When my wife and I were looking at property just over a decade ago we'd had our share of city and suburb living and were ready to relocate into the country. We looked at numerous properties in the surrounding counties and eventually settled on several acres of wooded, mountain land quite literally in the middle of nowhere. Not everybody's cup of tea, I get it, but it was exactly what we were looking for.
We moved in during early November and spent the winter wondering what kinds of plants, animals, and other organisms we would find living here come the spring. We started cataloging some of the birds a mammals a little that winter but most of the plants had to wait until the spring when the property would truly come alive.
We knew that the property was great wildflower habitat, so we figured we'd have some interesting species, but we could never have predicted what was about to happen.
Sometime in the late spring of 2011 my wife came in from mowing the yard, and when she walked through the door she was more than a little excited. "I found a trillium!" she said.
"Where?" I asked.
"Down near the pond." She was excited. We'd been hoping to find some but had, to that point, not found anything on our walks.
"What kind is it?"
"I have no idea. It's not blooming." Well, that was a bummer. Here she had my interest piqued and then she dropped that bomb. Thanks a lot.
"It's probably a little late in the year," I said. "We'll just have to check it next year to look at it again."
So that's what we did. A year passed and we put the flower out of our minds. No use pondering over one thing when there's so much more to explore, but by the next spring, we were ready.
We took a walk to see if we could find it, and it didn't take too long before she had it in her sights. "Well, I see it, but I have no idea what it is," she said.
"Tell me about it," I said.
As she was describing it I realized it didn't sound like any trillium I had ever encountered before. While I was in college, I had taken several field botany classes and knew most of the trillium around here, but this one was odd. She didn't remember seeing anything like it either. So there was nothing to do but snap a few photos, go back to the house, and start researching.
So, we had a trillium, which was cool. The only problem was that we had no clue what kind it was.
When we got back to the house we pulled out every flower field guide, plant book, and app that we had access to. Marci even went back and tried to key out the plant using two different flora (specialized books for accurate identification of plant species) but had no luck figuring out what she was looking at. She finally got desperate and ended up googling the flower description.
To no avail.
The closest thing we could come up with was the yellow form of the Lanceleaf Trillium, but it hadn't been reported to be in our area, and what we were looking at was not all yellow, so we weren't sure what to think. You see, if a plant hasn't been reported to be within a few hundred miles of where you're looking, you probably haven't discovered something cool. You're probably on the wrong track.
"You need to send your pictures to a botanist and get the correct identification if you can't figure out what it is," I told her.
"Maybe," she said, with her nose still stuck in a book. She's the type who will do her darndest to figure it out on her own before she'll ask for help, and she wasn't ready to admit defeat.
So she went back through the reference guides again, determined to find it. It had to be in one of them somewhere. I suggested again that she find someone else to ask, and it was with unimaginable reluctance that she finally agreed to compose a couple of emails.
The first one was to the Tennessee Native Plant Society. The second was to a botanist at the University of Tennessee. This was a Sunday so we had to wait to hear back.
We got an email from one of the directors of the TNPS a couple days later and he confirmed that it did look a little like Trillium lancifolium but there were some aspects that looked a little atypical for the species. He asked some questions about the habitat and asked for more photos, which we provided.
We didn't hear anything from the university, but in their defense, I imagine they get a lot of random emails asking for help with identification of relatively mundane plants, and they have other things they have to do.
The TNPS got a botanist who was an expert on southeastern Trillium species involved. His name was Tom Patrick. And after a thrilling email exchange between us and several other botanists over the course of a couple more days, Tom confirmed that it looked like it could possibly be a new species. He told us about another new species of Trillium that had recently been found in a small, isolated population along the Wateree River in South Carolina. He said our plant looked a little like this Wateree Trillium but the morphology of the two didn't match. By that time, we had found about 20 plants near the initial one, so we were super excited that we might have something special since the experts were still puzzled.
