Where did the 10-20-30 rule come from? Is it adequate?

We’ve been having an interesting discussion over on the Urban Forestry group on LinkedIn on the origins and suitability of the 10-20-30 rule for tree diversity in urban forests.  For those that aren’t familiar, the 10-20-30 rule is a guideline to reduce the risk of catastrophic tree loss due to pests.  The rule suggests an urban tree population should include no more than 10% of any one species, 20% of any one genus, or 30% of any family.


The first published reference to the 10-20-30 rule (often referred to as just the 10% rule) was by late Dr. Frank Santamour, Research Geneticist at the US National Arboretum in his paper Trees for urban planting: Diversity, uniformity, and common sense, which was presented at the 1990 Metropolitan Tree Improvement Alliance (METRIA) conference.  While Santamour is commonly credited with the 10% rule he notes in his paper, “I am not sure who first propounded the “10% rule”, nor am I sure that anyone would want to take credit for it, but it is not a bad idea.”


The other question on the LinkedIn discussion is whether the 10-20-30 rule is adequate to ensure genetic diversity in urban and community forests.  My personal is opinion is that the rule is inadequate but far preferable than the status quo in most communities.  If we consider the current issue with emerald ash borer (EAB) in North America, following the 10-20-30 rule means we would accept the loss of 1/5th of our urban canopy since both of the commonly planted ash species (Fraxinus pennsylvanica or F. americana) are highly susceptible to EAB.  On the other hand, many community tree populations the US currently include 30% or more maples, so 10-20-30 would actually be an improvement.


A limitation to the 10-20-30 guideline that Santamour acknowledges is that the rule does not afford protection against insects with a broad host range such as gypsy moth or Asian long-horned beetle.  However, while these pests can, and have, caused widespread damage they do not appear to threaten nearly total annihilation of an entire species or genus ala specialists such as chestnut blight, Dutch elm disease or EAB.  Moreover, a wide diversity of species is still a better defense even against generalist pests, unless you happen to get lucky and plant a monoculture of the one tree they won’t destroy.


One of the inherent challenges in the 10-20-30 rule is implementation.  What is the tree population in question?  Are we talking about a city? A neighborhood? A block? If there are 10 trees on a block do they all need to be different species? Some have proposed corollaries to 10-20-30 such as the “Look around rule” (or “Look around, fool!” if you prefer the Mr. T version).  This guide states if you’re getting ready to plant a tree; look around and if you already see that tree, plant something else.  The problem with diversity on a very small scale is we can end up with the ‘menagerie effect’ – one of these, one of that, one of those – that often lacks aesthetic appeal.   Ultimately this becomes a challenge for urban foresters and designers working together; how do we incorporate diversity guidelines within established design principles.


Does native matter?

We’ve had lots of lively discussion on my post regarding the Mark Davis et al. comment in Nature on natives and exotics. I have been traveling and otherwise occupied and have not had a chance to comment so I feel a little like the kid that kicked the anthill and then ran away. Fortunately, Holly was gracious enough to forego her post today (I promise to return the favor, Holly!) so I can chime back in.

Obviously there are lots of layers to the debate but one of the main items in the discussion is whether there is an inherent ecological advantage in planting natives over exotics.  At this point the focus always seems to shift to herbivory and the question of whether native insects will eat non-native plants.  There are certainly examples each way; some insects are generalists while others are highly specific.  More importantly, however, plants fill many other roles in the environment beyond serving as food for insects.   Moreover, species composition is just one aspect of diversity.  The ecological function of landscape is also determined by how we manage other factors such as structural diversity and age class distributions.  In his book “Bringing Nature Home” Doug Tallamy shows a picture of a bland, sprawling suburban landscape ( p. 24) and notes “this highly simplified community is made up of a few species of alien ornamental plants that provide neither food nor shelter for wildlife.”  OK, I’ll buy that.  But would the situation change if the blue grass was changed to a native grass kept mowed to 2” and the two widely spaced shade trees were changed to natives?  Doubtful.   The structural complexity; that is, the number and arrangement of grasses, annuals, shrubs, and trees, is likely a bigger driver of ecosystem function than whether the plants are native or exotic.

In his thoughtful comments on the blog post Vincent Vizachero sums up, “I stand by my view that the general heuristic of favoring native plants over alien plants is better than the alternative of not caring about origin at all.”   I can buy that as well, but with the caveat that other factors are equal.  The rub, of course, is that other factors are rarely equal.  And I suppose this is where the pragmatic approach discussed by Davis et al.  resonates with me.  In my position I do a lot of programming on trees for urban and community forests.  I go through a list of criteria to consider for tree selection.  Here are some of the key factors I usually discuss:

Adaptation There is no argument that there are well-documented environmental, economic and social benefits to trees in urban and suburban areas.   But in order to fulfill these roles trees must be able to survive where they are planted.  This means being adapted to abiotic and biotic environmental conditions which are often adverse.  In this region of the country there are some native trees that fit the ‘tough trees for tough places’ bill, such as swamp white oak, bur oak, and honey locust.  Many other natives, especially understory species, are much more difficult to site.

