Grateful for Trees

The Northern Red Oak that once sheltered my house.

The Northern Red Oak that once sheltered my house.

This year, on this day when we citizens of the United States give thanks for our many blessings, I am grateful for trees – forest canopy giants, colorful understory beauties, and even specimen trees artfully sited in home landscapes to improve “curb appeal.” As far as I’m concerned, any native or non-native, non-invasive tree in the landscape is a win for the natural world.

Halesia diptera in full bloom.

Halesia diptera in full bloom.

In the last few weeks, I’ve attended three hour-long presentations by invited candidates currently under consideration for the position of Director of the NC Botanical Garden (NCBG). Up to now, the NCBG has only had part-time directors. As a long-time member and volunteer of this public garden, I am delighted that it will now have the undivided attention of a full-time director. All three candidates are impressive, and all gave wonderful talks, but it is the words of the most recent candidate that remain with me most vividly.

Towering River Birch shows off new spring leaves

Towering River Birch shows off new spring leaves

He spoke at length about an issue I’ve observed often myself – the alarming disconnect between most Americans – especially children – and the natural world. Many causes for this are posited, including the omnipresence of computer games and the increasing urbanization of our homelands. He used a term I hadn’t heard before that I think aptly captures this profound obliviousness to the natural world – Plant Blindness. He defined Plant Blindness as the inability of people to distinguish one green plant from another, or to even notice the plants at all. He cited truly terrifying – to me, anyway – statistics about how many Americans are afflicted with Plant Blindness. I didn’t write them down, but trust me, the numbers are not small.

Tulip Poplar flowers adorn this towering canopy specimen.

Tulip Poplar flowers adorn this towering canopy specimen.

I have trouble wrapping my head around this idea that most folks don’t even see the Green World that I love so deeply. As far back as I can remember, I’ve always been thankful for trees. My earliest memories are of specific trees. I still remember the roughness of the blocky bark and the clean, resinous fragrance of a line of Loblolly Pines in the front yard of my home when I was about four years old. That spot and those trees are my first memory. I spent many hours sitting quietly among the brown needles, leaning against a great pine, listening to the wind caress the branches towering above me. It was a soothing, hypnotic sound, not unlike waves of a calm ocean breaking long and slow on a sandy beach. Their gentle Loblolly lullaby made it easy for me to remain quiet enough to encourage resident chipmunks to emerge from their burrows to dash about on what always seemed to be urgent business.

A tall Loblolly pine in my front yard is laden with abundant cones.

A tall Loblolly pine in my front yard is laden with abundant cones.

My family moved several times during my childhood, and what I remember most vividly about every home is the yard, especially the trees. To think that children today are growing up without ever becoming acquainted with a special great White Oak or a Southern Magnolia with branches built for climbing truly breaks my heart. But Plant Blindness has dangerous side-effects beyond never giving a child a chance to bond with the natural world.

Persian Ironwood glows in the late autumn landscape.

Persian Ironwood glows in the late autumn landscape.

Because an increasing number of adults suffer from this affliction, they are oblivious to the many benefits trees – and especially forests – provide. Most of the wildlife native to the southeastern piedmont region of the US is adapted to live in forests. They need forests for food and shelter. And the forests need to be healthy. An adult with Plant Blindness won’t see that a forest overgrown with Chinese Wisteria and a dense understory of Chinese Privet and Russian Olive is not remotely the same as a healthy native Oak-Hickory climax forest with an understory of Sourwood, Dogwood, Redbud, etc. They are blind to the difference, but native animals are not.

About 40 feet tall, this dogwood is probably about 50 years old, maybe even older.

About 40 feet tall, this dogwood is probably about 50 years old, maybe even older.

