Archive for category Conservation Corner
After writing this blog for over 5.5 years, my obsession should be apparent to everyone: I am endlessly fascinated by the natural world, especially the inhabitants of my five acres of green chaos in the piedmont region of North Carolina. Case in point? I’ve been unfolding folded leaves like the one above for years and years. Until a week or so ago, every time I unfolded the leaf, it was empty inside. But I persevered, stopping at every spicebush growing in my yard (a dozen or so), searching for curled leaves, and uncoiling them in the hopes of finding treasure within. Finally, last week, I scored.
Isn’t it amazing? I think it’s so clever of Mother Nature to have had this caterpillar evolve large spots on its hind end. Most entomologists believe the coloration is supposed to make hungry birds think “Snake!” when they find it, and fly away. The caterpillars hide within coiled leaves by day and emerge to feed at night. I knew the caterpillars were there, because I’ve seen many Spicebush Swallowtail butterflies in my yard this year — and many eaten spicebush leaves. But the caterpillars eluded me until now.
When I wasn’t hunting elusive caterpillars or admiring and photographing the numerous pollinators in my garden this summer, I’ve been writing a couple of articles for publication. The editor of the NC Native Plant Society Newsletter asked me to write a piece on native deciduous azaleas for the fall edition. I was happy to oblige.
And the editor of the NC Botanical Garden’s magazine, Conservation Gardener, invited me to write an article for its second edition. The magazine is a benefit of membership, and I think the second edition is even better than the first one.
This time, I was asked to write about winterizing our yards and gardens sustainably. I really enjoyed putting this one together, especially because I was able to interview several staff members at the NC Botanical Garden so I could share their ideas.
If you click on the photos in this entry, you’ll get a larger version that will show a few more details. But I hope this may encourage gardeners in the southeastern US who are not yet members of the NC Botanical Garden to join. The new magazine is relevant to gardeners in the Southeast, even if you aren’t close enough to visit often. And membership rates include discounts for seniors, students, and volunteers.
If you are close enough to visit, I hope I’ll see you this Friday, September 23, for Members’ Night of the NC Botanical Garden’s Fall Plant Sale. If you click on this link, you’ll see a link to a printable list of all the plants that will be for sale that evening. I’ll be stationed at a table handing out lists of suggested natives for various situations/growing conditions. All the plants on these lists will be for sale that evening. And don’t forget that as a member, you get a 10% discount on all your purchases.
If you come to the sale, please stop by and say hello.
I know that many of my readers are, like me, dedicated long-time gardeners. We speak fair botanical Latin. We know what we mean when we say “part sun,” or “drought-resistant.”
But we also see plenty of neighborhoods full of houses landscaped with lots of fescue lawns, perhaps a sad little tree or two stuck in the middle of the green expanse, and some evergreen shrubs planted along house foundations, often pruned into geometric shapes not found in nature. Many of you old-pro gardeners may not realize it, but living in many of those regimented-looking, nearly biologically sterile neighborhoods are folks who would like to do more with their yards. They want butterflies and birds, but they haven’t got any idea how to attract them. And they don’t know where to start.
That’s actually why I started writing this blog back in January 2011. And it’s why I volunteer at the plant help desk at the NC Botanical Garden. I enjoy sharing what I know, trying to make that information accessible to folks new to the southeast (They are legion.), or just new to gardening.
I’ve been telling my readers about the NC Botanical Garden’s upcoming Fall Plant Sale for several weeks now. It’s the weekend after this coming one, by the way. That sale can be a bit overwhelming to some folks, because an enormous array of native species is offered for sale — table after table of pots of various sizes, all organized alphabetically by their Latin names. There are signs for every species with photos of mature plants and their flowers, information on how big they will grow, what growing conditions they need. But, still, it can be hard to know where to begin.
