Dry Winter, Dry Spring, Dry Summer

Erie County (NY) is officially in a severe drought.  With record low snows this past Winter, an unusually dry Spring and nearly rainless Summer, Erie County, especially the metropolitan ring of Buffalo, is experiencing some of the driest conditions in over 75 years. For the Spring/Summer season thus far, we are down 7 inches in precipitation with no relief in site for the foreseeable future.  While we do have a nice big lake to our west, many folks in our region rely upon well water.

Wild Black Raspberries

Moreover, this drought is extremely stressful for plants and, therefore, animals. On The Acre, we usually tend to the “formal” flower beds and vegetables (very conservatively, mind you) and leave the naturalized areas to fend for themselves. But the newer natives put in for habitat restoration are having a very difficult time of it so we’re beginning to irrigate small patches in order that some survive into future seasons. Even the well-established wild raspberries are in rough shape. These small, dry fruits are all we’ll harvest this year, choosing to leave the paltry remains for wildlife, giving them another source of moisture. The berries testify to the intensity of this drought – we usually harvest about 5 pounds each year and leave 5 times that much for wildlife.

Perhaps it’s time to open the sacred fire pit and start a rain ceremony. Ah, but it would be fool-hardy to have a fire in such dry conditions. Starlight and song will have to do…

Insect Pests? No such thing…

So many wild species struggle to survive in the face of human activity. Serious population declines over the last half century should instill fear in every human heart – we need these wild animals for our own survival.

  • 76% population decline in freshwater species
  • 70% decline in seabird populations
  • 68% loss of common birds in the United States
  • 40% of terrestrial populations lost worldwide
  • 40% worldwide loss in marine species

Humans, by-and-large, disdain insect and arachnid species, either fearing them or labeling them as pests. Reasons are, for the most part, based in ignorance of the value these animals provide. We call these ecosystem services and natural capital, functions rooted in Nature upon which Homo sapiens depend for our own lives.  Some of these, like the water cycle, are obvious to us – although we still foolishly complain when it rains. Also trees often get lots of credit for their oxygen production, however, when allowed to form a forest, trees up the ante on the services and capital we rely upon – erosion and flood control, water purification, lumber and paper products, etc., etc.

Insects, Spiders and other such animal species, however, do not get much credit for anything other than being “pesty”.  When one considers the full web of life, it does not take long to realize that these invertebrates are critical to all life on Earth. I might even risk saying that they are second only to plants in importance, which explains why they vastly outnumber all other animal species.

This 1st and 2nd place rating is no coincidence. Without plants, no animal eats – none of them. All food is based in the plant world – and many, many plants greatly depend upon insects in order to reproduce, be it through direct pollination services or the protection certain invertebrate species provide to plants.  Consider that approximately 75% of flowering plants rely on animal pollinators to reproduce. Of the over 200,000 species of animals who perform pollination services, 99.5% of them are insects, such as beetles, bees, ants, wasps, butterflies, and moths, or spiders.

Clearly we must educate ourselves on these essential animals.  We need them or Homo sapiens becomes extinct.  The factors that threaten invertebrates are far more than just fear and disdain. While we directly target some for annihilation with chemicals, others are being threatened by our use of resources – habitat loss, pollution (air/water/ chemical) and climate change being the top factors.

And our best-loved insects, the Butterflies, are not immune to humans’ insatiable use and misuse of natural resources. A recent study states that the Monarch Butterfly, an icon of Nature’s beauty, may be only 20 years from extinction. Why? Habitat loss in both its Winter and Summering grounds (they Summer and reproduce in Western New York), pesticides, genetically modified crops and climate change are the reasons.

And let’s think about those devaViceroyButterlfy_inHandstating population numbers above.  What is the link to the invertebrate world? Many of these animal populations feed upon invertebrates, be it the adults, larvae and/or eggs. Mosquitoes are a favorite food of both birds and freshwater animals. Is it any wonder there is a rise in Mosquito-borne disease recently? The interconnectivity of Nature is still a mystery and we need to understand these complex relationships as they relate to our own behaviors and use of the natural world.

What can you do to help reverse such trends? Here’s some suggestions:

  • Become knowledgeable about insects and spiders. Learn what services they perform that eventually trickle down to our own survival. And remember, the vast majority of these species pose no harm to you.
  • Put the chemicals and fly-swatters away. First, it is a losing battle – their numbers are too great and many evolve quickly to survive chemical applications. Instead, make sure your screens are tight and intact, turn off lights near windows and doors, use natural repellents (like citronella, cloves and lemon balm).
  • Create wildlife habitat, especially for those native pollinators in peril. All of Nature will benefit – see http://oakmossed.com/garden.php for lots of information on environmentally sound gardening, native plants and our invertebrate friends.

