Most of our native North American orchids produce much subtler flowers than the ones people keep in pots in their houses, or see dangling among trees in exotic tropical jungles, or nervous teenage boys pin on their prom dates as corsages, but I think their subtlety makes them that much more special.
I have long admired the Nodding Ladies’-tresses orchids (Spiranthes cernua) that bloom abundantly among pitcher plants and Venus fly-traps this time every year in the carnivorous plant display at the NC Botanical Garden. That’s why last fall, when I spotted some healthy blooming specimens at their plant sale, I couldn’t resist buying a pot, even though I had promised myself I was only buying milkweeds. I picked out a pot with two plants in it that was in active, gorgeous bloom, as you can see if your scroll through the post I wrote about my acquisitions last year.
I planted my orchids in a pot with some moisture-loving milkweeds and a cardinal flower, keeping the pot evenly moist in my greenhouse through the winter, and partially immersing it in my front water feature after the last frost. On September 7, I suddenly realized I was seeing multiple orchid bloom stalks — twelve in all!
My research tells me that this is the most common species of Spiranthes in North America. You can find it in sandy, moist soil from eastern Canada all the way south to Texas and Florida, and as far west as southern North Dakota.
I was congratulating myself on my orchids’ productivity, until my research revealed that enthusiastic vegetative reproduction is a key trait of this species, and probably one of the reasons for its wide range. But you must provide the right growing conditions to see this kind of productivity, so I can pat myself on the back for giving these beauties what they needed to bloom so well.
As soon as I realized my orchids had sent up bloom stalks, I began taking photos, so that I could document the unfurling of the small-but-exquisite ivory flowers as they began to open. The buds spiral around the bloom stalk, looking a bit like a spiral staircase, with the first flowers opening at the bottom, then more and more in succession, winding their way to the top.
It took longer than I thought it would for most of the flowers to open. I blame the prolonged bout of cloudy weather my region has recently seen. But as soon as we got several sunny days in a row, the flowers took off.
I wish I could show you a super-close-up of one flower, but I think I need a macro lens for that. This is as close as I could manage on September 24:
If you grow pitcher plants or Venus fly-traps successfully, you can grow this orchid too. The blooming flower stalks look lovely mixed in with the reds and purples of mature pitcher plants (Saracenia spp.) I mixed a combination of half well-rotted compost and half sand to create the soil for my orchid pot. During the winter, it sat in a saucer of water in my cool (45 degrees Fahrenheit) greenhouse. It summered in my front water feature, nearly invisible as the drama queen milkweeds dazzled the pollinators with their multitudes of flowers.
But now that the milkweed flowers have morphed into expanding seed pods, my orchids have taken center stage. Given how much they have multiplied, and now knowing that vegetative reproduction is most definitely their thing, I’m thinking I’ll be dividing the orchids in this pot so that I can move some into yet another pot when I’m ready to relocate them back to the greenhouse for the winter. By this time next year, I should have a front water feature in early fall full of winding spires of delicate native orchids. How lovely will that be?
Want some Nodding Ladies-tresses for your garden?
A very reliable little bird tells me these orchids will be available at the NC Botanical Garden’s upcoming Fall Plant Sale. To be sure you get some, I recommend you come on Friday, Oct. 2 between 5:00 p.m. and 7:30 p.m. That sale is open only to members of the Garden, who use their 10% discounts to acquire all the green goodies they want. Plus there’s free food and drink and live music. I’ll be volunteering behind one of the many tables loaded with plants for sale. I hope I’ll see you there!
Finally, my favorite season of the year has arrived! In honor of this momentous moment, I offer you a few photos I took yesterday afternoon when the sun appeared after days of clouds. This is the season of fruits and nuts (I refer to botany, not humanity), so that’s mostly what you’ll see here.
If this gorgeous native is not yet part of your landscape, consider planting one this fall. And I know just the place you can pick one up the weekend-after-next.
I won this pink-berried form in a raffle when I was going through Green Gardener training at the NC Botanical Garden — yet another benefit of volunteering there.
This delicate nest woven of bark strips and pine needles fell from my evergreen Kousa dogwood. Very autumnal, don’t you think?
This is another lovely native shrub that will be available at the NC Botanical Garden’s upcoming Fall Plant Sale, but only plant it if you have a spot where deer can’t reach it. The evergreen stems of this beauty make it irresistible to them during food-scarce winter months.