Thus, I am delighted to share with you that, this year, the folks at the NC Botanical Garden will be making it a bit easier for less experienced gardeners to pick out plants suitable for their yards with two new features. First, I am working with the staff to develop lists of suggested plants for certain situations. For example, at a table on Members’ Night, you’ll be able to pick up a list of suggested natives — all for sale that evening — suited for a sunny pollinator garden to provide blooms throughout the growing season. This list won’t contain all the possible options; we intend these lists to be starting points. With the pollinator garden list in hand, you can find a plant on the list, read more about it on the sign on the table, and decide if it is something you want to add to your garden. There will be lists of plants that like moisture (as for rain gardens or pond or stream banks) and ones for dry areas too. Again, these lists won’t be exhaustive, but they will give you a place to start.
The staff at the NC Botanical Garden has come up with one other new feature that any gardener trying to add native food sources for our pollinator and other insects will appreciate. As Douglas Tallamy wrote in his now-classic Bringing Nature Home, without the native trees, shrubs, wildflowers, and grasses that insects eat during their larval stages, their adult stages will not be available to pollinate our crops, and birds and other animals will die if they don’t have these immature and/or adult insects to eat. An entomologist by profession, Dr. Tallamy compiled lists of which native insects rely on which native plant species. Many insects only eat one species of plant. If it disappears, so do they.
That’s why I think it’s wonderful that the staff of the NC Botanical Garden has created the sign above to inform customers about how many insect species rely on particular plant species. These numbers come from Dr. Tallamy’s research, so you won’t see these signs for every plant at the sale. But when you do see one, you’ll know that the plant in question plays a key role in our local native food chain. When you buy a native blueberry plant, you’ll get a beautiful addition to your landscape that will produce berries and lovely fall color; but you’ll also be increasing available food sources for native insects, birds, and other wildlife — a win-win all around!
I hope I’ll see many of you at the plant sale on Sept. 23-24. The staff at the NC Botanical Garden has worked hard to contextualize their offerings to make it easy for you to figure out what will work best for your landscape. Please come out and pick up some plants to feed your local natives — and to support the only public garden in piedmont North Carolina with the central mission of educating folks about the beauty and importance of native plants.
A Perfect Opportunity to Fill a Landscape Gap – or Two: The NC Botanical Garden’s Native Plant Festival on May 21
If you’ve lived in the southeastern piedmont region of the United States for long, you’ve probably heard the oft-repeated phrase, “fall is for planting.” And it is a guideline worth taking seriously. But every spring, many gardeners get itchy planting fingers. I know that after my vegetables and ornamental annuals are planted, my eye begins to spot those places in my landscape that would benefit from a new plant or two. Or three – self-control is a challenge for me, I confess, when it comes to new plant acquisitions.
The reason we mostly plant trees, shrubs, and perennials in the fall around here is because the heat and often drought of our summer season can be very hard on newly added plants. So if you see a spot in your landscape that is crying out for a few choice additions this spring, follow two simple rules:
- Give the new plants extra attention throughout the summer and fall. Of course, mulch them well, and if we go into a drought, these new plants will need extra water, because their root systems will not have had a chance to grow deeply before the heat hits. If we get an exceptionally prolonged heat wave, consider shading the new additions if they appear to be adversely impacted by the searing sun.
- Add plants that are native to the southeastern United States. The reasons for planting natives are myriad. I’ve enumerated some in a previous post here. But from a purely practical perspective, native plants are best adapted to our growing conditions, so you can expect them to weather our summers better than non-native choices – as long as you site them correctly, of course.
It’s not too late to even build a whole new bed or two. Do you have a sunny spot you could turn into a pollinator garden? How about a spot where all the water drains in your yard? Such areas are ideal for rain gardens that can contain flowers, shrubs, and trees that benefit from extra water and can tolerate occasionally flooded root systems. Is your yard one big shade garden? There’s always room for a new fern or two, a new shade-loving wildflower, or one of the many great native shrubs that will provide four-season interest for you, and food and cover for native wildlife.