The future of Planet Earth is literally in our hands now. Our actions and failure to act will not only dictate the further existence of wild animals and plants, but our own existence, as well.

Sources:

An Oakmoss Summer

Our program line-up for the Summer of 2015 includes two field outings and a hands-on workshop in East Aurora, NY as we continue our mission to share the lessons of Nature to benefit the planet and all its inhabitants. Details and registration information available on our website. Please join us!

Twilight Trek
Saturday, July 11 – 7:00 to 9:00pm at West Falls Park. Enjoy an interpretive stroll through the woods and along the creek at dusk, one of the most active times of day as diurnal creatures wind down and nocturnal critters begin to rouse.

Field Flutterers
Saturday, July 25 – 9:00am to 11:30am at Knox Farm State Park. We’ll be seeking out the flighted creatures of the open field, be they insect or avian. From butterflies to birds, there are many species that fill the morning with activity.

Introduction to Herbal Concoctions
Saturday, August 1 – 1:00pm to 3:30pm at the Roycroft Campus Power House. A hands-on workshop in which students will become acquainted with incorporating common herbs into simple preparations for body care and overall general health.

Habitat Restoration Series: Native Plant Suggestions for Western New York/Southern Ontario – Part 5

Here is our fifth and final installment in our Habitat Restoration Series for Spring.
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Native Plantings for WNY/Southern Ontario – Submission #5 – Flowers and Herbs:
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Flowers

Full Sun – Dry to Moderate, Well Drained Soils

Yarrow (Achillea millefolium): Perennial with rhizome growth form so will spread over time. Excellent for very sunny areas that drain well. Tolerant of dry conditions but flowering can be affected in drought situations. Feathery, fern like leaves with bundles of tiny flower heads.

  • Wildlife benefits: May be used as nesting material for some birds
  • Human benefits: Several medicinal uses
Echinacea, a native composite, supports human health and feeds native pollinators

Echinacea, a native composite, supports human health and feeds native pollinators

Coneflower (Echinacea sp.): Perennial coming in many varietals. Tall plants, with daisy like petals and large rounded seed center (cone). Does best if NOT mulched. For best growth and spreading, divide every few years.

  • Wildlife benefits: Butterflies and birds
  • Human benefits: Certain varietals have immune boosting characteristics.

Full Sun to Part Shade – Moist, Well Drained Soils

Bee Balm (Monarda sp.): A member of the mint family, this tall perennial has long petaled flowers in pink, light purple and dark red. Pungent scent when leaves are crushed. Excellent companion plant for a variety of flowers and vegetables. Monarda will spread so divide every two or three years if you want to keep it neat.

  • Wildlife benefits: Bees, butterflies and hummingbirds.
  • Human benefits: Long used as an antiseptic, to treat headaches. and for seasoning foods

Joe Pye Weed (Eutrochium purpureum): Perennial with light purple flowers, this native of the Northeast United States made the transfer from wildflower to garden cultivar generations ago. Flowers from mid-summer to mid-autumn. Begin pinching the plants in early summer to help them be shorter and bushier. It’s a creeper so should be divided every two years if you want to keep it under control.

  • Wildlife benefits: Butterflies, bees and birds
  • Human benefits: Named after a New England Indian healer, it is reputed to have several medicinal benefits.
JoePyeBed

A bed of amazingly tall Sweet Joe Pye Weed dwarfing the Echinacea and Cardinal Flower

Cardinal Flower (Lobelia cardinalis): This beauty will do best when do-planted with taller plants which can filter the hot sun in warmer locales. It blooms in late Summer offering a showy finale as Autumn approaches. Most importantly, it is an important nectar source for Hummingbirds as they “bulk up” for the Fall migration.

  • Wildlife benefits: Hummingbirds, bees and butterflies
  • Human benefits: Traditionally used by the Hodinöhšönih (Iroquois) for a number of ailments. In the modern world, it is

Herbs

Although not truly indigenous to our area, many culinary and fragrant herbs do offer benefits to wildlife along with being just plain useful to humans. And cultivating your own herbs is the ultimate in locally grown.

Most herbs require full sun for at least 6 hours a day. All prefer moist well-drained conditions, although some make do under dry conditions for a time and are noted.

Thyme: Tolerates dry soils. Perennial that will spread so is good as a ground cover. Low growing and comes in several varieties.

  • Wildlife benefits: Bees and butterflies
  • Human benefits: Culinary and medicinal

Oregano: Best in moist, well drained environment. Can be perennial depending on variety. Some are tender perennial and may not make it through very cold winters.

