Posts Tagged Emerald Ash Borer

Ashes, ashes, all fall down

Top of a canopy Green Ash on my floodplain

Top of a canopy Green Ash on my floodplain

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.

Trunk of a canopy Green Ash

Trunk of a canopy Green Ash

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.

Ashes have compound, opposite leaves, which help create shady moist woodlands beneath their canopies.

Ashes have compound, opposite leaves, which help create shady moist woodlands beneath their canopies.

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.

Caterpillars of Eastern Tiger Swallowtails rely on ash trees for food.

Caterpillars of Eastern Tiger Swallowtails rely on ash trees for food.

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.

Eastern Cottontails enjoy the seeds of ash trees.

Eastern Cottontails enjoy the seeds of ash trees.

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.

Like charms on a bracelet, female ash trees (the species is dioecious) dangle seed clusters from slender branches.

Like charms on a bracelet, female ash trees (the species is dioecious) dangle seed clusters from slender branches.

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.

Typical branching structure of a canopy Green Ash

Typical branching structure of a canopy Green Ash

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.

Right now, wildflowers like this Monkeyflower thrive beneath the canopy of Green Ashes on my floodplain. Will they remain when the ashes are gone?

Right now, wildflowers like this Monkeyflower thrive beneath the canopy of Green Ashes on my floodplain. Will they remain when the ashes are gone?

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.

Will Japanese honeysuckle take over when the ashes are gone?

Will Japanese honeysuckle take over when the ashes are gone?

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).

Will our spring-blooming native White Fringetrees be victims of the Emerald Ash Borer too?

Will our spring-blooming native White Fringetrees be victims of the Emerald Ash Borer too?

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.

Appreciate the furrowed bark of ash trees while you can.

Appreciate the furrowed bark of ash trees while you can.

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In the blink of an eye…

One minute, summer sun kisses green leaves, flowers abound, birds sing. Then you blink, and color happens.

Cornus florida displays peak autumn color.

Cornus florida displays peak autumn color.

For some plants, color comes in patches at first.

Like this native Spicebush, Lindera benzoin.

Like this native Spicebush, Lindera benzoin.

Or this ornamental spirea:

Spirea 'Magic Carpet'

Spirea ‘Magic Carpet’

Fall fruits droop heavy on branches, then tumble to earth.

Chinese dogwood (Cornus kousa) fruits make it impossible to walk without squishing them.

Chinese dogwood (Cornus kousa) fruits make it impossible to walk without squishing them.

Deciduous hollies haven't released their leaves yet, so bright berries look like Christmas balls among the greenery.

Deciduous hollies haven’t released their leaves yet, so bright berries look like Christmas balls among the greenery.

Native Redbud (Cercis canadensis) seed pods rattle in autumn winds.

Native Redbud (Cercis canadensis) seed pods rattle in autumn winds.

Red Buckeye (Aesculus pavia) seed pods  crack open and release shiny fruits.

Red Buckeye (Aesculus pavia) seed pods crack open and release shiny fruits.

The native Black Walnut (Juglans nigra) has finally dropped all its nuts. For a few weeks, walking beneath it required a hard hat.

Now the walnuts are a hazard to unwary walkers.

Now the walnuts are a hazard to unwary walkers.

This past Tuesday, a strong cold front approached. Thick clouds darkened the sky, winds blew in gusts, twirling falling leaves into eddies of gold and red. Later that day, the rains came — almost two inches.  The trees that always abandon their leaves first took the winds, rain, and ensuing cold air as their cue.

The first native trees to bare their branches for winter in my yard are always the Ashes. Ash trees dominate the active portion of our floodplain — about an acre or so. I think they’re probably Green Ashes (Fraxinus pennsylvanica), but local experts tell me this species often interbreeds with other native Ash species, so I’m not certain.

Their fall color is subtle, but they do cast a distinctive yellow-green glow over the canopy just before they discard their summer clothes.