The Perfect Place to Score Some Choice Native Plants
Next Saturday, May 21, the North Carolina Botanical Garden (NCBG) is making it easy for us to find all the special natives we might need in one convenient location. The Garden is hosting their first ever Native Plant Festival from 4:00-8:00 p.m. Of course, the Garden will have many of its wonderful native plants for sale. But to make the event irresistible, they have invited several local nurseries that specialize in growing choice native plants to also sell their wares at this event. Several of these growers are not open to the public, so this is a unique chance to see and purchase native lovelies that you’ll never see at your local big box store’s “garden center.” Specifically, these nurseries (in alphabetical order) will be selling at this event:
My planting fingers are getting itchy just from typing that! These are all wonderful local growers, and I believe I am growing plants from all of them, except S&J, and that’s only because I just don’t grow that many carnivorous plants. These growers will be offering locally grown natives, and much of their stock comes from local sources. Yup, they often gather seeds and cuttings from natives growing in our region to ensure the plants will be best adapted to our local conditions. That is never the case at the big box stores.
But wait, there’s more!
This event isn’t just for gardeners. Bring your spouses, your kids, and your grandkids. There will be live music, food trucks, tree-climbing and giant bubble making, a sale of gently used gardening books, a raffle, and eleven local conservation organizations will have tables staffed with volunteers who can answer your questions about their groups. So while we gardeners are fondling our native options, our families can be enjoying all these other activities.
The event lasts until 8:00 p.m., but if you want the best selection of plants, I suggest you get there when the doors open at 4:00 p.m. You can grab what you want, then enjoy the music and food, and mingle with your fellow native plant lovers.
Matt Gocke, Greenhouse and Nursery Manager extraordinaire at the NCBG, was kind enough to share with me the list of goodies he’ll be offering for sale from his greenhouse at this event. Here are a few highlights.
- If you want to begin or add to your milkweed collection for your Monarch butterfly habitat garden, he’ll have five different species for sale: Clasping Milkweed, Swamp Milkweed, Longleaf Milkweed, Common Milkweed, and Butterfly Milkweed. Growing conditions vary for these species, so you should be able to find at least one that will do well in your landscape.
- He’ll be offering several interesting native vines, including Climbing Carolina Aster (Ampleaster carolinanus), Potato Bean (Apios americana), Leather flower (Clematis viorna), Large-leaved Dutchman’s Pipevine (Isotrema macrophylla), and Purple Passionflower (Passiflora incarnata).
- He’ll have a really nice selection of native ferns, grasses, and sedges, gazillions of great native wildflower options, and some choice native shrubs and small trees ideally suited for tucking into empty spots around your yard.
So, my fellow native plant gardening enthusiasts, spend some time this week pondering your home landscape. Now that everything has leafed out, it will be easier to spot any gaps where a native azalea might dazzle the eye, or a bed of ferns might soften a shady spot. Then tell your families about the great event you’ll all be going to on May 21. Food, music, and plants – it doesn’t get much better than that.
I’ll see you there!
I admit it. I can be a bit of a curmudgeon. As I’ve grown older, I find it more challenging to have faith in humanity.
What keeps me going – what gets me out of bed every day – are the wild ones – the animals and plants that share my five acres of southeastern piedmont green chaos with me.
But as much as I love my green world, I am also deeply worried about its long-term survival. Climate change is undeniable and accelerating rapidly. Massive deforestation due to the invasion of concrete and asphalt throughout the world – and definitely in my region – grows every day, leaving the wild ones nowhere to live.
I am wondering how long my native wonderland will hang on when the world it evolved to inhabit disappears. As dramatic temperature swings become increasingly common, as record snowfalls are followed by record drought followed by record rainfall, how will the tulip poplars that prefer evenly moist ground and relatively cool – but not cold – sites survive? How will tadpoles that rely on ephemeral spring pools to shelter their metamorphoses become the frogs we rely on to devour summer’s abundant insects? What will the berry-loving bird species – that also dine on myriad insects – eat if the native food plants they rely on don’t set fruit because of late killing freezes? Where will the deep-rooted oaks, pines, hickories, and maples find water when prolonged 100-degree summers don’t deliver significant rain for months?