This street planting in Lansing alternated green ash and Norway maple.  

Available space This seems like a no-brainer, but it’s amazing how often this gets overlooked and we end up with too much tree and too little space.  Again, we have some great small native trees; Carpinus, redbud, striped maple.  But these can be limited in their site adaptability.

Ash stumps

Diversity  In Michigan some communities have lost 30% of their tree cover to the emerald ash borer.  Have we learned our lesson about improving species diversity?  Not really.  But we need to keep trying.  Exotic pests are here and here to stay.  Does anyone believe that global trade will decrease in the near future?  Does anyone believe that there will be quantum leap in our ability to detect and intercept hitch-hiking pests?  In order to continue to accrue the benefits of urban and community forests we need to continue to diversify our portfolio; this includes a mix of natives and exotics.  I doubt there will ever be sufficient data to prove one way other, but it seems reasonable to me that an urban and community forest balanced among 20-25 native and exotic species will be better able to withstand the slings and arrows of weather and pests better than one made up of 8-10 natives.

Excerpt from Davis et al. letter to Nature on natives vs aliens

In yesterday’s post I linked to a letter in Nature by Mark Davis and a number of other ecologists on the role and native and alien plants.  Unfortunately the journal requires a subscription.   Copyright laws prevent me from re-printing the entire article, however, below is an excerpt from the conclusion, which I think captures most of their message.

“Most human and natural communities now consist both of long-term residents and of new arrivals, and ecosystems are emerging that never existed before. It is impractical to try to restore ecosystems to some ‘rightful’ historical state. For example, of the 30 planned plant eradication efforts undertaken in the Galapagos Islands since 1996, only 4 have been successful. We must embrace the fact of ‘novel ecosystems’ and incorporate many alien species into management plans, rather than try to achieve the often impossible goal of eradicating them or drastically reducing their abundance. Indeed, many of the species that people think of as native are actually alien. For instance, in the United States, the ring-necked pheasant, the state bird of South Dakota, is not native to the great plains of North America but was introduced from Asia as a game bird in the latter half of the nineteenth century.

“Specifically, policy and management decisions must take into account the positive effects of many invaders. During the 1990s, the US Department of Agriculture (USDA) declared several species of introduced honeysuckles to be alien (harmful), and banned their sale in more than 25 states. Ironically, from the 1960s to the 1980s, the USDA had introduced many of these same species in land reclamation projects, and to improve bird habitats. Recent data suggest that the agency’s initial instincts may have been appropriate. In Pennsylvania, more non-native honeysuckles mean more native bird species. Also the seed dispersal of native berry-producing plants is higher in places where non-native honeysuckles are most abundant (Gleditsch, J. M. & Carlo, T. J. Diversity Distrib. 17, 244-253 (2010).

“Clearly, natural-resource agencies and organizations should base their management plans on sound empirical evidence and not on unfounded claims of harm caused by non-natives. Another valuable step would be for scientists and professionals in conservation to convey to the public that many alien species are useful.

“We are not suggesting that conservationists abandon their efforts to mitigate serious problems caused by some introduced species, or that governments should stop trying to prevent potentially harmful species from entering their countries. But we urge conservationists and land managers to organize priorities around whether species are producing benefits or harm to biodiversity, human health, ecological services and economies. Nearly two centuries on from the introduction of the concept of nativeness, it is time for conservationists to focus much more on the functions of species, and much less on where they originated.”

Visiting Professor guest post: Native wildflowers

Recently I have been fascinated by the native wildflower field I planted last fall.  Although I seeded it with the same mixture of seeds (mixed with sand to spread them evenly), you can see that we have clumps of different flowers throughout the area.

Figure 1. Descanso Gardens, California

The area where the wildflowers were planted had several 1-2 foot raised mounds; some were in the shape of keyholes.  These were built with silty sand from a nearby seasonal stream that had some erosion problems in a rainy year.

Small differences between the temperature, moisture, light and soil on the different parts of each mound have favored different species of wildflowers.  In one of the keyholes, I even found some miner’s lettuce (Claytonia perfoliata), a species I had not seeded that favors wetter areas.  If I sampled for insects, I bet I might find a similar patchy distribution as well.

As an ecologist/biologist, I am really fascinated by the way that species diversity can be affected by topography, climate, moisture, and soils.  As a gardener, I like that I could create conditions that favor different plants just by moving soil around.  Plus I think that the waves of color are lovely as well.

Rachel Young is the head of the California Garden at Descanso Gardens, just outside Los Angeles.  She has an MS degree in Ecology and Evolutionary biology from UCLA and lectures on various garden and horticulture related topics.