Well, after an authority of that caliber weighed in, I guess the folks at the University of Tennessee figured out we weren't completely off our rockers, and two botanists from there were out on our property five days after the initial email was sent. They came out to collect DNA samples, and while here, did more exploring of the property than we'd been able to do up to that point. They ended up finding hundreds of plants farther on down the side of the mountain from our initial 20 plant discovery.
We couldn't believe our ears. We had even more? How was that possible? Later, when we had a chance to walk a little more of the property, we saw what he was right. We certainly had more plants than we initially thought. We still didn't know what we had but we were excited because the experts had not yet been able to make a conclusive identification.
Twelve days after the initial email we sent out, we had the first batch of DNA sequencing back, and it indicated that we may have a new species on our hands. It took a while to go through all the DNA analyses, but they were finally able to confirm that our little flower that we stumbled on quite accidentally was, in fact, a new species. We were over the moon.
The discovery was written up in a scientific journal and a couple of other regional publications picked up the story. There was some discussion about calling it Dunaway's Trillium but neither my wife nor myself are that full of ourselves so we settled on the name Tennessee Trillium (Trillium Tennessense).
It was immediately recommended to be placed on the Tennessee rare species list and is considered to be a rare and endangered species as of this writing. Other searches have been conducted and the plant is isolated to this part of the Bays Mountain range. There have been a few other small populations found, but, unfortunately at least two of those have been destroyed. One of the biggest areas was cleared for a horse ranch, and Trillium don't grow in open fields around here, so that population is no more.
In the ten years since all of this has occurred, we've become the stewards of this little species. Not only is it rare and endangered but we have the largest population that's been found to date. We have also been fortunate to meet some amazing people who were involved in the identification of the plant and it's recognition as a new species.
We've been honored to play host to dozens of native plant enthusiasts from as far away as Germany as they have toured the property to photograph our little plant. Over time, everyone who was involved in the identification was finally able to come out and see it. It took Tom Patrick, the Trillium expert who was so instrumental in getting the ball rolling, a couple of years to find the time to visit during the brief flowering period, but he was finally able to make it. Unfortunately, he died a few years after we had the chance to meet him. We were grateful that he had the opportunity to see it before he died.
In the years since, we've had a few groups of people who knew Tom that have asked us if he was able to see the flower before he died, and they've been very pleased when we told them he did.
This year, the 10th anniversary of the discovery, the very last of the people who was instrumental in our initial identification was finally able to come out a few days ago to see the plant for the first time. Fortunately, the plants are still in full bloom right now, even though it's a little late in the year for them to still be blooming in those numbers as the peak usually occurs in April.
In truth, the way it all went down is pretty amazing. The only reason we settled where we are is because it was close to where we worked but not too far away to be a burden for the family to come visit. And then I think of all the properties we looked at when we were getting ready to buy and remember that we almost pulled out of the sale of this one before it went through. I realize that we could have very easily ended up somewhere else and it is likely that no one without a biology background would have ever known this plant existed.
All I can say at this point is that I feel very fortunate we chose this particular tract of land in this little area of the state on the day we did. It's almost like the little plant was waiting on us to find it, and now that we have, we're looking into a life trust to make sure nothing ever happens to our little botanical treasure so that it is protected long after we're gone. We've found some other neat stuff over the years, like an unnaturally high number of Purple Finches and Box Turtles, both of which are in serious decline in their geographical ranges. We've also discovered that we have Synchronous Fireflies and Tennessee Marble on the property. So all in all, we have come to understand that we bought a pretty cool piece of property, but even with all that, nothing we've found comes quite close to the discovery of a new species: the Tennessee Trillium. You can find links to read more about the plant below. Until next time.
Building a backyard bird habitat can be as simple or as difficult as you'd like it to be. But there are a few basic things that can turn a simple backyard setup into a true haven for your avian friends.
1. A birdfeeder. Sounds simple enough, right? The problem is that when you walk into your neighborhood farm or hardware store that sells bird accessories, you may quickly become overwhelmed with the sheer variety of feeder options available. There are ball feeders, hopper feeders, tube feeders, platform feeders, window feeders, suet feeders, thistle feeders, nectar feeders, fruit feeders, and squirrel feeders. (Wait, did I just make reference to actually feeding these oversized tree rats? Yes, I did, but more on that later).