The Asian Kousa dogwoods are not native, but I’ve seen no signs they are invasive, and their wow factor in the landscape is undeniable. The berries of my native dogwoods are already nearly gone, thanks to the Pileated Woodpeckers, which have been partying in those trees for several weeks now. The red globes produced by the Kousas don’t seem to appeal to as many birds, although I’ve seen Northern Cardinals enjoying them. Squirrels seem to like them quite a bit.
Most interesting to me are the subtle differences in the fruits of my deciduous Kousa dogwood and the evergreen Kousa. See for yourselves.
The fruits of the evergreen form never look as “spiky” as those of the deciduous Kousa. And they are never as deeply red.
My Red Buckeye is loaded down, as usual.
The pecan trees had a rough summer. It was just too dry, and there’s no way I can water them. Still, they managed to produce a few, rather unappetizing-looking nuts. The squirrels will no doubt try them before long.
The native Swamp Milkweed and Butterfly Weed seed pods continue to develop. You can pick these up at the NC Botanical Garden Fall Plant Sale too.
Not autumnal, but too pretty to ignore, my giant non-native Loropetalums are pushing out quite a number of flowers, even though they’re supposed to bloom in the spring. They do this almost every year, and it doesn’t seem to prevent them from doing it again when they’re supposed to bloom. I love the contrast with their lovely purple leaves — the reasons these non-natives made it into my garden.
This species of orb weaver moves in multitudes to my windows — on the outside — every fall. This one is pretending it’s not a spider, because I disturbed it. They grow fat off the moths attracted to the lights in our windows every night.
Of course, I can’t end a post welcoming fall without showing a few colorful fallen leaves. These are off one of my native Black Gums, which always color up early and spectacularly. This magnificent native tree will also be available at the NC Botanical Garden Fall Plant Sale.
I hope this post helps all my readers celebrate autumn’s arrival, and gets your fingers itching to plant some new native beauties in the cooling, moist soils of the season. So gather ye pumpkins while ye may — and add some new natives while you’re at it.
Happy fall, ya’ll!
Readers of my blog may remember that about this time last year, I acquired one or two plants of every species of milkweed being offered at the NC Botanical Garden’s Fall Plant Sale. I thought it would be useful to write up an evaluation of how those plants performed in my garden during this year’s growing season. Recall that I divided my new acquisitions into two groups – those native to drier, well-drained habitats, and those preferring moist, even swampy conditions.
Boulder Garden Milkweeds
As I described in my original milkweed-related post, my boulder garden is a sunny, hot spot full of diabase boulders of varying sizes that are slowly eroding into smaller chunks, leaving a sandy, relatively thin soil surrounding them. Any plants that love heat and good drainage get a trial here, so this is where I planted
- Clasping Milkweed (Asclepias amplexicaulis)
- Whorled Milkweed (A. verticillata)
- Common Milkweed (A. syriaca)
- Poke Milkweed (A. exaltata)
- Butterfly Weed (A. tuberosa)
All of these plants are still alive and apparently healthy, but two of the species never bloomed.
Clasping Milkweed – This plant is still alive and green, but it never grew. At all. Usually, when a plant is unhappy, it eventually fades away, and the drought-plauged, hot summer certainly gave it plenty of excuses. But it persists, looking almost exactly as it did when first planted nearly a year ago. I know that some plants – usually woody ones – spend their first year after transplanting maximizing root growth while producing minimal top growth. But I’ve never seen this in a perennial. As long as it remains green, I will think positive thoughts about it. Perhaps next spring, new growth will appear.
Whorled Milkweed – This is the most un-milkweed-looking milkweed I’ve ever met. Its needle-like leaves give it a softer appearance than the other milkweeds. It never grew more than about 12 inches high, but it seems healthy.
About mid-July, it produced many tiny flower buds in the leaf axles. Eventually, these grew into the typical milkweed bud clusters I knew from other species.
In early August, they opened to produce waxy greenish-white flowers in a typical milkweed-looking inflorescence. The flowers were small, proportionate to the size of the plant, but they managed to draw a wide range of pollinators while they bloomed.
Despite all those pollinator visits, I have not seen a single seed pod on this species. But the plant itself still looks healthy, so I’m hoping it will survive the winter again, perhaps producing a more robust plant next year, since it will be starting from a larger size.
