Thursday, September 10, 2015

Trees in Trouble by Gloria Alden

My daughter, another tree lover, in front of a giant sequoia in Yosemite. 
As I blogged a year ago, I love trees and have loved them since I was a kid. But from various diseases, and the introduction of invasive insects, many trees are in trouble including dogwoods. Not only that, but I heard with global warming, the maple trees we know in the northern parts of this country, may die off and only those in Canada will survive. But for how long even there?

When I was a young girl, the American elm was one of America’s most dominant trees. It was a common tree in the United States. The elm was a fast growing tree that could reach 100 feet. It lined city streets, was found in parks, woods, and was a popular tree used for shade and as an ornamental tree. Its tall drooping crown growing above divided trunks gives it a distinctive, vase-like appearance. Although once wide spread, many trees have been destroyed by the Dutch elm disease, a fungal disease carried by the bark beetle. It feeds on diseased trees and then moves on and spreads the disease to other trees. Birds and mammals feed on fruit and buds and make their homes in holes hollowed out by woodpeckers. Some mammals chew on the bark and twigs of younger trees. At one time its wood was used for boxes, crates, furniture, baskets and paneling. Although, it’s not extinct, there are very few left anymore.

The American chestnut was once one of the most common and important tree species in the Eastern United States. It could be found from Northern Florida to Southern Maine and west into Tennessee and Ohio. One of the reasons the American chestnut was so common was that it could out-compete most other forest trees for the available resources needed for tree growth. These trees got huge! They often had a diameter of more than 10 feet and grew to heights of well over 100 feet.

The American chestnut was extremely useful to those who lived in its range. The wood from the tree was fairly light, but strong, and easy to work with. It was used for furniture, shingles, siding, telephone poles and fence posts. It was a good wood for use outdoors due to the large amount of tannic acid in the wood keeping it from rotting for a long time. The chestnuts were an important food source for people, livestock and wildlife. The nuts were often gathered by the wagonload as they ripened and fell off the trees.

Then in 1904, the chestnut blight fungus came into the country on some Japanese and Chinese chestnut trees imported to the Bronx Zoological Park in New York City. The blight quickly spread to some American chestnut trees in the park through the air and throughout the entire range of the chestnut by the 1940’s. Any American chestnut tree which evolved without the presence of the blight, is not resistant to the fungus and is quickly killed off by it. The blight enters trees through cracks in the bark which appear once a tree is a few years old, and gradually kills the tree. However, the root system is not affected by the fungus so often sprouts come up, but once again, they are infected with the blight and die back again.
Hemlocks along a forest stream

Six or seven years ago when my siblings, a brother-in-law and I were backpacking along the Appalachian Trail in Shenandoah National Park, we noticed some dying hemlock trees and wondered what the problem was. We talked to a forest ranger, and he told us it was caused by the hemlock wooly adelgid, a small, aphid like insect native to Asia, that threatens the health and sustainability of eastern hemlocks and Carolina hemlocks in the Eastern United States. It was first reported near Richmond, Virginia in 1951 and by 2005, it was established in portions of 16 states from Maine to Georgia, where infestations covered half of the range of hemlocks. Areas of extensive tree mortality and decline are found throughout the infested region, but the impact has been most severe in some areas of Virginia, New Jersey, Pennsylvania and Connecticut.

the hemlock wooly adelgid
The range of the eastern hemlock stretches from Nova Scotia to northern Alabama and west to northern Minnesota and eastern Kentucky.  It’s also commonly planted as a tree, shrub, or hedge in ornamental landscapes.  For years and years I’ve camped in western Pennsylvania, and loved the hemlock trees along the trails and streams that were so common to the area. I hope it doesn’t come there.

Gypsy moth caterpillars
I don’t remember exactly when I became aware of the Gypsy moth invasion. Their normal range was Europe and Northern Africa, but somehow they made it to our continent and the damage they did was horrible. I remember traveling along an interstate in Pennsylvania on my way somewhere and seeing large swaths of trees denuded of leaves and looking dead. The Gypsy moth caterpillars have huge appetites, and about every ten years, gypsy moth populations grow very large and can completely strip trees of their leaves. If they attack a tree for two or three years, it may die. Sometimes they consume the leaves of hundreds of acres of forest at a time which is hard on birds that make their home there and for other forest animals. Their preferred trees are oaks, but hungry gypsy moth caterpillars can eat several hundred different tree species meaning very few are safe from them. Fortunately, scientists have developed control methods that have helped, and natural enemies of the gypsy moth have spread to keep the hungry caterpillars in check, too.