Because the Plant Blind don’t see trees, they don’t notice the beneficial effects of living beside and within forests. There’s a reason old southern homes are surrounded by towering oaks. Before the days of air-conditioned homes, trees – and forests – provided air conditioning. Transpiration – the movement of water from roots to leaves and into the air – humidifies the air, making the air cooler and more pleasant. On a summer afternoon, transpiration of trees in a deciduous forest will lower air temperature by ten degrees Fahrenheit below the temperature in a shaded area outside the forest. Ten degrees! As climate change continues to create wider summer temperature swings and unpredictable drought cycles, the substantial ameliorating effects of forests could make a critical difference. But the Plant Blind are unable to see the trees or the forests, so they aren’t likely to realize what they’ve lost.

Trunk of a Water Oak; behind is Bigleaf Magnolia showing off its fall color.

Trunk of a Water Oak; behind is Bigleaf Magnolia showing off its fall color.

If you’ve read this blog much, you’ve read about some of the many wonderful trees native to our region. Every species plays a role in its native ecosystem. Every species possesses its own unique beauty – fragrant flowers, handsome bark, breath-taking fall leaf color. It boggles my brain that the Plant Blind don’t see this!

Acer rubrum flowers morph to winged crimson seeds

Acer rubrum flowers morph to winged crimson seeds

Thus, on this day of American Thanksgiving, I am grateful for trees, and I invite my readers to step outside after your feast today and appreciate your native landscape. Take your child or grandchild by the hand and go caress the bark of a Loblolly Pine, a White Oak, or a smooth-trunked Beech tree. Appreciate the differences and encourage that child to do the same. Marvel at the recently deposited leaves swirling in November winds, note the Cardinals sitting on bare branches. Practice seeing the natural world in all its infinite diversity and beauty. Teach your children to be thankful for trees.

Some Useful References on Trees

  • Godfrey, Michael A., FIELD GUIDE TO THE PIEDMONT
  • Dirr, Michael A. MANUAL OF WOODY LANDSCAPE PLANTS
  • Kirkman, Katherine L., Claud L. Brown, and Donald J. Leopold, NATIVE TREES OF THE SOUTHEAST: AN IDENTIFICATION GUIDE
  • Miller, James H. and Karl V. Miller, FOREST PLANTS OF THE SOUTHEAST AND THEIR WILDLIFE USES
Exquisite exfoliating bark of Paperbark Maple

Exquisite exfoliating bark of native Paperbark Maple

 

  1. #1 by Genevieve Joseph on November 27, 2014 - 7:27 am

    Happy Thanksgiving! I am grateful for your blog.

    Sent from my iPhone

    • #2 by piedmontgardener on November 27, 2014 - 7:41 am

      Hi, Genevieve. It’s so nice to hear from you! I hope you and your family have a wonderful Thanksgiving. And, as always, thanks for stopping by!

  2. #3 by Robert Reynolds on November 27, 2014 - 8:40 am

    Happy Thanksgiving! Your writings about the natural landscape always delight me, and remind me of my explorations in the wildness of N. Georgia when I was growing up there. Many of the plants you write about are familiar to me, but not present in Oklahoma where I now live. Thank you for reminding me of them!
    Robert

    • #4 by piedmontgardener on November 27, 2014 - 8:48 am

      Happy Thanksgiving to you, Robert! Clearly, you did not grow up suffering from plant blindness. I am sad for the many children growing up today who don’t have the opportunities we had to wander the woods near our homes. But I am delighted that my words here can help you remember your childhood woodlands. Thanks for stopping by!

  3. #5 by Mary Douglas on November 27, 2014 - 2:37 pm

    Hello, Thank you for this lovely blog post on the value of trees. In my late 50’s, I had the same childhood experience of growing up in the woods and noticing plants from play. My grandfather was a farmer and ran a small sawmill, my dad had worked with the sawmill, so I always heard plants’ names. Still many years later, I realized what I thought were native plants are not at all. Never have been plant blind though! The big oaks on my property are the most valued.

    • #6 by piedmontgardener on November 27, 2014 - 2:57 pm

      Welcome, Mary! I think perhaps our generation was most fortunate, because we got to play in the woods! I think we all need to get our kids and grandkids outside walking trails, visiting gardens, and playing in the dirt in their own backyards before everyone goes plant blind. I know what you mean about big oaks. They are always special trees. Happy Thanksgiving, and thanks for stopping by!

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