WANTED (Desperately) In Our Cities: Under-Represented Trees

It’s time to invite some long time residents back home. The trees. The native species. The ones that are effectively absent from the most cities. Bringing them back isn’t just for the trees’ sake.

Ben at Wilds of Pelee 2017.jpg

I planted this Red Oak tree 25 years ago (1994). I actually planted a thousand of them and more than a thousand are happily growing at this site.

Some of these trees will de-stress you, halting your cortisol production, helping you get back to true self – White Pine, E. Hemlock, Black Spruce – whatever is native in your neighbourhood. These trees, along with other conifers like cedars and spruce, produce essential wood oils called phytoncides. These oils emit the beautiful smell of pine, stop our cortisol production, thereby halting stress hormones that often flood our systems, causing us to worry and often get sick.

Other trees we need back here will quickly re-build our plummeting wildlife diversity, pulling us out of the greatest mass extinction in 65 million years, and here they are: the oaks – Chinquapin, Dwarf Chinquapin, and Swamp White, Black, Shumard, and Pin Oak. Surprisingly absent in the neighbourhood are also Black Cherry, Shagbark, Shellbark and Bitternut Hickories, as well as the stately American Beech. Yes, these hardwoods need your help and in return, they are the magnets for bringing back biodiversity – the wide variety of animals, such as butterflies, gorgeous moths, birds and beyond. Non-native trees don’t do this.

I’ve written this post because of my observations in many towns and cities. Often you see trees from Norway (maples, spruce), parts of the US to the south (Black Locust), cultivar varieties of native trees (Honey Locust, Callery Pear), or trees from Asia (Ginko, Lilac, etc.)  Yes, we do have native maples often in cities like Sugar and Silver. Whoop, whoop. But seldom do we get in our parks and along our streets the trees that you can find in a one of the few remaining diverse woodlots out in the country.

White Oak Acorns and Tree Form in Background - B Porchuk

White Oak Tree (background) & Acorns

In my neighbourhood, Wortley Village, in London, Ontario, Canada, measuring at least 2 x 2 km or about 250 acres, I have paid attention as I drive, walk, jog, or roller blade. There are two American Beech trees, maybe 10 Red Oaks, and 3 hickories of any species in this area. While I could have missed a couple, there should be hundreds of each.

Cucumber Magnolia-2 B Porchuk

Cucumber Magnolia. 

These native species, the oaks, beech, hickories and lone cherry are greatly under-represented to say the least. While most of cities and towns buy trees from nurseries that don’t stock these trees, it isn’t too hard to go out of our way a bit to find, buy and plant them. Time is up. We need to act in the absence of convenience.

The top reasons I hear not to plant these (native) trees: 1. I don’t have any room and it’s too shady (in older neighbourhoods). 2. These trees are too messy. 3. They cost too much. 4. I don’t know where to find these native trees? 5. They’ll attract squirrels. 6. I’m on my cell phone.

Here are some responses: 1. You can plant trees really close together. They’ll grow tall, like they do in a dense forest, and find the light they need. If you still feel in the dark, contact a local ecology group for a list of native trees that love shade. 2. Most things in life are messy. Some of us/things are more so than others. When you weigh the benefits, a little extra effort and energy spent cleaning up acorns or leaves isn’t so bad – being outside, getting free exercise, maybe becoming a little more social with your neighbours. 3. These trees don’t cost more than non-native trees. Groups like conservation authorities have cheap native tree sales.…you can find great deals. 4. Native trees are becoming more and more available. They are sold at more and more nurseries every year…seek and you shall find. 5. With more diverse native trees and acceptance of predators like Red-tailed Hawks, Sharp-shinned Hawks and Coyotes in the city, we gradually will have fewer squirrels. But no promises on this one, at least in the short term…let’s admire the squirrels are boast in the fact that at least we aren’t driving this species to extinction! 6. Get off your cell phone. Unplug and recharge your mind, body and spirit by planting a tree!

Am Beech-1 B Porchuk

American Beech Trees

Community building, healthy air, more resilient human health and climate systems, boosted urban ecology, and recovery of endangered species…all by planting these under-represented trees. It’s not hard to give a little more space for nature in the city. Recovering nature helps us to get a hand out of the big hole we have been digging in the ‘more the human world’ for decades.

Some great resources: Douglas Tallamy’s book, “Bringing Nature Home;” …native plant nurseries in S. Ontario, great for finding many of the trees mentioned above, St. Williams Nursery and Ecology Centre near Long Point and Native Trees and Plants Nursery, near Amhurstburg, ON (http://nativetreesandplants.com/). Just do an online search in your area to find out a good source for native trees.