Common Milkweed – This was my other non-blooming milkweed in this bed. But unlike Clasping Milkweed, my Common Milkweed plant grew robustly, and still looks very vigorous. Interestingly, while the orange oleander aphids that notoriously plague milkweeds are all over my other milkweeds, they’ve barely bothered this one.
It grew to a height of about 2.5 feet, but has never shown any signs of flowering.
Poke Milkweed —This taller milkweed grew early and quickly in the spring. I was befuddled by its first blooming attempt in late May, which yielded one single flower. Not an inflorescence – just one pinkish-white flower.
My research confirmed that it should have produced a typical milkweed inflorescence. I decided to be grateful it managed at least one flower during its first year in my garden.
But then in early July, I noticed more flower buds! These produced typical milkweed inflorescences by mid-July.
As with my Whorled Milkweed, many pollinators visited, but no seed pods were produced.
Butterfly Weed – There is a reason that this milkweed species is sold often in plant nurseries. Its showy, bright orange flowers laugh at heat and drought.
One of my plants produced one round of blooms, but the other one is currently on its third round of blooms, and is simultaneously sporting a number of growing seed pods. Score!
It began blooming in early June, produced another round in July, and started up with a third blooming cycle in early September. Pollinators cannot get enough of this plant, and neither can I!
Water Feature Milkweeds
Three of the milkweed species I acquired last year are native to swampy habitats, so as I explained in my original post, I planted them in pots, which I inserted into my front water feature after danger of frost this spring. They were:
- Swamp Milkweed (Asclepias incarnata)
- Few-flowered Milkweed (A. lanceolata)
- Purple Savanna Milkweed (A. rubra var. laurifolia)
Two of these did beautifully, and one was a failure.
Swamp Milkweed – This is the other native milkweed you will find commonly in plant nurseries, because like its cousin, Butterfly Weed, it reliably produces beautiful clusters of blossoms that persist well in our summer heat while attracting myriad pollinators.
My two plants both grew to heights of about 3 feet, and produced two rounds of blossoms, first in early June, then again in late July. Now they are full of many expanding seed pods.
There’s a white-flowering form of this species, but I prefer the more common pink-blooming variety.
If you can provide an evenly moist garden bed, you can add this beauty to your garden. It doesn’t require as much water as I gave it. But in my yard, water almost always becomes a scarce commodity as summer progresses, so I stacked the deck in my favor by growing my Swamp Milkweeds in pots immersed in my water feature.
Few-flowered Milkweed – This is my only full-out failure. It stayed green and grew a bit through May, but then it began dying back, leaving nothing but a brown stem. Oh well, nothing ventured, as the saying goes.
Purple Savanna Milkweed – This native milkweed grew to about the same height as the Swamp Milkweeds. It also produced two rounds of blooms for me – one in early June, and again in early August. I would not characterize the flower color as purple.
To my eye, the flowers on my plant were more of a deep pink or mauve – very lovely – and very attractive to pollinators. This species did not set seed either, alas.
Where have all the Monarchs gone?
The only great disappointment I’ve had with my milkweed garden is the complete absence of Monarch butterflies. They’ve been reported nearby, and one even had the audacity to fly in front of me as I drove down my road about a mile from my house. But I have not seen a single Monarch in my garden and yard anywhere, and no caterpillars either. It was a rough year for butterflies in my area anyway, apparently due to an unusually cold and wet spell late last winter. I’m hoping that my milkweeds will return next spring even more vigorously, perhaps finally serving the visiting Monarchs for which they were planted. But even without the Monarchs I’d hoped for, I consider my milkweed garden to be a success. The pollinator diversity they attracted was exciting, and I’m hoping that the seed pods the Swamp Milkweeds and Butterfly Weeds are developing will yield new plants for my gardens.
But wait, there’s more!
You may recall that one of the flower varieties from Renee’s Garden I tried last year was an annual tropical milkweed variety called Butterfly Bright Wings. Last year, many of these plants produced seeds that floated everywhere. A number of those seeds produced plants that germinated in the boulder bed this year, where their mother plants had grown. It took them until last week – probably because of the drought – but these volunteers have finally begun to bloom. All appear to be the red form, which is the one I liked best anyway. I’m hoping they will again produce seed pods and perpetuate themselves next year.