I am worried, because most of the people around me don’t seem to care. Most of the folks I meet at the grocery store, the doctor’s office, even at the public garden where I volunteer to answer plant-related questions from visitors are plant-blind. Most cannot distinguish an oak tree from a maple, much less determine if the species is native or non-native. And they see nothing wrong with that. They are oblivious to the environmental context in which they live – the context they share with native animals and plants that struggle to survive in a world made increasingly hostile by the utter indifference of the humans that have intruded upon their habitats.
Every day, I see examples of this profound indifference/ignorance. Recently, a woman on my neighborhood chatlist posted a recommendation for an exterminator company that she employs to spray insecticide all over her yard once a month, ostensibly, to kill ticks and mosquitoes.
Perhaps she recently relocated to my area from a part of the US where the summertime insects are less prevalent. Folks who grew up in my region understand that summer bugs are the price we pay for mild winters and lush forests. She wants, I imagine, to enjoy her outdoor patio in the summer while wearing her summer outfits, and she doesn’t want to get bitten. She thinks she’s being environmentally sensitive, because the exterminator says the poison used doesn’t kill bees.
I went to the exterminator’s Web site to learn the name of the pesticide they use, then researched it. According to the US Environmental Protection Agency’s pesticide database, the insecticide in question does not kill bees outright, but the poison does accumulate in their beeswax. I doubt that’s a good thing, but there was worse news. The insecticide in question – at any concentration – is known to be fatal to all aquatic life – that’s anything that lives in our creeks, ponds, rivers, ephemeral streams, etc. That’s a lot of frogs, dragonflies, salamanders, and fish that won’t be around to eat the insects this woman is apparently so worried about. In exchange for being able to sunbathe without being possibly bitten by a bug, this woman is absolutely willing to kill all aquatic life within range of the monthly poison being applied to her yard – which the exterminators spray 30 feet into the treetops, by the way, because, they say, that’s where the bugs hide. I doubt it’s great for the insect-eating nesting birds that are probably in those trees too, however. Or the squirrels, possums, bats – you get the idea.
Unless we all begin to understand that the battle cannot be Man versus Nature anymore, both sides are going to lose. Some experts I know believe we are already teetering on the edge of an avalanche of cascading impacts that – once begun – will be unstoppable. Some people may believe humanity can outwit Nature with technical innovations. But if the climate becomes unpredictably erratic and most ecosystems die, how will we produce food? What will pollinate crops? Where will the clean water come from? How will healthy soil chemistry be maintained when the life that controls those processes mostly dies?
So often these days, I meet people who distrust science. They seem to think it is a belief system, equivalent to religious ideology. They therefore feel entitled to reject uncomfortable scientific facts, such as what climate change is doing to our world. Or they think the natural world exists to serve as accessories to their outdoor “decor.” Not infrequently, I am asked questions like, “What tree can I grow in my yard that will only be 15-feet high, produce red – not pink – flowers in July, and have evergreen leaves?” They seem to think they can place an order for a plant in the same way they order a new outfit, or a refrigerator.
I believe that our last hope for a healthy Earth can only come in the form of a transformational paradigm shift – a fundamental change in the thinking of every man, woman, and child on the planet. It requires that we all accept the reality that we inhabit complex ecosystems that are not infinitely resilient. They require constant nurturing.
And there is one thing that any human who owns/controls a piece of land can start doing today. If you’re not growing crops or raising livestock (ideally, sustainably), populate your land with mostly (or all) native plant species. Even if you only own a quarter-acre lot, you can contribute to the health of our ailing planet by providing places for dwindling native insect, bird, reptile, amphibian, and plant species to survive.