  • Wildlife benefits: Bees
  • Human benefits: Culinary and medicinal

Basil: Best in moist, well drained environments. Annual. Many varieties available with varying pungency, flavor and color.

  • Wildlife benefits: Bees
  • Human benefits: Culinary

Lavender: Tolerates dry soils: Perennial with a number of varieties. Be sure to note the agricultural zone for variety chosen. Some varieties can get shrubby so pruning and thinning could be required.

  • Wildlife benefits: Bees and butterflies
  • Human benefits: Culinary, cosmetic, medicinal and ornamental

Sage: Best in moist, well drained soils but will tolerate moderately dry conditions. Many varieties available with varying pungency and color. Some are perennial; those that are tender perennials should be treated as annuals in our climate.

  • Wildlife benefits: Bees
  • Human benefits: Culinary and medicinal

Chamomile: Roman is the best variety for our region (Chamaemelum nobile). It can do well during dry spells but is not as happy during the heat of Summer so looks its best during the cooler times of the season. Prefers moderate, well drained soils.

Roman Chamomile - small bright flowers atop delicate fern-like leaves

Roman Chamomile – small bright flowers atop delicate fern-like leaves

Although a perennial, it is really an annual in WNY but readily re-seeds.

  • Wildlife benefits: Honeybees
  • Human benefits: Culinary and medicinal

Mints: Use care in planting mints because they WILL spread so consider confining them to containers, the only sure way to keep mints under control. Consider Lemon Balm, Spearmint and Peppermint. Note: While Peppermint and Spearmint generally spread via their root systems, Lemon Balm readily “jumps ship” so expect to find it popping up all around the area it’s been planted – it is easily harvested, however, and with so many uses, you’ll be happy for the volunteers.

  • Wildlife benefits: Bees and butterflies
  • Human benefits: Culinary and medicinal

Don’t miss our previous installment in this Habitat Restoration Series:

Habitat Restoration Series: Native Plant Suggestions for Western New York/Southern Ontario – Part 4

Here is the fourth installment in our Habitat Restoration Series for Spring.
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Native Plantings for WNY/Southern Ontario – Submission #4 for wet/moist soils:
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Catail (Typha latifolia)Common Cattail (Typha latifolia): Native to North American wetlands, shores, banks and even ditches, Cattails are an important species for wildlife. Red-winged Blackbirds (Agelaius phoeniceus) and certain species of duck and geese will use Cattail “groves” for nesting. Fish can find safety from prey and sun in the Cattails or lay their eggs among them (as do many other aquatic animals) while Muskrats (Ondatra zibethicus) and Canada Geese (Branta canadensis) use them as a food source. Growing from rhizomes, Cattails are generally found in clumps or stands where each individual is often a genetic clone of its neighbor. The dense growth of Cattails has other benefits, including filtration of water and erosion prevention. Traditionally, these plants were an important protein source in Spring among native peoples who also made use of the leaves for weaving baskets and mats, the fluff for insulation and padding, and fibers for string or paper. Cattails are being challenged for habitat by the invasive Common Reed (Phragmites australis) and can really use our help in getting established in suitable locations. So if you’ve an area where it is continually wet and soggy or is characterized by seasonal flooding, Cattails might be an excellent candidate. Wildlife will appreciate it and you will be able to enjoy those “sausage heads” swaying in the Summer breeze.

Previous posts in this series:

Winterberry (Ilex verticillata)
Elderberry (Sambucus canadensis)
Serviceberry (Amelanchier canadensis)

Habitat Restoration Series: Native Plant Suggestions for Western New York/Southern Ontario – Part 3

Here is the third installment in our Habitat Restoration Series for Spring.
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Native Plantings for WNY/Southern Ontario – Submission #3 for wet/moist soils:
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Serviceberry (Amelanchier canadensis)

Whether called Serviceberry, Shadbush, Shadblow, Juneberry or Saskatoon, the local name of this important shrub is tied to cultural legacy – the timing of flowering or fruiting often coincided with events like the running of shad, the arrival of traveling preachers, or the month of the year; saskatoon is a shortened version of the Cree name for this shrub, mis-ask-quah-toomina, and also points to this species’ predominance in the Canadian province of Saskatchewan. Historically, native tribes used Serviceberry for food (including pemmican), medicine and its hard wood for arrow shafts. So valuable was the dried fruit, Indians utilized it as a form of trade with arriving Europeans.

amelanchier_canadensisHere in Western NY, you will find Serviceberry is tolerant of a wide range of soils and light but probably does best in locations that are slightly acidic, moist but well-drained, and partially shaded to sunny. Is has more upright, rounded growth reaching anywhere from 6 to 20 feet, producing small white flowers in late April to May. Its food value to wildlife (songbirds, game birds, squirrel and many other mammals – including bear) is high and, like the elderberry, we humans can enjoy the fruit for pies, jams and wines. Serviceberry is our first fruiting shrub with its gifts ripening in June. Like most fruiting shrubs, its age determines maturity in terms of fruit production, sometime around 4 to 5 years. Ornamentally, Serviceberry, if planted close enough together, can form a natural fence or windbreak and its fall color is very vibrant.