For ornamental reliability, I recommend piedmont gardeners stick with Butterfly Weed and Swamp Milkweed. I have a feeling the other species that bloomed for me may be a bit more temperamental, and except for Purple Savanna Milkweed, they don’t produce very showy flowers.
I think perhaps the Greenhouse and Nursery Manager at the NC Botanical Garden may have reached the same conclusion, because he’s only offering Butterfly Weed and Swamp Milkweed at the upcoming Fall Plant Sale.
If you’re looking for vigorous, re-blooming flowering milkweeds that can handle our hot summers and might attract Monarch butterflies, you should stop by the sale and pick up some of these beauties. For the best selection, come on Members’ Night on Friday, October 2. Members can use their 10% discounts and get the best selection of plants. Plus there’s free food, beverages, and live music – and you can join at the door that night. I hope to see you there!
It’s been a week of appearances and disappearances in my yard and gardens. Last weekend, Wonder Spouse and I were checking out our sad little creek, which has morphed into a series of shallow pools separated by sand bars, when we noticed this:
That was a large branch of a buttonbush growing beside the creek. All the leafy goodness was removed recently by a beaver.
We figure it’s probably the work of a juvenile beaver recently expelled from its parents’ territory, because the only other damage we could find was to a stand of naturally occurring hazelnuts that grow downstream from the buttonbush about a hundred yards. If a pair or more of these rodents had moved in, we would be seeing much more damage. The other possibility is that a group has set up camp somewhere in the wetland beyond the creek, which is criss-crossed by a number of channels that eventually feed into our creek downstream of our property. However, if that were the case, I would have thought even our part of the creek would have higher water levels.
I’m hoping it was a juvenile just passing through. If I had a hundred acres, I’d happily share ten with beavers — that’s the average size of the impoundment they prefer to create. But I only have five acres, and they’re full of trees and shrubs that I planted with love and have labored and watched over for decades. So I’m hoping this one moved on after decimating the tastiest woodies it could easily access.
My bronze fennel and parsley plants were playing host to about three dozen caterpillars four days ago. They were growing fast, and I was looking forward to searching for their chrysalises when they were ready for that transformation. However, I think they were instead transformed into dinners for my local bird population. I’ve been grateful all summer for the steady work of bluebirds, wrens, gnatcatchers, and warblers as they prevented tomato hornworms from inflicting any serious damage to my tomatoes.
But I should have realized that the same bright eyes that spotted the hornworms would eventually notice the swallowtail caterpillars. A few mornings ago when I came out to inspect their progress, I found one lone caterpillar on a fennel. Thinking it was too exposed there, I moved it to a parsley plant disguised by chive leaves. The birds must have been watching from the trees. My relocated caterpillar didn’t last the day.
This is a tough one for me, but if forced to choose between aiding the reproduction of a beautiful pollinator species and nurturing a healthy horde of insect-devouring feathered flying machines, I think the birds are doing my landscape more good than the swallowtails. Still, it was a jolt to see my fennels suddenly devoid of caterpillars.
As if in compensation, Red-spotted Purple butterflies are suddenly back in my yard. This one was sipping the moist bed in my vegetable garden that I had enriched with compost and deeply watered before I planted it with spinach, lettuce, baby kale, and beet seeds. As of yesterday, germination was evident for all varieties. I see much transplanting and watering of small seedlings in my future.
I am gambling big time with direct-sowing these veggies, but I had the seed, I’m craving good spinach and lettuce, so I planted. A possible hurricane may get close enough next week to make temperatures soar, but odds are we won’t get any rain out of it. I’ll be lucky to keep the seedlings and the broccoli transplants I’ve added alive until more autumnal temperatures arrive. And if the rains don’t come soon, lack of water may finish them off. But even the faint chance of sweet fall broccoli, savory spinach, crisp lettuce, and maybe even more sugary red beets was more than I could pass on. As any vegetable gardener knows, once you’ve grown — and eaten — your own, it’s very hard to go back to the grocery store.
Another sign of summer’s waning is the appearance of increasing numbers of soldier beetles. They are mobbing my flowers almost more than the bees.
Sky dragons sporting an array of colors and patterns patrol the skies from dawn till well past sunset. Given their numbers this year, it’s a miracle I’ve seen any butterflies flitting about at all.