And now we come to the Ash trees. The Emerald Ash Borer, an exotic beetle was discovered in southeastern Michigan near Detroit in the summer of 2002. Most likely it came from Asia in wood packing. That was about the time my sister and I were on a camping trip in Michigan. We weren’t allowed to take any firewood across the bridge to the Upper Peninsula. There were huge bins to throw our firewood into before we could continue on.

I have many ash trees on my property, so I’ve been concerned about them. I have a large one dying, but I’m not sure if it’s from the ash borer or not. So far it’s killed tens of millions of trees in southeastern Michigan, alone, with tens of millions more killed in many other states and Canada. The adult beetle nibbles on the leaves and causes little damage, but the larvae feed on the inner bark of ash trees, disrupting the tree’s ability to transport water and nutrients.
Emerald Ash Borer 

I may be wrong about this, but I’m wondering if through the tree communication system, which I researched and blogged about earlier this year, my ash trees are aware of the damage that’s being done to them. I can’t see the damage because it’s happening under their bark, but the large ones know they’re dying and in order to keep the species going, they’ve been spreading their seeds throughout my property, in my gardens and everywhere little ash seedlings are coming up and turning into saplings. In my twenty-five years living here, I have never had so many of these little seedlings and saplings.
On a morning walk with my last collie before Maggie.
Weather permitting; I walk in my woods every morning. I find great peace there and it’s where I come up with ideas for plots, poems, or solve a problem with a short story or chapter I’m working on.  I feel a bond with the trees in my woods, and enjoy watching the changes throughout the year with the trees, and what grows under these trees like wild flowers, fungi, and young saplings.  Like all living things, some trees die and eventually fall from storm or rotted bases. Before the trees come down they furnish homes and food for many birds and mammals, and even the dead trees provide life for insects, birds that eat those insects and the fungi that feeds on rotted wood, plus a nice place to sit and rest for a while if I want. I can’t imagine having life with my woods almost or totally destroyed by some blight or invasion of insects

Do you have trees or have seen trees with the problems mentioned?


  1. I remember Dutch Elm disease here in the UK when I was young, Gloria. I was reading the other day about an interesting scientific project that is trying to work out why some trees survived while over 25 million were wiped out.

    When I was a child my Grandmother's house was out in the country and I used to walk in the nearby woods all the time. It was especially beautiful at bluebell time.

  2. Ann, I wasn't aware that the Dutch Elm disease was in the UK, too. I remember your beautiful picture of bluebells in the files of our Story and Chapter site. I wished so much I could see them in person. Someday, I'll be there to visit you.

  3. Thousands of ash trees in our area have been chopped down. The remaining trees (I have two in my yard) have to be injected every other year to prevent the emerald ash borer.

  4. I recently read about a town where the city government decided to chop down mature trees before they get infected. The hope is the action will stop the spread of the infection. The city will replace the mature trees with saplings.

  5. Margaret, that's so sad, isn't it. I didn't know there was something one could inject them with. However, because I have so many in my woods, it would be impossible to treat all of them.

    Warren, if they need any more saplings, I have hundreds I could send to them. Well, probably not because I don't have the time or energy to dig them up especially since we've been without rain for over a month now so the clay soil is as hard as concrete.

  6. We always hear about tree diseases and pests that came from Asia here; I wonder if the process has happened in reverse at all. Down south, pine beetles are a concern; whole swaths of pine trees have had to come down because of infestations.

    Nancy E.

  7. White dogwood in the woods surrounding my house have suffered greatly in the last few years.

    And acres of stone fruit orchards have been destroyed in a so-far successful attempt to stop the spread of plum pox.

    Nature is cruel, destroying huge numbers of some species. And human intervention seems to be more harmful than helpful in many cases.

