Benefits of Trees in Tucson’s Desert Landscapes & Yards

Why you should plant trees in your yard, the benefits they provide, and how to do it properly

When you picture Tucson, what do you see? A Mountain (Sentinel Peak)? Downtown? Maybe a saguaro or a blooming ocotillo? Beautiful sunsets and impressive monsoon storms? A meal that reminds you why Tucson is a UNESCO designated city of gastronomy?

The first thing you might not think of when picturing Tucson is trees. Part of that is marketing – after all, where else can you see our majestic saguaros or eat such a variety of delicious tacos? But also, we’re a desert city, so oftentimes people don’t know that Tucson HAS trees.

trees water tucson

When you picture Tucson and it’s surrounding areas, trees might not be the first thing that you think of.

We do have trees in Tucson, but we don’t have enough.

Most cities worldwide have introduced or are working on some kind of tree planting initiative. New York City hit their goal of planting and maintaining 1 million trees two years early, while other cities are still trying to reach their goals. Here in Arizona, Phoenix is trying to reach a 25% tree canopy by 2030.

Tucson, too, needs to plant 2 million trees by 2030.

Why so many? Well, trees have died in recent years because of hard freezes, so even with new trees being planted, we’ve lost a lot of our tree canopy. New construction, monsoon storm damage, and dying trees have added to that number.

Cities and organizations can only do so much (and usually only on public lands such as parks and schools). It’s up to us residents and homeowners to really make up the difference.

But why plant trees in the desert?

tree in desert

Native trees like palo verdes thrive in our desert environment

Tucson is considered a desert because of our annual rainfall, so many raise concerns about the amount of water needed to plant and maintain more trees. The good news is that if you plant native trees, they only need water for the first few years, and then they can survive on rainwater and a little maintenance.

Others may object that while it makes sense to plant trees in places like Boston or Seattle, Tucson would only naturally have creosote and cactus.

If Tucson was still undisturbed desert, that could be true, though you’d also run across some ironwood, mesquite, and other trees. As you know, there are still areas of Tucson where you can hike and explore and feel like you’re in the middle of some undiscovered land. (Which is another thing that makes Tucson amazing).

Where there are homes and buildings, however, is where we need trees more. Concrete and asphalt trap the heat and raise temperatures.

Did you know that Tucson – not Phoenix – is the third fastest-warming city in the United States? Only Las Vegas and El Paso are warming faster.

Trees like palo verdes and mesquites thrive in our desert city, and the colorful blooms and interesting shades of green from other native trees bring color, life, and variety to our desert environment. Plus, have you heard about all of the benefits that trees provide?

A very brief overview of what trees do for us

Sure, you probably know that trees provide shade (don’t you park your car under a tree in a parking lot during the summer heat to take advantage of that shade?) You probably remember learning that trees turn carbon dioxide into oxygen for us to breathe. You may have also learned that they’re a valuable source of food and shelter for wildlife.

trees in parking lot

You might be from Tucson if…the best parking spot is the one in the shade of a tree.

Trees make you healthier

That’s just the tip of the iceberg! Are you one of the 1 in 13 people who have asthma? People who live on tree-lined streets in urban areas (not just in the country!) have fewer asthma attacks.

Feeling stressed? Simply spending time amongst trees can lower your stress levels and your blood pressure. Have you ever heard that green is a calming color? Guess what color tree leaves (or the bark of a palo verde tree) are? Green! Some studies have shown that even looking at a picture of a tree can reduce anxiety and stress – or looking at trees from a window.

trees tucson st philips plaza

Feeling stressed? Just looking at this picture of trees may help. Or go visit them in person – these trees are growing at St. Philips Plaza in Tucson

Speaking of looking at trees through windows, there was a study of hospital patients who were all in the hospital for the same procedure. Some of them had rooms that faced another building, while others had a view of some trees. The patients whose rooms faced trees needed lower doses of pain medication, had a faster recovery period, and checked out earlier than those with the window facing a wall.

Spending time with trees boosts your immune system. Spend a few minutes researching the Japanese-inspired practice of “forest bathing” (it just means spending time in nature), and you’ll learn how just being around a tree can make you healthier. Trees boost our immune system, lower our blood pressure, lower our heart rate, and more!

Trees make you feel younger, wealthier, and happier

In one of my all-time favorite studies, scientists discovered that living on a street with more trees made you feel like you made $10,000 more a year, and made you feel 7 years younger. Even if that wasn’t scientifically proven, wouldn’t you plant trees just in case it was true?

When you drive through neighborhoods with more well-kept trees, you might notice that it feels like a nicer neighborhood. Trees can raise the property value of your home by up to 19%.

In a different study that tracked language used in social media posts, spending time in a park setting (with lots of trees) led to happiness levels akin to Christmas morning. That’s pretty happy.

Trees Riverfront Park Oro Valley

Spending time with trees in a park can make you as happy as on Christmas morning, according to recent studies. Go visit a local Tucson-area park! This picture was taken at Riverfront Park in Oro Valley.