In my region of the southeastern US, eliminate or reduce your ecologically inert fescue lawns. Dig out the boxwoods, English ivy, Asian wisteria – all the non-natives – and replace them with some of the beautiful, well-adapted shrubs, trees, and wildflowers that evolved in our region. When your yard is a balanced system of native plants, insects will not overrun you, because the insect-eating animals will appear to devour them. Restoring balance to your home landscape by welcoming in native species will transform the environmental health of our region, and ultimately result in less work and lower costs for land- and homeowners.
Going native is not about being “politically correct,” or “green,” or “liberal,” or whatever pejorative term the defenders of the status quo use this week to characterize this strategy. Going native is now about ensuring the physical survival of plants and animals upon which we rely directly and indirectly. In my curmudgeonly opinion, it is time to paradigm-shift – or die.
I know that the kind folks who read my ramblings here (and I appreciate you all), already understand how imperiled our world is. I know most of you are like me – lifelong gardeners and lovers of the natural world. What I don’t know is how we can persuade the plant-blind, the bug-phobic, and the rigid, traditional landscapers to see the need for this planetary transformation to a world that preserves and restores every sliver of green we have left into vibrant native ecosystems. I do know that if we don’t come up with paradigm-shifting solutions very soon, there won’t be much world left to care about.
For many citizens of the US, Thanksgiving Day is about feasting with family, and perhaps counting up blessings. That’s great; it’s harder than ever for many to get multiple generations of kin in the same place for any length of time, and if food is the motivation that accomplishes this objective, so be it.
Over the last 15 years or so, Wonder Spouse and I have observed a different Thanksgiving Day tradition: we visit the North Carolina Zoo. I know that some lovers of the animal kingdom despise zoos, and I understand those feelings. But the NC Zoo is one of the finest examples of what a zoo can be here in the US, and I would argue that its benefits outweigh any misgivings about maintaining wild animals in captivity. Plus, there are the plants. Let me explain.
In 2009, I was lucky enough to get a behind-the-scenes horticulture tour at the NC Zoo. I saw their greenhouses, learned about the extensive efforts the horticulture staff makes to find and propagate plants native to the regions of the animals, and learned about their ever-expanding programs to preserve and protect rare plant communities on the many acres of land they manage in North Carolina. I think they do an amazing job, and every area of the NC Zoo — from the sides of walkways, to exhibits, to play areas for children — is adorned with beautiful plants.
Every year with decent weather, Wonder Spouse and I rise early and drive to Asheboro, where the NC Zoo is located, timing our arrival for when the doors are just opening at 9:00 a.m. A short hike takes us to our objective — the aviary — just as it opens up around 9:30 a.m. Most years, we have this magnificent place to ourselves — except for the keeper — for at least an hour. This year, we were undisturbed for over two hours.
The chill late-November air disappeared as we stepped into the humid warmth of a tropical paradise. Imagine towering leafy trees, blooming bromeliads and orchids, the sound of water gently trickling through a constructed stream, where water birds dabble happily, appearing and disappearing as they move beneath tropical foliage. Everywhere there are birds — flying through the trees — calling raucously or melodically, depending on species. The aviary is their little corner of paradise, and they thrive here, as do the tropical plants.
Wonder Spouse and I begin our NC Zoo visit at the aviary for two reasons. First, we love having the place to ourselves. Boisterous children inhibit bird behavior. The feathered ones are still relaxed when we arrive. Second, the keeper feeds the birds first thing every morning. This Thanksgiving Day, she was a little behind schedule. Wonder Spouse and I were already in the aviary and wandering around when she arrived with her many bowls and cages (for the live crickets) of bird goodies.
Because Wonder Spouse and I were the only humans wandering about, the hungry birds assumed we must have their breakfasts. I felt like Snow White in the Disney movie, when all the creatures of the forest surround her as she sings to them. I have never seen so many of these beautiful birds so closely in all my years of visits.