    I cringe when I see those old photographs of lumbering, where proud men pose with huge trees they have cut down. Hundreds of years to grow, and maybe a week to transform into dead chunks of wood, each slice big enough to fill and entire rail car. And entire countrysides stripped clear to make charcoal. What were they thinking? What are we thinking now, as we continue to destroy forests?

  8. My neighbor's white dogwood trees have really suffered. It's sad to see strong and beautiful trees become so sick. The leaves are now yellow with black spots and the branches appear to droop.

    I remember your fascinating blog about the tree communication system, Gloria.

  9. Nancy, I didn't mention it, but there is something like you mentioned that attacks white pine's in our area in the north, too. Some of our pines manage to survive it, fortunately.

    KM, one of our favorite campgrounds is Cook Forest State Park in PA. At least it was until it became too commercialized over the years. I remember the pictures from the logging companies that cut down all the large pines in the 1800's and maybe the early 1900's. Fortunately, the forest came back, with a few really old ones still towards the top of one of the hills. They still have slices of those huge trees that were cut down - or did when the nature museum was still open. I so agree with you about cutting down the forests. I get upset when I hear that some state forests are allowing oil companies in to do fracking.

    Kara, losing the dogwood trees is sad. Such a beautiful tree it is. So far mine beside my
    back door still looks healthy, but I'm not sure about the ones in the woods because their
    tops are up in the canopy and hard to see.

  10. What an education, and how sad in part. When I first moved to Dade County (as it was then called) in Florida there were lovely stands of Dade County Pine. For those who don't know, this was the first choice of home builders from the turn of the century until the mid 1940s when two things happened, the trees became scarce (code word for expensive) and concrete and cinder block became the building material of choice. My first house was framed in DCP and the roof was tongue and groove DCP (overlaid with barrel tile of course). The attic wood was still sapping, and the house was built in 1950/1951. In the early 1980s the pines were attacked by a beetle. It wasn't too long before you could spot the DCP by their rust colored needles. And then they died. There are very few left. We have a glorious elm standing tall and proud just south of Ashland in ME. It was always a landmark for me on the Wallagrass/Bangor drive. Right now the sabal palms are undergoing a scourge in central Florida. So far, no one seems to know what is causing the deaths.

  11. We've lost a dogwood tree that I LOVE. Jim needs to cut it down, but I will miss it's funky limbs (that hold my favorite bird feeder). Trees are NOTHING to take for granted.

  12. The emerald ash borer is heading in our direction. They keep testing for it, but it hasn't quite crossed over from northern Wisconsin. We have problems with the spruce bud worm and it is coming back. We're also having issues with hemlocks and white birch--although the problems with white birch on my property were caused by beavers a couple years ago when they performed an unauthorized thinning.

    Around 1998-1999 we had a gypsy moth invasion. It lasted two years in peak mode and then crashed. Some of the weaker sugar and red maples on my property didn't recover from that one, but most made it through okay.

    One of the issues with some of the bug pests is that if the winters are cold enough, they can't survive and so are kept in check. However, with a few warm winters in a row, they can wipe out an entire industry.

    ~ Jim

  13. Kait, there's something so sad about the dying off of trees. I'm so glad you still have that big Elm up in Maine. Long may it live. Maybe the Dutch Elm disease will die out since there aren't very many elms anymore.

    Carla, dogwoods are such special trees. I love their flowers in the spring. I totally agree that trees are nothing to take for granted. That's why when I have loggers putting flyers in my mailbox, or even stopping in occasionally to see if I want my woods logged, I won't let them, of course. However, my next door neighbor whose woods adjoins mine, had his logged, and the saddest thing was seeing huge beech trees not only cut down, but left because they were hollow in side so couldn't be used for lumber.

    Jim, I have no running water - streams, etc. so beavers aren't a problem, but I have seen them in other places in PA, for instance. I have spruce trees all around my house, so I hope that problem doesn't come here. I agree with you about the winters. Last winter was so
    brutally cold, that I didn't see a lot of Japanese beetles, but it also dawned on me the other day that I haven't seen many butterflies this year, either, which makes me think the caterpillars in their cocoons were wiped out, too.