The most important thing you're going to want to consider when buying a feeder is the type of yard you have and the type of neighborhood you live in. If you live in a neighborhood with squirrels or raccoons, you will want to choose a sturdy feeder that probably has some type of squirrel guard to keep them from cleaning out your whole feeder in a matter of hours.
You'll also want to be careful not to let your enthusiasm for your new hobby to become overwhelming. Start small with only the number of feeders you know you can maintain. For most beginners a single feeder or maybe two is a good start. Remember that feeders will need regular filling and cleaning, so be sure to think about how much time you're willing to invest before putting up 20 different feeders that get neglected because you didn't have as much time as you thought you had. It is important to remember that the more feeders you have the more birds you can support and the more of them you'll see in your backyard. One or two feeders will support some birds but three or four can support many more, so it's really a tradeoff between how many birds you want to attract and how many feeders you have the time and resources to commit.
Ball feeders and window feeders tend to work for smaller birds while thistle feeders tend to attract specific species (think American Goldfinch here). Single and triple tube feeders tend to attract a wider variety of birds and also tend to hold more quantities of seed, which means you have to fill them less frequently. Platform feeders come in a variety of styles from ground to hanging varieties. I have made some to attach to deck railings and if you're handy, they're not difficult to make.
2. Birdseed. Here again you have multiple options to choose from and you can keep it as simple or make it as complicated as you like. Personally, I like to offer a variety of feed types in order to attract the widest variety of birds possible.
Wild birdseed - this is usually a mixture of red millet, white millet, sunflower seeds, and sometimes cracked corn. This tends to be the cheapest type of feed available and there is a lot of variability between brands. Some birds prefer this mix as they tend to like smaller seeds, but you'll need to experiment with different brands to see which one your birds prefer.
Black Oil Sunflower seed - this is the go-to, all-around seed that most birds will eat. While they may sometimes prefer a different kind, most of them will eat sunflower seed, so if you're only going to buy a single kind, this one is your best bet. It is a little more expensive than wild birdseed, but it's cheaper if you buy in bulk, and you can shop around at different places in your town to find the cheapest.
Striped Sunflower seed - this is a large, striped seed that birds with larger bills tend to prefer, but other birds will eat it as well. Squirrels also tend to love this type of seed as well as they get a bigger seed for their effort, and since it's one of the more expensive seeds you can buy, this may or may not be something you want to offer. I will usually mix striped and black oil in a feeder that is large enough to accommodate both types.
Safflower seed - this is a smaller seed with a white shell that a lot of birds tend to enjoy. It also tends to be a little more expensive. If you've only been feeding one or two types of seed, be patient as the birds may not take to it right away. But in my experience, it tends to become one of their favorite types of seed once they get used to it.
Suet - this is a mixture of rendered fat mixed with seeds that comes in a number of varieties. It's a favorite of many species of birds and woodpeckers in particular. There is high energy suet, which is the cheapest and also one of the more favored varieties, but squirrels and raccoons tend to like it as well. To remedy that problem, you can buy hot pepper suet which the birds don't mind at all, but the mammals don't like the heat, so they tend to avoid it. Other than buying pepper suet, there isn't much you can do to keep squirrels and raccoons off your suet. Your only option would be to pole-mount the suet, put a squirrel baffle on the pole underneath it, and place a little more than jumping distance from the nearest climbing surface. In addition to the high energy and hot pepper varieties you can get a number of what I like to call designer suet. I refer to them in this way because they come in fancy flavors such as peanut butter, raisin, fruit and nut, apple, insect, mealworm, and others. Personally, I tend to avoid them because they are more expensive, and squirrels can take care of a $1.10 high energy cake or a $2.30 apple cake in the same amount of time.