Autumn fruits are also coloring up on a wide array of shrubs and trees in my yard, but I’ll save those for another post. For now, I advise my fellow gardeners to keep close eyes on your charges during this transitional time of year. Otherwise, you’ll almost certainly miss some of the comings and goings in your patch of green.
A note to my NC piedmont region readers:
I post a number of links of local interest on my Piedmont Gardener Facebook page. Along with many extra photos of my yard and gardens, you’ll also find links to relevant local events and to articles of interest. Check it out, and if you like what you see, follow me there.
Although summer heat and drought continue unabated, the quality of sunlight at dawn and dusk has changed. First, dawn is coming later, dusk earlier. But also the angle of the light is changing. Now the sun’s rays spend more time slanting through the trees, golden arrows that spotlight lichen-covered bark, a bit of mossy ground, or a bright cardinal posing on a branch.
Both pole and bush beans are losing leaves to time and fungus, but still their growing tips actively push out new shoots and flowers. I’m doling out water to them from the shallow well about every third day, and picking tasty beans about as often. It’s been a good year for the beans.
The tomatoes are also still producing, albeit much less enthusiastically. As usual, Sweet Treats cherry tomatoes win the prize for prolonged productivity. If I could give them more water, I’m sure they would produce even more heavily, but a handful of fruits every other day is more than enough to quell our tomato hankerings.
Last weekend at the local farmers’ market, a gentleman was selling vigorous seedlings of a number of broccoli, chard, and collard varieties. I never get around to starting fall crops in time, because my little greenhouse is too hot this time of year. I couldn’t resist the healthy broccoli babies. I got 6 Packman — a southern standard in these parts — and 6 Arcadia — a variety I’ve never tried that is supposed to be very cold-resistant, thereby extending the broccoli season into late fall — theoretically, anyway. We love fall broccoli at my house, because the frosts seem to sweeten them, but there’s a fine line between frost and freeze, and you can’t always predict when that line will be crossed.
Enter my little tent above. Yesterday, I planted my broccoli babies, mulched them with compost, and watered them very, very thoroughly. I draped spun garden fabric over metal hoops to enclose the plants completely. Right now, that’s mainly to keep out the cabbage moths that love to lay their eggs on broccoli, resulting in green loopers chomping the plants to stubs. As cooler temperatures arrive, the tent will protect the plants from frost damage; sometimes it even deflects the first few freezes. I leave one side loosely tacked down so that I can lift it easily for watering, because even though the fabric does let water through, much does bounce off. And the rains continue to avoid my house anyway. We are so very dry here that it hurts me to walk around the yard and see all my suffering, wilting green friends.
The Writing Spider whose web was draped parallel to the tomato trellis relocated herself. Now she has anchored her home to the trellis on one side and a tall basil plant on the other, stretching across a garden path to optimize her chances of catching unwary fliers. I think it’s working for her, as you can see.
Of the five sunflowers (Sunflower ‘Birds and Bees’ from Renee’s Garden) that managed to grow for me this dry summer season, four produced single large flowers on top of their stalks, while this one, which bloomed last, produced multiple, smaller heads. The pollinators seem to feel that size doesn’t matter.
A few insect species that I normally see by June have only just recently appeared in my garden this year. Case in point: Black Swallowtails and their caterpillars. Finally, the bronze fennel I plant especially for their caterpillars to dine on is covered in these colorful, voracious critters.
After only seeing the Chinese mantises all summer, I was quite relieved to spot this native Carolina Mantis staked out on my Autumn Daffodil daylily in the front garden. They are much smaller and differently colored. This one did not like being photographed and kept jumping about, hence the slightly blurred photos.
That’s the tip of a daylily petal, so you can see how relatively small this one was. I don’t think it was full-grown, but this species never attains the size of the Chinese mantises that often displace them from their preferred habitats.
The most abundant dark swallowtail butterfly in my yard is the Spicebush Swallowtail, probably because the shrub for which it is named grows all over my yard. Finally yesterday I spotted my first Pipevine Swallowtail. The shimmery blue of their hind wings is unmistakeable, but it is very hard to get a decent photo of them, because they drink nectar while hovering — just like hummingbirds. In photo after photo, I end up with motion-blurred wings.
I planted some native pipevines two years ago in the hopes of attracting more of these beauties. I suspect the drought may have damaged them; I’ve been afraid to look, because I just don’t have any water for them.