Other than protecting young shrubs from nibbling Deer, this shrub needs little or no maintenance, which is a great bonus. Be advised, if you plan to harvest berries for your own use, prepare to net the shrubs early as our bird friends can easily strip them completely of fruit in one day. Here on The Acre, we net until ready to harvest but leave plenty for wildlife. If you’ve a number of Serviceberry plants, you can also net just one for your own use and leave the others available for critters. You’ll love the deliciously sweet fruits and wonder how you lived this long having not enjoyed them.

See our previous postings in this Series:
#1: Winterberry (Ilex verticillata)
#2: Common Elderberry (Sambucus canadensis)

Trees to Celebrate Arbor Day

In celebration of Arbor Day, here are some suggestions for trees native to Western New York to consider adding to your landscape. If you are unable to add a tree to your own property (or don’t own property) consider purchasing one of these from a locally owned nursery and donate it to a park, school or other worthy organization. Remember, life is always better when you slap your heart up against a tree and give it a big hug!

American Sycamore (Platanus occidentalis) 

This species is fast growing, long-lived (up to 600 years) and at maturity is among the largest indigenous trees of New York State with a substantial trunk and crown. It is characterized by a lovely multi-colored bark of gray, green, brown and ivory (resembling camouflage). It is quite tolerant of road salts so will do nicely in areas impacted by road drainage. It does equally well in very wet conditions and in drier terrain. Well known to naturally populate in areas that have been disturbed by construction, erosion, etc., so soil quality is not an issue. Other common names are Planetree, American planetree, and buttonball tree. Confirm the scientific name when purchasing your trees to be certain you are getting the native species.

Red Maple (Acer rubrum)

A species that can thrive in a wide varieties of habitats, the Red Maple can be a good choice for reforesting or creating a shady respite. Also called the Swamp, Scarlet and Soft Maple, A. rubrum is one of the most widely distributed trees in eastern North America, found from Florida all the way north to Newfoundland. and can tolerate soils from soggy to rocky. Under moist, fertile and well-drained conditions, the Red Maple can grow into a beautiful shade tree reaching about 80 feet tall at maturity and living up to 90 years or longer.

This species of Maple produces red flowers very early in the year, long before buds begin to swell, so is a true herald of Spring. It can either be monoecious (having both male and female reproductive parts) or dioiceous (either male or female) so it is best to plant 2 or three if the goal is to have it reforest an area. Red Maple is a prolific seed producer (double samaras in Spring) which germinate easily and so readily gives rise to subsequent generations. Be advised, however, that seedlings are a favorite food of White-tailed Deer so should be protected from browsing until trees reach about 4 to 6 feet tall.

As a bonus, Red Maple can be tapped for syrup and sugar production but, because it buds earlier than the Sugar Maple, sap extraction should be done only in the early part of sugaring season to ensure a sweet, quality product.

 

Eastern Hemlock (Tsuga canadensis)

We’ll diverge into the conifer world for our third tree by focusing on the Eastern Hemlock. This lovely native of Eastern North America (from the Smokey Mountains north to Ontario and Quebec) is special among the conifers in that it can co-exist in a mature forest of deciduous trees due to its wonderful ability to tolerate shade.  Once a tree or two take hold, if undisturbed, a grove of Hemlocks can begin to flourish as they reproduce via tiny seeded cones.

Known by naturalists for creating “blue shade,” the Eastern Hemlock is a very important tree for wildlife, particularly in Winter as it becomes food and shelter for White-tailed Deer who nibble on needles and bed themselves beneath protective branches. Birds and members of the Squirrel family also find relief from bitter winds and snows within the Hemlocks and enjoy the habitat a grove of these trees can create.

The Eastern Hemlock is also among the longest living trees in the East, maturing at about 200 to 300 years old and living to or beyond 800 years. Although a slow grower in its youth, the Hemlock can eventually attain heights of about 125 feet. It tolerates a variety of soil types, but does best in moist, well drained areas. It produces a lot of tiny cones, but its seed does not germinate easily, succumbing to various factors or staying dormant until conditions are right for germination.

Create yourself a nice windbreak and deep shade with the Eastern Hemlock and get satisfaction from knowing you are helping wildlife survive the toughest weather each year.