Raspberries, Birds and Ecosystem Services

A recent article on the definition of ecosystem services sparked quite a debate among its commentators. There seemed to be disagreement on exactly what it truly means: some definitions are quite simplistic (e.g. claiming a simple resource, such as iron, fits the bill); others see it only from a human perspective. At the same time, some respondents applied ethics,  tying it up with human conservation management/engineering. Personally I found many of the arguments disturbing, considering they were coming (supposedly) from educated people in the scientific realm. But, then, sometimes it seems that scientists can suffer from tunnel vision due to specialization. Being a student of both environmental science and ecology requires a more comprehensive view of this world encompassing many of the sciences out there.

In my work, students are taught that an ecosystem service is a “network” of behaviors and or processes that, combined, provide important, if not necessary, functions for an ecosystem. It’s simplistic but since there are numerous such processes in place, it’s best to start humbly and get more detailed with specific examples. Can we humans benefit from ecosystem services? Certainly! But it is important to remember that such processes were in place billions of years before mammals were abiding on Earth, much less Homo sapiens, and do not function merely for human purposes.

Birds provide an excellent example of ecosystem services at work. While most of us are always conscious of their existence, the benefits they provide directly to ecosystems (and as a byproduct, to humans), is often overlooked. The simple pleasure of harvesting wild black raspberries this past weekend reminded me of yet another benefit provided by our avian friends.

Fourteen years ago I purchased my current home and property. It had two habitats, half for human use (house, lawn, neat rows of conifers, etc.) and a “wild” half, mostly left intact simply because it is too wet to be of much human use, although it was once a grazing field for Black Angus raised by the neighbors. By the time I moved in, the Angus were long gone and since then the wet meadow has increased in size while still leaving a substantial human habitat of ~1/3 acre.

One aspect of yard work I’ve always despised is the idea of trimming beneath trees so that lawn (or mulch) goes right up to the trunk. My philosophy is to mow as close as you can and let the rest be. And in areas for which there are no plans to garden or walk about much, leaves, twigs and what-not are allowed to drop and decay. This non-practice creates the conditions that alone allow to go forth the ecosystem service provided by trees, insects, decomposers and detritivores – adding important nutrients and creating more soil. And in these areas where soil supplementation is allowed to take place, the birds step in and add another.

After about 3 years on the property, I was investigating one of these spots where daffodils had been naturalizing. A sharp scratch on the arm confirmed the new presence of wild raspberries. When I excitedly shared the news with the family, they asked when I planted them. “I didn’t – the birds did”, I replied. The queer look on their faces made clear that an explanation was in order. A simple bulleted list told the story:

  • Birds eat wild raspberries
  • Birds fly off to other locations
  • Birds sit in trees
  • Birds defecate
  • Raspberry seeds are eliminated whole in bird droppings
  • Some seeds germinate and take root in the soil beneath the trees
  • Raspberry plants grow
  • Birds eat more raspberries and, now, so do we
wild black raspberries

First harvest of wild black raspberries (Rubus occidentalis) – 2 pounds and counting with plenty left for the Gray Catbirds!

Birds are among many animals that provide the ecosystem service of seed dispersal. Plants are all about reproduction and through evolutionary processes, numerous vectors of seed dispersal have come about. One such method includes plants putting enormous stores of energy into fruit production. This serves only to entice other creatures to eat it, taking the seed away from the parent potentially to be germinated.  Other vectors include wind, rain, burrs, etc., but fruit production provides such a far-reaching and overlapping service to an ecosystem by also provisioning food.

And those who eat the food are part of the entire process. So, GASP, even humans can be naturally implicit in an ecosystem service. Who would’ve thought!


Old Sol is the Reason for the Season

The months of Spring sThe Summer Sunet the stage for the most active season of the year – Summer. Both plants and animals take advantage of the warming temperature and more gentle conditions of Spring making it the most suitable time to prepare for the propagation of species.

It’s no coincidence that biodiversity is highest in tropical regions where climate is generally stable because the Sun’s rays fall more evenly year round. Such conditions offer increased chance of species survival which fosters evolutionary adaptations and genetic diversity. So, too, do the more mellow conditions of the Northeast Summer support the continuation of species that make their homes in this region.

Summer is the time of year when primary production, the bedrock of the food web, is at its height. The Sun is at its utmost zenith in the sky, which promotes increased food production in green plants, allowing for their growth and eventual formation of seed. The Sun’s position also brings warmer temperatures creating conditions where the insect world can escape from frozen conditions. Many insect species begin their lives in water or soil so can only reproduce when these elements are free of ice. Insects are second only to plants as a food source for a large percentage of animals and they even offer nutrition to some plants.