Trees save you money

We talked about how trees can make you feel like a million bucks (or like you have bigger income), but trees actually do save money. There are tools such as the tree calculator on the Arbor Day Foundation website that can tell you exactly how much money a specific type of tree can save you in your zip code. Go try it out!

We put in zip code 85710 and chose a 10-inch (diameter) acacia tree – which provides benefits of $97 every year, and will grow to $131 each year when it grows to 15 inches.

Many people say that it would be easier and cheaper to build shade structures to provide needed shade, but did you know that trees not only cast shade, they cool the air around them? It’s because of transpiration, a process where plants release water from their leaves.

tree clouds

Trees and other plants release water vapor from their leaves in a process called transpiration, which cools the air around the tree by several degrees (similar to how a swamp cooler works).

Trees also reduce stormwater runoff, save you money on electricity, and improve air quality. If you own a business, people are more likely to shop in stores and stop into businesses on tree-lined streets, and small acts of crime like vandalism are reduced in areas that have well-maintained trees.

Trees protect from storms

If you lost a tree on your property due to a monsoon or other storm, you may be hesitant to replace it. However, studies have shown that neighborhoods with more tree cover actually fare better in storms. This includes hurricanes, which are often more violent than our monsoons and microbursts.

Trees can better handle storms if they have a strong root system and are properly pruned so that wind can blow through their branches. Contact a certified arborist in Tucson to help you prepare your trees for bad weather.

I could make this blog post much longer by continuing to list more of the things that trees do for us, but it would be never-ending. Suffice to say that tree professionals, scientists, arborists, and foresters are still discovering ways that trees silently save the world and make our lives better.

They just ask for a little TLC in return.

Buying and planting trees in Tucson

desert willow tree tucson

One of the shade trees available for a reduced price from TEP is the desert willow, pictured here.

If you have decided that you want to add a tree or two to your property, congratulations! That’s such an exciting step. Be sure to take advantage of the discounted trees from these programs:

You can also view a list of nurseries that sell trees here. Support local businesses and buy native trees whenever possible.

Before you go out and buy a tree, however, make sure you are picking out the right tree for the right place. Trees need room to grow. Some need part shade, others thrive in full sun. Know how large a tree will grow, leave room for its roots, and only plant shorter-growing trees under power lines.

Be aware if the tree has any thorns, invasive root systems, messy seeds, or fragrant flowers. Different cultivars have different growing sizes and specifications, so be sure you’re researching the same cultivar that you plan on planting.

When you’ve researched all of this (tons of information about this is available online, including at some of our local Tucson nurseries), check to make sure there are no sewer pipes, water pipes, or cords near where you are planting, make sure you have enough room, and choose the correct spot. Several organizations can help you with this.

Have the underground utilities marked. Contact Arizona 811 at least 2 full business days before you dig.

In some neighborhoods, you might need permission from your Homeowners Association, so check before adding (or removing) anything from your property.

Plant and maintain your trees

Sadly, many newly-planted trees die within the first two years after planting, mostly from lack of proper care.

Be sure you plant your tree correctly (ensure you can see the root flare, don’t stake unless you have to, water slowly and deeply), water the roots not the trunk, and don’t fertilize or prune them for the first two years.

The Tucson Backyard Gardening Facebook Group is also a great place to see pictures of what others have done and the advice that they have been given. (Note that you have to request to join the group first.)

And, of course, you can always be sure of getting good advice and proper tree care from any of the ISA Certified Arborists in Tucson.

mature trees tucson

The longer a tree lives, the more benefits it provides. Maintaining your trees and keeping them healthy will help ensure that they last for a long time.

Can’t Plant a Tree Right Now? You can still help!

Arizona ash tree fall color

An Arizona ash tree near Reid Park zoo displays colorful foliage in the wintertime.

Many Tucson yards are small, so not everyone will be able to plant a tree on their property. Other yards are already full of trees, so planting one could damage the others. Or there may be other reasons that you can’t add a tree to your yard right now. Maybe you’re about to start construction, or you’re not physically able to care for a tree, you live in an apartment or a condominium or your HOA won’t allow it…there are lots of reasons.

If you can’t plant a tree in your yard, here are some options to help you benefit from our fantastic desert trees:

1. Help organizations plant trees somewhere else in Tucson

Community Shade Trees

Adopt a Park or a Public Area

Take part in a tree-planting event

2. Educate yourself and others on the importance of trees in a desert environment.

You’ve already read this post, so you’re off to a great start!

3. Make a plan to spend time with some local trees

We hope this has inspired you to plant, care for, notice, and appreciate the native trees in our desert environment!

Mt Lemmon maple tree

A quick visit to Mt. Lemmon is great for viewing varieties of trees, like this maple, that don’t grow naturally in Tucson.

Sarah Bohl

Sarah loves exploring all that Tucson has to offer. She enjoys hiking on Mount Lemmon, trying out the new restaurants, meeting new friends at Tucson Meet Yourself, and finding new things to appreciate about the Old Pueblo.

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