This dragonfly showed up a few days ago and posed on one of my ornamental grasses. I’ve never seen dragonfly wings edged in gold before.
Tall Formosa Lilies lean from the weight of their enormous white trumpets. Their sugary fragrance perfumes the humid morning air.
I’ll close with this somewhat fuzzy shot. The point here is that I managed to get two Eastern Tiger Swallowtails in one photo. For most of the summer, even this common species has been sparse. Finally, in the last week, they are everywhere, drifting from blooming abelia to bright lantana to Joe Pye Weed and Cardinal Flower. Finally, I am having to walk carefully to avoid colliding with these floating lovelies.
It’s been a long, dry summer, and we’ve more to go before autumn arrives. It lifts my spirits to see these recent arrivals. Better late than never, as the saying goes.
Now if we can just persuade that tropical system out in the Atlantic Ocean to send its moisture — but not its winds — our way, that would be a fine ending for this season, and a great opener for the next.
This past weekend, I walked the floodplain portion of my yard to count the number of Green Ash (Fraxinus pennsylvanica) trees growing on it. Thirty-seven trees – 17 females, 20 males – most between 50 to 70 feet tall are the dominant canopy species in this part of our property, about an acre and a half. My adjacent neighbors’ properties also include floodplain areas that are dominated by Green Ash trees.
I was devastated when I realized how completely Green Ashes dominate the canopy layer of the healthy wetland that I live beside, because in less than ten years – more likely less than five, it is a near certainty that they will all be dead – felled by a tiny green insect from Asia that no one has been able to stop: the Emerald Ash Borer.
The insect has already killed “tens of millions of ash trees in southeastern Michigan alone, with tens of millions more lost in Arkansas, Colorado, Connecticut, Georgia, Illinois, Indiana, Iowa, Kansas, Kentucky, Louisiana, Massachusetts, Maryland, Minnesota, Missouri, New Hampshire, New Jersey, New York, North Carolina. Ohio, Ontario, Pennsylvania, Tennessee, Quebec, Virginia, West Virginia, and Wisconsin”. Here’s a link to a current map of infected states that is maintained by the Emerald Ash Borer Clearinghouse (Click on the down arrow to move through time to 2015 and watch how many states become infected). The insect is expected to continue spreading until it has killed every ash tree species in North America.
Southeastern US Ash Species
In the southeastern piedmont region of the US where I live, four species of ash are native. Three are wetland species: Green Ash (Fraxinus pennsylvanica), Carolina Ash (F. caroliniana), and Pumpkin Ash (F. profunda). As is evident on my floodplain, these three are important species in wetlands, and when they are felled by the Emerald Ash Borer, the transformation such areas undergo will be profound. White Ash (F. americana) prefers deep, well-drained soils. Its wood has been used for centuries to make fine furniture, baseball bats, and any other wooden item that needs to be strong and lasting. It has been used extensively as a landscape tree.
Animals that rely on ash trees
Humans aren’t the only living creatures who have relied on ash trees for centuries. According to Dr. Douglas W. Tallamy in his book Bringing Nature Home, ash trees support at least 150 species of moths and butterflies – more than hazelnut, walnut, beech, or chestnut. Moths whose caterpillars rely on ash trees include the Promethea Moth, Apple Sphinx Moth, Fawn Sphinx Moth, Great Ash Sphinx, and Banded Tussock Moth. Butterflies whose caterpillars rely on it include Eastern Tiger Swallowtail, Hickory Hairstreak, Mourning Cloak, Red-spotted Purple, Giant Sulphur, and Orange Sulphur.
White ash is an important source of browse and cover for deer. Its seeds are consumed by wood ducks, northern bobwhites, purple finches, pine grosbeaks, fox squirrels, mice, and many other birds and small mammals. The bark of young trees is occasionally eaten by beavers, porcupines, and rabbits. Because of its tendency to form trunk cavities if its top is broken, mature white ashes are highly valued as nesting sites by cavity nesters such as red-headed and pileated woodpeckers, and then secondary nesters such as wood ducks, owls, nuthatches, and gray squirrels.
The same species also utilize green ashes, and game birds such as wood ducks, grouse, northern bobwhites, and wild turkeys use green ash habitats heavily. Green ash woodlands often shelter the highest numbers of bark-foraging and ground-nesting bird species.