Since food and water are the essentials of life, it is when these basics are most available that activity among plants and animals are at their peak. Hence, the creatures brought forth in Spring and early Summer have a better chance at growth and survival while production in both the plant and insect world are at their apex.

Such are the cycles in the more extreme latitudes of planet Earth demonstrating that the Sun is key to all life. It is essential and vital in creating the conditions that foster the presence of oxygen, water, air and ocean currents, food and numerous other elements that make Earth the most beautiful and diverse planet in our Solar System. All hail the Summer Sun!

What to Know BEFORE Harvesting Wild Plants

Using the wonderful wild plants of Earth can result in so many benefits for our physical and spiritual health. However, all due care should be used in this process. And remember to be a responsible forager. When harvesting, ALWAYS LEAVE PLENTY OF SPECIMENS BEHIND! We want our wild herbs to reproduce so be sure to take no more than one-third (1/3) of a stand. In addition, certain plants only should be harvested during certain phases of their life-cycles. For example, Trout Lily should not be harvested if the specimen displays more than one leaf; it takes this plant more than one year to flower so do NOT harvest it if the plant is showing two leaves otherwise it may fail to reproduce. Also, if the plant is endangered (i.e. American Ginseng, certain ferns, etc.), DO NOT HARVEST – it might be illegal and certainly does not help them propagate for future survival. And remember, wildlife depend SOLELY on food available in the wild so be sure you are not taking from our fellow species. We can grow our own food but they cannot.

Trout Lily (Erythronium americanum)

Trout Lily (Erythronium americanum)

If you are not certain on any of the following, do not harvest but get assistance from a professional botanist, naturalist, or herbalist. We enjoy helping others learn these important skills.

1. Know the Species/Positively Identify: Do not presume what you are looking at is the correct plant. Refer to recommended field guides and use ONLY scientific names for proper identification. Many plants have the same common name but one may be radically different from another (Sumac, for example, can be beneficial or poisonous depending on the species). Always know the plant family because it may also be a potential allergen.

2. Know the Environment: Be certain that the area where the plants are growing is clean and free of potential toxins or wastes. For example, never harvest plants from along side a well used trail – quite often people walk with their dogs and we all know that dogs like to mark trails! Also, be cautious along roadsides – salt, asphalt and oil all have very negative impacts. And be sure you are not in a runoff area for roads, industry, conventional farms or livestock.

3. Know When to Harvest: Timing is everything when it comes to harvesting. The beneficial properties may be best at a certain time of the growing cycle. For example, Dandelion greens are best BEFORE the plant flowers. Sometimes a plant can become toxic after a certain point (Milkweed, May-apples). Some plants should be harvested in a specific year (particularly true for biennials). Be well versed in knowing the proper time to harvest wild plants.

4. Know the Plant’s Purpose: What effects will the plant have on the physical system? Be sure you know all the potential uses of the plant. Some plants are natural stimulants, others depressants, some are diuretic or cathartic, some have multiple uses (often depending on which part is used – see below), etc. Also, make sure you are aware of any potential interactions with medications or other herbal preparations you are using.

5. Know Which Part to Use: Some plants are usable in their entirety while others may have poisonous constituents (think Rhubarb). Do your research and know what part of the plant is helpful and what may not be.

6. Know How to Prepare: Plants can have a wide range of preparatory requirements from none to aged for months. And often the type of preparation is related to the benefit you are looking to gain from the plant. Some plants require preparation before consumption (Nettles) while others lose all benefits from being over-processed.

When you have a good working knowledge of all these KNOWS, you are in a good place to forage in the great outdoors for our botanic friends. If you have any question, hook up with someone who “KNOWS THESE KNOWS”. Happy harvesting!


Stalking the Healthful Herbs by Euell Gibbons

Peterson Field Guides: Eastern/Central Medicinal Plants and Herbs

Herbs: Partners in Life by Adele Dawson

Herbal Recipes for Vibrant Health: 175 Teas, Tonics, Oils, Salves, Tinctures, and Other Natural Remedies for the Entire Family by Rosemary Gladstar

Celebrate Arbor Day in the Northeast!

American Sycamore, a hardy and strong native that survived Buffalo's infamous October storm with little damage.

American Sycamore, a hardy and strong native that survived Buffalo’s infamous October storm with little damage.

Arbor Day is April 26th and what better way to celebrate than by planting a tree or shrub. Below are suggestions for native trees to plant in the Northeast United States.