Mealworms - Don't get grossed out here because these are an excellent addition to a good feeding station as they provide a high level of nutrition, particularly during nesting season. You can get them in live or dried varieties. Obviously, the dried varieties tend to be easier to deal with as you can store them with your regular birdseed (keeping live mealworms is more complicated), but birds can sometimes be picky with these, especially if they've been fed live mealworms previously. But if you want to give it a try, just put out a few and be patient. Once the birds realize how good they are, they'll become regular visitors. Another thing to think about is that not all birds eat seeds, so you may be able to attract different species that you wouldn't otherwise see at your feeders.
3. A water source. You get thirsty when you eat, right? Well, so do our feathered friends. Birds need a regular source of fresh water just as much as they need food. This doesn't have to be complicated but they do need a reliable source of clean water, that is ideally changed every day to avoid algae growth. This is where you should try to keep it simple. You can buy hanging bird baths that have small, shallow bowls that can be easily dumped and washed. You can use bigger, heavier, concrete bird baths, but these tend to be a problem in the winter as they will likely crack. You can buy bird bath heaters for larger baths but, personally, that's getting more complicated than I want to deal with.
A note on squirrels. I made mention above about feeding the squirrels, so I probably need to explain what I meant by that. Over the years I have lost many battles with our long-tailed friends and have learned one big lesson: learn to live with them. Sure, you can buy baffles, squirrel proof feeders (some of them are pretty good), and cayenne pepper powder to mix in with your seed (which is highly dependent on how much water can get to your seed), but this can run into a lot of time, effort, and money. I have found that it's helpful to have some squirrel proof feeders and some feeders that you're willing to let the squirrels use. There are wire mesh feeders that squirrels tend to like to use as they can hang on them while they eat, but the design of the feeders means the squirrels can't dig out the seed as easily as they can in a tube feeder. The result? They can't eat nearly as much as they would otherwise.
I also find that it's nice to have a corncob feeder or a platform feeder with corn in it and the squirrels will often gravitate towards that. They can actually be cute to look at when they're sitting on a little seat munching on a cob of corn. And if you give them some things they like, and some feeders that they'll use more readily, they will often stay away from your other feeders. With a little work, you might be able to come to a happy compromise with them so you're less stressed out about them.
Click here to watch some videos of the birds that have come to my feeders.
Today marks the end of the first full week of spring, and if you're like most folks, that means the beginning of lawn mowing season. Whether you love it or hate it, mow it yourself, ignore it as long as possible, or have it done professionally, grass is something we all have to deal with in one way or another.
What kind of grass is in your yard? Blue grass? Fescue? Bermuda Grass? Weeds? "Just the green stuff"? If you're among those who take a lot of pride in your lawn then you may very well know what type of grass you have growing in your yard. But if you're like a lot of us, you may have no clue and have probably settled with whatever was growing there when you moved in or whatever type of seed or sod you put down yourself.
If you are one with the manicured lawn and think that native grasses have no place on your property, that's not true. And if you're thinking that native grass is too much of a bother or isn't worth the time and effort, you may want to think again. When it comes to native grasses, there's really something for everyone.
Getting started with native grass species can be as involved or as simple as you want, and they can fit in very well in all types of yards including well-landscaped ones. Not only that, but they are a valuable resource for many of the critters around you, but we'll talk more about that in a little bit.
I've thought about planting native grasses for several years since I learned about coordinated efforts to restore native grasslands, and this year I'm finally going to do it. Even though I'm primarily a creatures and critters biologist, I have a decent background in botany, but even with that, there was still a lot for me to learn, and I thought I'd share some of that with you.
Wait, Aren't All Grasses Basically the Same?
Nope. Actually there are around 12,000 species of grasses across the globe, but of course not all of them can be found in North America. There are hundreds of species here in the U.S.; however, many of them may not fit your image of what grass looks like. Nevertheless, they each have their their own specific requirements, uses, and species they benefit.
There are the introduced species that many of us are familiar with in most lawns today and then there are the ones that have been on this continent since long before most of our ancestors ever set foot here.