A floodplain Ash before the rains stripped it of color.

A floodplain Ash before the rains stripped it of color.

Ashes are not the first trees most folks notice when walking through their native moist habitats, but they are key components. Their numerous seeds are devoured by many bird species, including Wood Ducks.  The larvae of several of our more colorful southeastern US butterflies eat Ash leaves, including the Eastern Tiger Swallowtail, Orange Sulfur, and one of my favorites, Mourning Cloak. This beauty has dark wings edged in deep gold; I count myself lucky when I spot one or two floating through my floodplain, usually on warm late-winter days, when the over-wintered adults begin seeking mates.

Ashes are easy to identify. They have compound leaves. Botanists define a compound leaf as consisting of a set of leaflets. For example, Poison Ivy has a compound leaf. Those “leaves of three” we all look for actually comprise one leaf. Look for a longer leaf stem (a petiole) that attaches the multi-leaflet leaf to a branch.

Click on this image to clearly see these Ash leaves comprised of leaflets.

Click on this image to clearly see these Ash leaves comprised of leaflets.

A casual observer might confuse the compound leaves of Ash trees with those of another Piedmont forest regular — Hickory, but a closer look is all you need to tell the difference. Ash leaves are attached to branches directly opposite each other. This opposite-leaved arrangement is less common in our native trees and shrubs. A single-leaved tree with opposite leaves that we all know is our native Dogwood. Hickory leaves alternate on the branch, plus most have fewer leaflets per leaf than Ash leaves.

After the rains blasted through, the next day, most of the Ashes on my floodplain were bare. In the blink of an eye, their subtle color was gone.

Bare Ash branches contrast with the remaining still mostly green canopy of other species.

Bare Ash branches contrast with the remaining still mostly green canopy of other species.

This year as the Ashes performed their vanishing act, I got a knot in my stomach. I couldn’t help but wonder if this will be the last year I am able to enjoy their subtle drama. Why?

The Emerald Ash Borer, a non-native, devastating tiny insect, has a confirmed presence in a few NC Piedmont counties just north of mine. This insect has already killed every native Ash tree in many of our northern states. Every single one. They do it in one year. Experts have no idea how to stop them. Here’s the latest information from the NC Forest Service on this Ash-killing bug. Follow the links on that site to learn more.

A key take-away message about preventing the spread of Emerald Ash Borer and several other devastating non-native insects is about firewood. It is critical that any firewood you buy be from local, uninfected trees. Unfortunately, the firewood industry is not closely regulated. Recently dead trees look like a prime source of money to firewood purveyors. More than half the states in the US, including all of the Southeast, have imposed some firewood movement restrictions. Click on your state on this map to see what restrictions apply for you.

Ignorance is our greatest enemy in the fight to save our Ash trees. If you buy firewood, I urge you to learn what counties in your state are still considered safe sources of uncontaminated firewood. Be wary of pre-packaged firewood sitting outside grocery and hardware stores. Odds are it was shipped in from somewhere else. Ask the store manager where the firewood came from, and if he or she doesn’t know, tell them why you won’t be buying from them.

In my area during every impending cold spell, I’ll see folks selling pick-up trucks full of firewood in parking lots. Firewood sales are a supplemental source of income for most of these folks; many of them probably have no knowledge of the restrictions on where they should be collecting their firewood. In North Carolina, no one should be buying or selling firewood from Granville, Vance, or Person counties outside the boundaries of these counties. They are quarantined due to the confirmed presence of the Emerald Ash Borer. Here are the areas in the US with currently imposed Emerald Ash Borer quarantines.

Unless the experts devise a way to kill this insect in the next few months, it is just a matter of a year, perhaps two, before every Ash tree on my property — about a dozen 75-foot trees — will be dead. Their absence in the landscape will be visible to even the most casual observer. What will be less obvious is the disruption in the Piedmont ecosystem where these trees occur. Birds and insects that evolved to rely on Ash trees as a food source will go hungry. If they cannot adapt to other food sources, they will die trying to find Ash trees elsewhere.