Remember to ALWAYS purchase trees based on the Latin name to ensure they are native species.  Also, determine needed conditions for growth before your purchase.  Not only will you and your property benefit, you will also be doing a great service for wildlife. Happy Arbor Day!

American Beech – Fagus grandifolia

American Elderberry – Sambucus canadensis ^#@

American Hophornbeam – Ostrya virginiana

American Hornbeam (aka Blue Beech, Musclewood) – Carpinus caroliniana

American Sycamore – Platanus occidentalis +

Black Willow – Salix nigra #@

Common Witch Hazel – Hamamelis virginiana #

Eastern Hemlock – Tsuga canadensis

Eastern White Pine – Pinus strobus ^

Nannyberry – Viburnum lentago

Patriot Elm (disease tolerant cultivar of American Elm) – Ulmus patriot

Pin Oak – Quercus palustris @

Red Maple – Acer rubrum @

River Birch – Betula nigra @

Serviceberry (aka Juneberry, Shadbush) – Amelanchier arborea ^

Speckled Alder – Alnus incana

Striped Maple – Acer pennsylvanicum

Sugar Maple – Acer saccarum ^

Sweet Gum – Liquidambar styraciflua

Tulip Tree – Liriodendron tulipifera

White Ash – Fraxinus Americana ®

Winterberry – Ilex verticillata *@

Yellow Birch – Betula alleghaniensis

* Threatened/Rare

^ Food source

# Medicinal

® Threatened by disease/invasive insect

+ Salt tolerant

@ Tolerates moist soils 

Sugaring Season Off to a Slow Start

For the past 5 years, with the exception of 2012, tapping the beautiful backyard Sugar Maple has been an annual ritual. This is the easy part. The long days tending an open fire as syrup is produced pioneer style would be the more onerous of duties. However, it truly is enjoyable for one who literally likes to play with fire, has gardens to plan and piles of books awaiting perusal.

This season, however, the Sugar Maple has been slow to produce. Certainly the weather has not been very cooperative, rarely getting above freezing during the day. And on those rare days when 32F has been surpassed, it’s been cloudy, rainy and windy (the Acer saccharum are far more generous on sunny, 40F+ days).

But as I went out to check the buckets this morning, it occurred to me that I might have slighted that wonderfully productive Maple this year. You see, in anticipation of her usual generosity, it is common for me to conduct a small ritual of sorts, giving thanks to the tree before and after drilling the spile holes. But at the time of drilling this year, I was distracted by a “student” who had decided to begin his own annual tradition of tapping Maples and came by to watch the process in action. And so the job was done without the usual thanksgiving.

Sap buckets on the Sugar Maple

Sap buckets on the Sugar Maple

Many will think me a madwoman, but I do believe plants communicate with us. Certainly we see the results of overuse, over-watering, inattention, etc. through physical signs. But it’s been my experience that this communication can go much deeper. On The Acre there is an American Elm planted in honor of a dear friend and mentor who suffered a serious heart attack just under 6 years ago. The nature of the occasion demanded a small ceremony and ritual as part of the planting. Sadly, this friend passed on the next day and the tree is now a memorial to him. It was 6 feet tall back then and each day since, I have greeted “Herb” either directly outside with a hand on the trunk or at least from the window when time is limited. In the short spell that has elapsed since its feet took hold in the soil, this beautiful Elm has grown to nearly 25 feet tall with the branches reaching full and wide. Our Herb was never understated and it would appear his spirit inspires this Elm.

Another tree on The Acre communicated quite distinctly to me but on completely different terms. This lovely Apple Tree of an unknown variety produced small but quite tasty apples for many years, which happily were used in jellies, crisps and pies. Each pluck of a pome was accompanied by a word of thanks. However, this tree’s location was quite near the vegetable garden and, from time to time, needed trimming so to prevent it from shading the garden too much (pruning fruit trees is also essential for good production). Although I always went to the chore with a litany of apology, I often got the sense the tree was unforgiving since it often poked, stabbed and conked me when passing under, around or while mowing. The telling event was the time this apple tree punctured my ear drum with the jab of a small branch while I was merely walking by. Tit for tat, I suspect. Oddly, the tree came down in a wind storm a year later and I am now without its wonderful gifts.

These and other examples are enough for me to believe that we must be grateful for what these producers provide and thanks cannot be given to just some unseen power in the nether. And so this morning while checking on the sap run amidst the lilt of Tufted Titmouse song, I remembered my discourtesy to Mother Maple, offering a sincere apology and words of gratitude, followed by two arms reaching as far around her girth as possible. Perhaps on the next sap run check the buckets will be full.