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Nursery owner decries plan to cut Potsdam village trees

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POTSDAM — The owner of St. Lawrence Nurseries, which specializes in cold-hardy fruit and nut trees, is distressed at the cutting down of trees in Canton and Potsdam that have value beyond being ornamental.

A cucumber magnolia was chopped down in Canton to make way for construction of a credit union. The village of Potsdam has plans to remove all of downtown’s Manchurian pear trees that have lined the streets for years.

“They are historic but they also have tremendous scientific impact,” William L. MacKentley said. “They are things that need to be preserved.”

The pear trees have generally survived only too well, dropping fruit that turns into a slippery mess, attracts bees, annoys merchants and possibly discourages people from coming downtown, Mayor Steven W. Yurgartis said. Village crews spend a lot of time cleaning up the mess and maintaining the trees, he said.

“The plan is to replace those pear trees with other trees,” he said. “I’ve asked Bill if he would give us some recommendations.”

Mr. MacKentley said he did just that when he donated the pear trees to the village 35 years ago.

“There’s nothing out there,” he said. “We don’t have a lot of choices in Northern New York. We need trees that thrive, that don’t just survive. We are living in a climate that’s really rough. Trees that have these genetics have value.”

The village wants trees that stay within a certain height so as not to interfere with wires. Most trees suggested as good for street plantings are not hardy enough to survive more than a few north country winters and end up having to be replaced, which will cost the village more in replanting and work than maintaining the pear trees, Mr. MacKentley said.

“The average life of a street tree in America is five years,” he said.

The pear trees have created a canopy that replacement trees will not offer for years, if they survive at all, Mr. MacKentley said.

The pear trees, which are also known as sand pears or Siberian pears, are strong enough to withstand vandalism and damage from plows and salt, he said. The pear trees are durable, Mr. Yurgartis said.

“He certainly picked out a tree that’s very hardy,” he said.

He agreed that young trees are often vandalized, their limbs ripped off and bark stripped.

“That is a point in favor of the pear trees, but I do think the negatives outweigh the positives,” Mr. Yurgartis said.

He said the pear trees are nearing the end of their lives, but Mr. MacKentley said they easily live more than 100 years. If dropping pears are an annoyance, the trees can be treated with an organic or an inorganic spray that stops the flowers from setting fruit, he said.

“If they make a little fruit, big deal; clean it up,” Mr. MacKentley said.

The pears are not good to eat but can be made into vinegar, he said. He asked that those who like the pear trees contact the mayor’s office to voice their opinion. “He thinks nobody in the village likes them, but I think just the opposite,” Mr. MacKentley said.

He has been mourning the loss of Canton’s cucumber magnolia, which was cut down earlier this summer as part of the building plans for St. Lawrence Federal Credit Union. He said he hopes the stump is left so he can gather cuttings from suckers.

St. Lawrence Nurseries sells trees and shrubs but is also a horticultural experiment station for cold climates, Mr. MacKentley said.

“There was something unique and novel about that magnolia. It was extremely rare. You do not find that tree growing under those conditions. It’s the genetics of that particular tree,” he said. “I visited that tree every year for the last 40 years.”

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