American Sycamore Leaf and Bark - B Porchuk.jpg

American Sycamore Tree Leaves and Bark. 

Growing Some Weed(s) in My Village

It’s not officially illegal, but some question whether it should be. It can grow in between you and your partner, splitting you into camps, for it or against it. It can ruin a life or more; it can nearly take down an entire ecosystem.

GBH Visitor to Mother Buckthorn Stump-B.png

Strangely, after cutting a ‘Mother Tree’ of European Buckthorn, a Great Blue Heron appeared in the forest to inspect our work. Near Wortley Village, Old South, London, Canada.

I’m talking about weed(s). The weed in question is European Buckthorn. A beautiful shrub in its own right and in its homeland in England, this plant that grows to the size of a small tree. It becomes loaded with dark blue berries that are favoured by many of our birds. E. Buckthorn has wreaked havoc on our natural areas and has quietly infiltrated Wortley Village (London, ON) via bird droppings. It often goes unnoticed and unidentified by homeowners. Before you know it, you’ve received a complimentary bird-planted Buckthorn for ‘free.’ The cost, however, of keeping this plant around in this neck of the woods or neighbourhood, is exorbitant. The City of London (Canada) alone has spent hundreds of thousands of dollars trying to remove it from our sensitive natural areas. From one little 2.5 acre plot at the corner of Rachel and Phyllis Streets, just south of Emery, the city and the Friends of the Coves Subwatershed removed several dozen tons (see pile in photo below) of this plant from the forest understory.

E Buckthorn Seedling.jpg

E. Buckthorn seedling I found in my garden this morning (5:30am) when I thought about this article. I pull them often and can almost always find one ‘one demand.’

By definition, E. Buckthorn is an invasive, non-native species It outs competes our native plants for space. So you might be wondering, are our native plants just wimpy and unable to hold their ground? No, this isn’t the case. What happened in this case is that E. Buckthorn was commonly planted in fencerows when it was first introduced in our area in the late 1800s to keep cattle in specified fields. While some large native trees were left, there were next to no natural areas kept fully intact. When grazing pastures and orchards were abandoned, E. Buckthorn were among the most common plants remaining, enabling birds to seed them across our landscape. As such, this plant has taken our over natural areas.

Buckthorn Pile & Goutweed.jpg

Note the large pile of cut European Buckthorn and the dark understory in the background – that’s all E. Buckthorn as well! The white ground herb in the foreground is Goutweed, resulting from an adjacent landowner dumping garden clippings on the edge of this natural area.

Other detrimental non native species that we have commonly growing in Wortley Village and S. Ontario that majorly impact our natural areas include Japanese Honeysuckle, Burning Bush, Goutweed (white plant in above photo), and Periwinkle. I jog a 5km route around Wortley Village with my wife. Today I paid attention, noticing from the sidewalk, about fifty E. Buckthorns either growing ‘rogue’ along the edges of various houses, or stealthily in peoples hedges, or overtly as manicured lawn trees. See this great guide (http://www.ontarioinvasiveplants.ca/resources/grow-me-instead/) put out by the Ontario Invasive Species Council called, “Grow Me Instead” to give you ideas for replacement native species. For starters, I’ve highlighted a native shrub that will nicely replace your E. Buckthorn, should you chose to move towards native plants; Pagoda Dogwood Cornus alternifolia. Its form is a beautiful multi-tiered stacked ‘pagoda’, while the flowers are whitish-green in spring and the berries are blue.

Alternate-leaved Dogwood In Flower B Porchuk.jpg

Alternative-leaved or Pagoda Dogwood. Wortley Village, Canada. Plant it instead of E. Buckthorn.

Glenn, a friend and neighbour on my street inspired this article. He reminded me that a weed is really an unwanted plant, or one for which we haven’t yet found or identified a use. I find this wholeheartedly true. While I have reverence for E. Buckthorn, there is a proper place for it. It turns out it is sorely needed in England, where a species of butterfly (Brimestone Butterfly – below) is in decline, astonishingly and ironically because E. Buckthorn is vanishing from their countryside! Yes human induced landscape changes everywhere are having large ripple effects causing extinctions and inducing climate change. One sure fire way to mitigate these trends are to get ‘In the Zone’ (www.inthezonegardens.ca) and plant one or more native plants on your private landscape.

Brimestone Butterfly.jpg

The Brimestone Butterfly; it’s desperately in need of Buckthorn (in England). Photo Copyright Matt Berry.

A slightly modified version of this appears in the Wortley Villager Magazine, September Issue.