What will all these creatures do for food and shelter when every ash tree in North America is dead? No one can predict the future with certainty, but we can look at what has happened in southeastern Michigan, where this has already happened. Massive gaps in forest cover have favored the invasion of non-native invasive plant species. Japanese honeysuckle, for example, is starting to look like kudzu looks in the Southeast. Soil chemistries are changing, as are water cycling patterns, making it more difficult for remaining native species to maintain themselves. All the dead trees initially favored cavity-nesting birds. So the first few years after the ashes died, woodpeckers and other cavity nesters were more abundant. But the profound disruption in the ash-dominant ecosystems soon led to drastic reductions in the insect species the cavity nesters feed on. No insects means no birds. It’s Rachel Carson’s Silent Spring all over again – only this time the culprit is not DDT, but a non-native invasive insect that cannot be stopped.
What is being done?
Ash species in China – the home of the Emerald Ash Borer – appear to be resistant to this insect. Scientists are trying to figure out how to incorporate that genetic resistance into North American ash species. To that end, they are frantically saving as much ash seed as they can, in the hopes that, someday, they can re-introduce the species with genetic modifications that incorporate Asian resistance to Emerald Ash Borer.
That’s the dream. They aren’t there yet. And no one knows how long all the animals that need ash trees can survive without them. No one knows how ecosystems in which ash trees have been essential components for thousands upon thousands of years will handle such a massive disruption – the extinction of a key ecosystem component.
What can we do?
In the face of the inevitable destruction of all our ash trees, what should we do? Information is always our ally, so stay current on developments regarding the Emerald Ash Borer and any potentially resistant North American ash species. At the end of this post, you’ll find a list of links to get you started.
What am I doing?
As for my Green ash-dominated 1.5-acre floodplain, I’m going to start planting other tree species that I know are adapted to similar growing conditions, starting with the species that are already there, and adding more of some additional species that I have already added that appear to be doing well.
But note, this is a total Hail Mary on my part. The trees I’ll be adding will be young. I’ll be long gone before they can attain canopy height. Thirty-seven canopy-sized (50-70-feet tall) ash trees are way too many trees for me to remove as they die. This means dead ash trees will be dropping pieces of themselves all over the place, most likely including on top of other species growing beneath them.
Additionally, I can’t predict what changes in soil chemistry and water and nutrient cycling will occur. My new additions may not be able to handle these changes.
And the pressure from invasive exotic plant species is already enormous on my property. I spend more time and money on their removal than any other landscaping aspect by far. I may not have the resources to prevent invasive plant species from outcompeting remaining species and my new additions.
But the alternative is to do nothing, to throw up my hands and walk away, and I can’t do that. The green world is what keeps me going – physically, emotionally, and spiritually. I will fight for its survival until I can fight no longer.
You suburban and urban gardeners with no ash trees on your properties may think you’ve dodged a bullet this time, but in fact, you only perhaps have a bit more time to prepare for other battles before us. Already in areas where ash trees are gone, another tree in the same plant family is being attacked: White Fringtree (Chionanthus virginicus).
A new gardening paradigm may be our best hope
Your best weapon will be vibrantly healthy home ecosystems. That is why my proposal for 21st-century gardens across the United States is so critical. Every patch of green will be essential to the survival of native animals and plants. Sterile, chemically controlled fescue lawns won’t help them. Healthy, vibrant, beautiful native landscapes might just save them.
The Emerald Ash Borer is now in the county adjacent to mine. It won’t be long before it finds my beautiful ash-shaded wetland. If you live in the southeastern piedmont in areas with ash trees, I encourage you to take your children, your grandchildren – or any child for that matter – to visit healthy ash trees now. Go appreciate the beauty of their dangling seeds, their compound opposite leaves, their gray furrowed trunks. Lock these images into your memories now, for soon they will be all you have left.
- For North Carolinians living in Orange and Durham counties, on Aug. 20 at 9:00 a.m., the NC Department of Agriculture will hold a public information system on the Emerald Ash Borer quarantine at the Whitted Building in Hillsborough.
- NC Forest Service Web site on the Emerald Ash Borer
- National Emerald Ash Borer Clearinghouse
- Predatory wasps as control for Emerald Ash Borer
- Good photos and information on White Ash in North Carolina
- NC Forest Service list of invasive insects to watch for
- Other dangerous invaders fast approaching: