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Nov 27

'And so they forged their duality into oneness, making a forest'

Here’s an ancient idea: trees are sentient, social beings that communicate, recognize family members, learn and remember, adjust their behaviour and support each other through hard times. It’s an idea that speaks to the mystical within us, an idea we once learned, through myth, fable or aboriginal spirituality, and then unlearned, through religion or science. And now we can learn it all over again, in a way that turns the world around us into a place that’s new and exciting, but also comforting and familiar.

German forester Peter Wohlleben has pulled together two decades of scientific research and a lifetime of observing and tending the forest to explain in simple terms that yes, it’s true, trees have intelligence and feelings, they can demonstrate intra-species friendship, and experience pain and fear. Wohlleben, already a well-known author in his native land, has vaulted onto international best-seller lists with The Hidden Life of Trees: What They Feel, How They Communicate — Discoveries From a Secret World, the first of his books to be translated into English. In Canada, the book is published by Greystone Books in partnership with the David Suzuki Institute.

There’s an important Canadian connection: One of the scientists who has blazed a trail of understanding through the forest is Suzanne Simard, an ecologist at the University of British Columbia. In a contribution to Wohlleben’s book, Simard describes how, in the early 1990s, while searching for clues to the remarkable fertility of the inland temperate forests of the Pacific north-west, she unearthed a constellation of fungi linking many tree species. The discovery was the result of noticing that Douglas fir seedlings in clear-cut plantations declined when paper birch volunteers were weeded out. “This pattern of premature death had been concerning me for some time,” she writes. “The loss of synergy between broad-leaved trees and conifers, it turns out, was a concern of Peter’s, too. Across the forests of Europe, planting and weeding to create clean rows has been practiced for centuries.”
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Oct 16

Trees need their leaf litter - and they're not the only ones

Like many living organisms, a tree spends the summer preparing for winter, and indeed for the year ahead. Nutrients gathered from sun and rain and soil have been packaged and are now falling to the ground around the tree, contributing to a layer of leaf litter that performs a variety of essential functions.

As the litter builds up, it is occupied by an army of organisms that will assist in decomposition. Bacteria, fungi, algae, protozoa and nematodes are among the abundant and invisible life-forms that break it down. This process releases essential nutrients like nitrogen, phosphorus and sulphur in forms that are available for use by the tree and other plants. Other minerals leach down with precipitation to return to the soil.

But the litter is much more than a nutritional storehouse precisely tailored in content and in timing of release to the needs of the tree that produced it. It is a protective blanket, insulating the roots from the extremes of weather - frost in winter and drought in summer. The blanket absorbs rainfall, allowing the moisture to filter through slowly and guarding against soil erosion by wind or water. It suppresses the growth of grass and other plants that would compete with the tree for nutrients and moisture. And it increases the rate of soil respiration, an important measure of soil health.
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Sep 26

Doug Tallamy keynote speaker at OIPC/Carolinian Canada event

Return of the Native is proud to be one of the sponsors of Restoring Resilience: Big Impacts across Small Spaces, the 2016 Ontario Invasive Plant Council AGM & Carolinian Canada Ecosystem Recovery Forum, with keynote speaker Doug Tallamy. As anyone who has followed my blog or attended one of my presentations knows, Tallamy is an enduring source of inspiration at Return of the Native.

The event runs Tuesday October 25 and Wednesday October 26, 2016, at the Toronto Botanical Gardens – 777 Lawrence Ave E, North York, ON. There are off-site field trips to the Rouge Valley on the Tuesday and a series of interesting speakers on Wednesday - apart from Tallamy (details below), speakers will address topics like the building of a pollinator corridor across Hamilton, control of Dog-strangling Vine and Phragmites, the potential for non-native tree species to become invasive, and novel ecosystems.

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Sep 8

Glorious goldenrod

Yesterday, as we returned from an evening walk, a ray from the setting sun picked out a plume of goldenrod against the shade of a line of conifers. The fading light seemed concentrated in the brilliant mass of tiny star-shaped florets.

Look deep into the heart of a goldenrod and you may find a creature – this is a plant that offers abundant pollen and nectar, as well as playing host to the caterpillars of a multitude of insects. Those visiting to collect floral rewards include many species of bees and wasps, the Monarch and other butterflies, syrphid flies and many types of beetles. Also to be found, insect predators like the Ambush Bug or the Crab Spider. The seeds are eaten by birds, including American Goldfinch, American Tree Sparrow, Dark-eyed Junco, and Pine Siskin, as well as mammals like the Eastern Cottontail Rabbit.

Goldenrod (Solidago) came out at the top of a list created by Doug Tallamy, Professor of Entomology and Wildlife Ecology at the University of Delaware and author of Bringing Nature Home, who studied plants for their contribution to biodiversity on the basis of the number of species of butterflies and moths (Lepidoptera) they support. He found goldenrod plays host to 115 species, followed closely by asters (112), sunflowers (73), with members of the Eupatorium family (Joe Pye Weed, Boneset) coming in at 42.
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May 19

Wet peat trick, bird-killing burdock, hummingbird recipe, what not to plant, etc

There’s an old English saying, ‘Ne’er cast a clout till May be out.’ This is said to mean, don’t discard your winter clothing until the end of this month. Another interpretation is that ‘May’ refers to the hawthorn, also known as the Mayflower, and you should keep your long johns handy until the Mayflower is in bloom (probably in another week, for us).

Whatever the case, the message is that winter’s grasp has not been released until the end of this month and that’s why I never write off a plant as dead until June although this year I have serious doubts about my Buttonbush. I cannot find the slightest glint of a growth point on it. Buttonbush (Cephalanthus occidentalis) is a wetland shrub with gorgeous globe-shaped flowers that start to bloom in July. While many wetland plants (for instance, Meadowsweet, Joe Pye Weed, Spiderwort, Smartweed) do fine in dry conditions, the Buttonbush may not be so accommodating.

I recently planted some Bunchberry (Cornus canadensis), a low-growing dogwood that makes an excellent groundcover, with showy white bracts in spring and bright red berries in the fall. Various authorities state uncompromisingly that it requires moisture or it will die, so I used a method I learned from nursery industry veteran Keith Squires. I half-filled a bucket with peat, added water, came back, added more water, and repeated over the next couple of days. Keith says peat will absorb six times its volume in water so it has to be soaked repeatedly before it’s used. I dug the plant holes, laid a couple of handfuls of wet peat in each hole, added two inches of soil and then the plant. Once well covered, the peat will stay wet with the occasional recharging from rain, Keith says. It’s very important it stay wet, because when peat dries out it starts sucking in moisture, desertifying nearby soil. Regular readers will know I don’t like to use peat, but when it comes to accommodating wetland plants, a small amount will go a long way and I expect my bag of peat to last a few years.
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