In case you’re wondering, Wonder Spouse took all these photographs of our NC Zoo visit. I shrank them some to minimize loading times, but you can click on any of the images to enlarge them. I recommend this, so you can appreciate Wonder Spouse’s skill with the camera — and the exquisite beauty of these birds.
I think the best time to visit the aviary is winter. The humid warmth of this glassed-in tropical paradise feels heavenly on a bitter January morning. The NC Zoo is usually far less crowded during the winter. Most school groups tour during warmer months. When the crowds are smaller, the knowledgeable keepers are happy to answer questions and share stories about their charges.
For example, the aviary keeper we chatted with on Thanksgiving showed us how she had taught this Crested Coua to emerge at a specific spot in return for special treats. This allows her to inspect the bird more closely without having to catch it.
After we’d had our fill of the aviary, we walked through the rest of the African continent display. Wonder Spouse took many great photographs. He has a soft spot for the lion family currently residing at the NC Zoo. The four cubs were born last year and have grown from adorable kittens to magnificent cats.
We have been avid supporters of the NC Zoo for decades. Their conservation and research work in the native lands of these animals is critical to the preservation of remaining populations. I believe that work, plus the educational opportunities provided by this institution among beautiful, multi-hundred-acres of rolling piedmont trail-crossed hills makes this institution worthy of every North Carolinian’s support. Tax-deductible contributions are critical to the well-being of this state treasure.
If you don’t live in NC but plan to visit, I encourage you to add the NC Zoo to your itinerary. If you do live in NC, but you haven’t visited, or you haven’t visited lately, I encourage you to rectify that oversight soon. Visit their Web site to learn more about their exhibits and conservation work.
Lend the NC Zoo a helping hand.
Consider donating to protect the future of wild ones everywhere.
Years ago — maybe 18 or so — I was a member of an arboretum that gave out rooted cuttings of free plants to subscribers at a certain level of membership. These were often plants relatively new to the horticulture trade that the arboretum was testing for my area. One year, they offered a three-for-one deal: cuttings of three different varieties of loropetalum (Chinese witch hazel). This was a new plant for me then, the description sounded appealing to my tastes — purplish leaves and magenta flowers, so I tried them.
We chain-sawed one to the ground this year. It grew way, way larger than promised, and it was crowding out plants I like better. So — off with its head!
I do still love the leaves that emerge purple, and with some varieties, remain a deep maroon. And I love the pizzazz of the magenta flowers. But these shrubs are not native here; Asia is their native land. And after 18 years of observation, I can affirm they do absolutely nothing for the local ecosystem that justifies the space they take. Why? Nothing eats them.
These plants are shunned by every insect and warm- and cold-blooded native animal that lives in my yard. They must taste very bad indeed. The only life I observe in these shrubs — which are 15-feet tall and 10-feet wide now — are birds, which use them as shelter during storms and as nesting sites in spring.
I wanted these shrubs to screen the front of my house from cars entering my driveway, and they serve that purpose admirably. But so would any number of native evergreen shrubs and small trees.
Some of you may be thinking that I am crazy to want to remove plants unbothered by “pests,” but if you’ve been reading my blog for long, you’ll recall that the rapidly increasing eradication of native southeastern forests is leaving native animals with diminishing options for survival. For more information, try this post or this one.
We gardeners are on the front lines of the battle to save our native ecosystems. I didn’t fully realize this when I happily acquired and planted three tiny new purple non-native shrubs almost two decades ago. Every plant choice we make contributes to the preservation or destruction of the natural world we love.
The more I think about it, the more certain I am that Wonder Spouse and I are going to have to figure out a way to remove these giant purple sterile shrubs and replace them with well-adapted natives. I am a sucker for purple leaves and flowers, but in the future, I will stick with native options. I owe that to the natural world that nurtures my mind, body, and soul every day.
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: