New trees no noxious threat to CBD as council seeks to increase canopy cover

By Brendan Rees

The City of Melbourne has backed its decision to plant new trees in the CBD despite the species being deemed a “noxious weed” interstate. 

Thirty-three camphor laurel trees have been planted on Exhibition St to replace London plane trees to increase canopy cover over the city and introduce the ecosystem benefits it provides.

But the evergreen tree, which can grow up to 20 metres tall, is declared a noxious weed in many areas of NSW due to its “prolific seed production and rapid growth rate as well as a lack of serious predators or diseases”.

The City of Melbourne said the species was not listed as a weed under the Victorian Catchment and Lands Protection Act 1994 and was “proven to adapt well to the highly constrained urban growing environment in the CBD”.

“Camphor laurel trees have a long history of being planted in Melbourne, with some very old and large specimens in the Queen Victoria Gardens,” the council said.

“The large size of the camphor laurel is one of the main reasons this species was chosen in the City of Melbourne. Large trees provide the greatest environment service benefits, wind mitigation and rainfall interception.”

The council also added community consultation was undertaken as part of the Exhibition St project with the “majority” of feedback being supportive of the tree planting.

RMIT Centre for Urban Research planner Thami Croeser, who advises the European Union, said camphor laurels were a “good choice” for Melbourne’s CBD, and could “handle the challenging growing conditions of highly urbanised areas”.

“This tree has been in Melbourne for a long time, and it hasn’t got out and become a menace,” he said.

“You can go and see some beautiful old specimens in Queen Victoria Gardens, in the Domain parklands – these are not taking over nor is the landscape infested with camphors.”

“Our streets are a bit dominated by plane trees at the moment … so I’m glad to see the city is looking beyond that approach at some other options.”

Mr Croeser said the city needed a diverse set of fast-growing trees that could handle city conditions “if we want to hit a 40 per cent canopy target, and this is a well-tested option that can help us get there”.

“Being in an urban environment really limits the potential of this tree to get out of hand, and this isn’t really the climate that favours that kind of invasive growth that happens further north anyway.”

When asked about its large root system and whether it would play havoc on roads and buildings, Mr Croeser said the laurels had been planted along the median strip, “which creates a natural barrier to roots because the road base is heavily compacted crushed rock, which roots can’t penetrate”. 

According to the NSW Department of Primary Industries, eating the berries from the trees can cause nausea, vomiting, and respiratory distress. Allergic skin reactions can also occur.

A City of Melbourne spokesperson said its Urban Forest Strategy was aimed at mitigating urban heat and increasing tree diversity across the municipality, “with tree planting playing a large role in this program”. 

“Currently, the CBD is dominated by 70 per cent plane trees, making our urban forest vulnerable to species specific diseases,” the spokesperson said.

“By planting a diversity of tree species, we can also help build resilience in our tree population.”

CBD resident group EastEnders president, Dr Stan Capp said while he would’ve preferred to have seen a different species planted, “it’s very hard to argue” with the expertise of urban planner professionals and council officers.  

“The only thing I would say, the evidence interstate is not as supportive and glowing as what is being portrayed, and there are so many other choices. I don’t know why you would choose a camphor laurel ahead of these other trees,” he said.

“If you’ve got a choice between something that’s potentially going to be a problem than others, why wouldn’t you take the other?” •

Caption: RMIT Centre for Urban Research planner Thami Croeser has supported the City of Melbourne’s move to plant camphor laurel trees in the CBD.

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