When European settlers first came to America, the landscape looked very different from the way it does now. Of course there wasn't the population expansion we have today, but it's more than that. The prairies and plains were covered with numerous native grass and plant species, and there were major portions of the landscape that were nothing but grasslands covered with species such as Big Bluestem, Virginia Wild Rye, Switchgrass, June Grass, Indian Grass, Muhly Grass, Tufted Hairgrass, Sleepygrass, Panic Grass, Ticklegrass (yes those are real names), and hundreds of other grass and plant species.
But over time, as settlers moved west, native grasses fell victim to overgrazing, ranging, farmland cultivation, and the formation of towns and cities. Eventually, the native species that were once widespread sources of food, shelter, and habitat for so many animal, bird, and insect species began to decline.
Nowadays, particularly in the Midwest and Great Plains, these native species only exist as remnants of their original populations, as farmland has taken over. And in many other parts of the country, they have been completely replaced by the the manicured turf that has become the standard for the American lawn.
Now, before you think I'm anti-farm or saying you shouldn't be proud of your lawn, that's not where I'm going here. I'm just suggesting that if we try to fit in a few native species in a small spot somewhere on your property, that these small steps can can make a big difference.
Okay, I'm With You So Far, But Is Native Really All That Important?
Yes it is, and for lots of reasons. One of them is to make life easier on yourself. You see, grasses and other plants native to your area have adapted to grow in your specific part of the country. That means they're already comfortable with the soil type, climate, relative moisture or dryness of the soil, insects, and so on. As a result, they don't need the extra care, watering, and fertilization that the introduced species need, so they're easier for you to take care of (a.k.a. less time out of your busy schedule), and they're also better for the local ecosystem and the environment as a whole.
Another reason to plant native is that these plants can add interest, texture, three-season color, and movement to your landscape. Have that area at the back of your flowerbed that needs a little height or a little something different? Try Big Bluestem.
Is your landscape looking a little bland by the end of the season? Many of the native grass species take on striking colors in the fall when everything else is beginning to die off. For texture and visual interest there are species that have interesting seed heads (think Northern Sea Oats). Or you can try Purple Love Grass for a way to add color and a soft texture to a hardscape. You get the idea. There's a lot you can do here.
And then there are the critters. Native grasses that tend to grow in more clump, or bunch-type, forms provide excellent cover, habitat, and nesting areas for many species of birds and also provide a food source for not only birds but a number of different animal and insect species. Did you know that there are 14 butterfly and moth species that are associated with Switchgrass alone? It's true. In fact, over 70 species of butterflies and moths depend on native grasses in at least some parts of their life cycle. And it's not just butterflies and moths that benefit. There are literally hundreds of different species that can do better if we provide them with the plants they really need to thrive.
And do you have that place in your landscape that is constantly falling victim to soil erosion? They can help with that as well. And if they're planted in or near farm fields, they can improve water quality because they reduce sediment and nutrients in the soil and stop them before they can enter the water supply.
Have I sold the idea yet?
Maybe. What Do Native Grasses Look Like?
The first thing to know is that native grasses tend to be taller and wilder than our closely manicured cousins, and while some tend to grow in turf form, many of them grow in clumps.
There are also cool season and warm season grasses to consider. Cool season grasses tend to grow best in the spring and fall while warm season grasses tend to do better in the warmer summer months.
Cool season grasses also tend to become established more quickly (one to two years) while warm season grasses can take two to three years. Warm season native grasses also tend to have deeper root systems and are more tolerant to poor soils and drought than some other species. Warm season grasses are typically clump grasses while cool season grasses are usually turf grasses.
If you are looking for a shorter-growing species then you're probably going to want to go with a cool season grass. Some shorter-growing species include Buffalograss (Bouteloua dactyloides), Red Fescue (Festuca rubra), and Sedges (Carex species).
It's important to know that if you're wanting to re-establish your lawn with native grasses, that most of the native grasses don't form the short, tight, turf-type lawns we're accustomed to, but if you choose the right species and give it enough time and patience, you can get the native shorter-growing species to come together to make a nice lawn that requires much less maintenance than introduced lawns.