No one knows how many components of an ecosystem can disappear before the viability of the entire ecosystem is destroyed, so that the remaining components die. Think of it as an ecosystem-scale game of Jenga. Sooner or later, the wrong piece is removed, and the entire structure fails.

In the blink of an eye, our native Ashes may disappear. How many more blinks before our native forests are gone too?

 

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Why I worry about the future of Piedmont forests

Emerald Ash Borer

Forget that forests are being erased in record numbers in the name of progress. Forget that climate change and invasive exotic plants are permanently transforming the composition of remaining forests.  I worry more about the invasive exotic animals and diseases. They are small, mobile, and completely deadly. In the case of the Emerald Ash Borer, they are eliminating — completely eliminating — every living Ash tree species in the upper middle region of the United States.  Here’s a quote from a document on the USDA Forest Service’s National Seed Laboratory Web site:

The emerald ash borer (EAB) is killing all native ashes (Fraxinus spp.) in Michigan, Indiana, and Ohio, and is beginning to spread into surrounding states and provinces.  The loss of these species has cultural, ecological, and economic implications that warrant preserving the genetic resources before too much is lost to the insect.  Trees, as do all plants, must be adapted to their environment to thrive.  Natural ash populations have adapted to their environments, and preserving a significant number of these populations is required for reintroduction of these species once adequate environmental control measures for EAB are developed or trees resistant to the insect are bred and introduced.  Breeding resistant ash trees for reintroduction will ultimately require an array of adapted parental populations.  The projected degree of EAB destruction to native stands is so great that, only an adequate ex situ germplasm collection will be able to provide the needed material for breeding and reintroduction.

Simply put, the scientists studying this invader are certain that all the Ash trees in this region are going to be killed by this invasive exotic insect, and the only hope of saving these species is to save lots of Ash tree seeds now, and store them until they can figure out how to either kill the bug and/or develop Ash trees that can resist the borer.

If you’re thinking that being in the southeast Piedmont of the United States will save our Ash trees, think again. This borer is on the move. Not only can it disperse on its own power, it is small, and is hitching rides on vehicles and other means of transport. Make no mistake, it is just a matter of time before every Ash tree in North America is affected.

Here’s the Web site that serves as an international clearinghouse for information on the Emerald Ash Borer.

If you’re thinking, “So what, I can live without Ash trees. Heck, I’m not sure I even know what one looks like.” Think again. Ash trees are essential components of many Piedmont environments.

And they aren’t the only species threatened by invaders.

You might want to read about the Asian Longhorned Beetle.

Or the fungus called Sudden Oak Death, which is killing more than just oaks — as if that weren’t bad enough.

In my opinion, these links make for scary reading — especially if you’ve got children and grandchildren, who will be living on this invader-transformed planet after you are long gone. So what can we do now?

First, we can stay informed about these threats. Dedicated scientists around the world are wrestling with the invasive exotic species issue. Their best ideas about containment policies or changes in import rules are often blocked by those who wield the Big Dollars. They label anything that “impedes commerce” as unpatriotic.

My reply: What are you planning to sell when your native ecosystems are broken beyond repair, when your water is too polluted to drink, and your air is dangerously toxic? Forests are profoundly important to the health of the planet.  So stay informed, and keep your political representatives apprised of your concerns and priorities.

And maybe one more thing might help a little. Healthy ecosystems are almost always diverse ecosystems. The many species comprising an ecosystem engage in an intricate dance of give and take that keeps all the parts healthy and whole. Even in your own quarter-acre lot, you can increase species diversity, thereby creating a more vigorous ecosystem. Re-create typical Piedmont forest layers, get rid of non-native lawn grasses. Give more Piedmont native species places to hide. Maybe — just maybe — then the invaders won’t find and kill all of them.

Fingers crossed …

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