks just see green. Snider glances at a tree and will tell you the Latin name, the common name, and many things about the tree. He knows how to identify trees better than just about anyone, and he knows the history and uses of the trees as well.
Snider began his study of botany at Riverside City College and continued at CalPoly (Pomona), where he thought he might have a career in the Forest Service. When he realized they weren’t hiring, he shifted his focus to ornamental horticulture. At Riverside City College, and learned how to key out plants using the technical botanical books.
“Everyone was into the ‘back to nature’ thing back then, and I was mostly interested in wild plants that I could use for food,” says Snider.
Snider was a quick learner and seems to have an encylopedic knowledge of trees and plants. He was hired out of college to do street inventory work in Riverside. This involved walking the streets in Riverside and cataloging the trees in the computer with a number. Snider smiles and points to the tree next to where we’re standing. “This is a number 83,” he tells me, “a Cupaniopsis anacardioides, a carrotwood tree, and I would record this in my computer as an 83.” His tree inventory work included noting the exact location, and condition of the tree.
Snider relates that this was pretty straightforward work, with an occasional dog that would chase him.
His tree identification work has taken him near remote Indian sites, from mountain tops to the deserts. He say that although there is more diversity of trees today than there was in the days when only the Indians lived here, the trees that are here now are not necessarily more useful. “There was mostly a grass savannah here, with lots of oak trees producing acorns, and lots of open space to hunt game. Today, the greater diversity of trees does not produce more food, plus much of the open space is taken up by buildings and roads.”
Snider is keenly aware of the health of trees, and how this relates to the general health and wellbeing of the local populace.
For example, Snider points out that the ideal number of trees in the Big Bear area was figured out to be about 40 per acre. However, before the massive burn 6 years ago where everyone on the mountain had to be evacuated, the ratio was about 300 trees per acre. “This meant that there was less water per tree, and this allowed the bark beetle to cause devastation. The drought made things even worse,” explains Snider. People were unwilling to thin their trees, and so when the wildfire came, it burned out of control. Snider was called in after the fact to assist with tagging trees that had to be removed.
Snider is working on a plant identification book using primarily photos. (He also has a book in the works compiling all known guitar tunings).
Part of the problem of the Big Bear firestorm was convincing residents to thin out the trees. “The residents said the trees were too pretty, and wouldn’t cut them. So the fire came in and forced the issue.”
Snider also has a gripe with tree-pruners who don’t know trees.
“Most tree pruners know nothing about trees or pruning, and some only know how to use a chain saw. Most do not know how to shape a tree, and they overprune in hopes that they will not need to come back to the tree soon. But in fact, trees grow twice as fast when they are overpruned, since the tree is trying to compensate for the imbalance between the root system and the leaf system.
“You should never remove more than 20 to 30% of the foliage of a tree in any one season,” says Snider.
If looking for a good tree pruner, Snider suggests talking to the Ornamental Horticulture Department at CalPoly.
If you ask Snider to name the best tree for your backyard, he’ll tell you that’s the wrong question. “There is no best tree,” he explains, “since we need to take into account the lighting and shade conditions, the soil, the amount of space, the size of the mature tree, and maybe other factors.” To see some examples of trees and their conditions, Snider suggests going to Rancho Santa Ana Botanical Gardens in Claremont, the Arboretum in Arcadia, or Huntington Gardens in Pasadena.
Another interest of Snider’s is the natural history of the area, especially unique Native American calendric sites. One such example is Mockingbird Canyon, where the light of the sun makes a dagger through a circle on the winter solstice. This was a site used by the desert Cahuilla Indians and others.
“These calenders in stone told the people when to find food, when to do the ceremonies, and about the changing of the seasons,” explains Snider.