Native Grasses on a Smaller Scale
Personally, I'm not planning on digging up my whole lawn but I'd like to still have some native species to work with. I'd also rather work with plants themselves than with seeds. The plants are a little more expensive, but I personally like the convenience they provide, and since I'm not looking to reseed a whole lawn, the cost won't be prohibitive.
I've been ordering native plants online from a site called Prairie Nursery. but they sell seeds as well. I really like this site because they provide a range map on each product's page to help you see whether the plant you're looking for is found in your state and their map even goes down to the county level. This is a great resource for those of us who want to try to get more native plants into our landscape and aren't always sure which plants to buy that are specific to our region.
Establishing Native Grasses on a Large Scale
This section will be useful if you're planning on re-seeding your whole lawn or a field, but it will definitely require a lot of work.
Native grasses tend to be slower to sprout in the spring, and they can easily be out-competed by introduced cool-season grasses and broad-leaved weeds. This means that these competing grasses and weeds will need to be thoroughly controlled prior to planting large areas of native grass, and this process could take a full year before the native species can be planted, particularly if you're going to be planting a very large area.
Personally, I almost never use herbicides because of their environmental impact, but if you're looking at planting a large area, such as a lawn, that has a particularly aggressive weed population, you may have to to plant a cover crop, like spring oats, and treat with an herbicide that is specific to what you're trying to kill (just try to avoid broad-based herbicides).
If you're determined to use a herbicide and want to learn more about how to choose one that is less persistent, Penn State has an excellent brochure that explains herbicides in great detail. You can get that brochure below. But if you're willing to do a little more manual work, you can cultivate the growing area and then manually take care of undesirables as they come up.
Native Grass Seeds for Large Scale Planting
If you're looking to establish a new lawn or field or reseed your existing one, buying native grass seeds is going to be more economical and practical than buying plants.
Native grass seeds are sold in pounds of Pure Live Seed (or PLS) which is the percentage of viable seed in a given lot. This is important because native grasses tend to be much lower in purity and germination than introduced species, and it helps you to determine how much bulk seed you need to apply.
When choosing your seed you'll also want to consider when you'll need to order the species you select because it's not likely that these are going to be stocked at your local seed supply store.
Once you choose the type of seed you'll need to settle on which tools you need to get it in the ground. If you're planting on a large scale you're probably going to want a specialized seed drill, or a corn planter, or you may even need a native seed drill for some species that have fluffier seeds. However you go, you're probably doing to want to try to disturb the soil as little as possible as planting in undisturbed soil significantly decreases the chance of germination of weeds that may be present in the soil, and it helps to avoid soil erosion. A no-till drill is helpful here.
A great source for finding native grass and wildflower seeds for the eastern U.S. is Roundstone Seed. You can buy seeds and seed mixes from packets to ounces to pounds. There is a wealth of information on this site, and I've included an informative brochure on establishing native grasses from Roundstone Seed at the bottom of this post.
If you're in the western U.S. you can check out Western Native Seed.
If you're looking for wildflower and native grass seeds and seed mixes for specific regions of the country, you may also want to check out American Meadows. Just note that American Meadows also sells species that are not native, so make sure what you're buying specifies that it is a native grass.
Notes on Specific Grasses
Here is some very basic information on just a handful of native grass species you may encounter if you're searching in primarily the eastern U.S.. But remember, this is just an example because there are many more species than I could even begin to list here:
1. Switchgrass (Panicum virgatum)- Deer and rabbit resistant. Grows in a number of types of soil. Drought tolerant. Grows in clumps of blue-green and produces wispy seed heads in the summer. Spreads quickly and can take over an area. Bobwhite Quail tend to love Switchgrass.
2. Little Bluestem (Schizachyrium scoparium) - Silvery-blue blades that grow from 1 to 3 feet tall. Heat and drought tolerant. Great for erosion control.
3. Pink Muhly Grass (Muhlenbergia capillaris) - Grows in mound form from 1 to 4 feet tall. Produces clusters of small pink flowers in the summer. Produces seeds treasured by sparrows and goldfinches.
4. Indian Grass (Sorghastrum nutans)- Very tall, blue-green (not as dark as Bluestem). Good fall color.
5. Prairie Dropseed (Sporobolus heterolepis) - Shorter (about 2 feet tall). Has fine, hair-like foliage, good fall color, and interesting seed heads.
6. Big Bluestem (Andropogon gerardii)- Tall (5 to 8 feet). One of the most widespread native grasses. Turns a beautiful deep red color after the first frost.
Some of these grasses are ones I'm planning on planting myself and I'll cover how that's going in a later installment. I'll also talk about what's being done throughout the country to help re-establish native grasslands including what the most visited national park is trying to achieve.
That was a lot wasn't it? I know. But in reality, I've only scratched the surface of what there is to know. But if you find yourself completely entranced by what you've read and want to know more, there are some excellent resources to help you learn more below. I'll keep you updated on my grass adventure in future posts. Just keep your fingers crossed that it all goes well. Until next time.
1. Here are a couple of links for grassland associations to help provide information and education on species in your area:
Southeastern Grasslands Initiative
Western Grasslands Initiative
2. This is a brochure about native grasses and how they impact wildlife from the Natural Resources Conservation Services and the Wildlife Habitat Council. You can download it here.
3. Here is a very informational brochure about establishing native grasses and forbs (flowering nongrassy herbaceous plants) on a large scale from Roundstone Seeds.
4. Here is a brochure from the National Resources Conservation Service on Establishing Native Grasses that I found to be quite helpful if you're looking to re-establish your whole lawn.
5. If you own farmland the USDA Farm Service Agency has a program that can allow you to make money by planting native grasses on your land. Click below for more about that program.
Unfortunately, yes. But this time it’s not feeding on hemlocks. Instead this one prefers true fir trees, and it's called the Balsam Wooly Adelgid (Adelges piceae). It is a native of Europe, where it feeds on the Silver Fir, and was introduced to eastern North America in the early 1900s. It is believed to have traveled to states on the west coast by the late 1920s and into the southeastern United States by the 1950s.
What is a "true fir" you ask? If you'll allow me to take a rabbit trail here, I'll explain it. A true fir is any tree in the genus Abies (family Pinaceae). These trees are all evergreen and have needle-like leaves and cones that stand upright on the limbs where they stay until late summer. They also tend to have more or less the typical Christmas tree shape and tend to grow in mountainous regions. There are 48 to 55 true fir species across North and Central America, Europe, Asia, and North Africa.
One of the more common firs many people are familiar with is the Balsam Fir (Abies balsamea) which is a common choice as a Christmas tree.
Another common Christmas tree is the Fraser Fir (Abies fraseri). Unfortunately, this appears to be one of the trees most seriously impacted by this particular adelgid and will typically die off after only a few years of infestations.
And yet another common Christmas tree is the Noble Fir (Abies procera). I could go on, but you get where I'm going here.
On the west coast, this adelgid tends to prefer Subalpine Fir (Abies lasiocarpa), Pacific Silver Fir (Abies amabilis), and Grand Fir (Abies grandis).
In addition to the ecological devastation an insect infestation can have, it can also have massive economic impacts as well. And in the case of the Balsam Wooly Adelgid, this tiny little bug can even impact your choice of which Christmas tree you might be able to bring into your home.
Before we talk more about the adelgid itself, allow me to get on my soapbox about invasive species. Remember back to the beginning when I mentioned that this adelgid is from Europe and feeds on Silver Firs? Well, as is typically the case with invasive species, where it exists naturally it has natural predators that keep their populations in check, but when they invade a new area, there are no natural predators, so the population can explode and grow out of control.
In the case of invasive adelgids, the trees the impact don't often die in the first season, but their resistance is worn down over several seasons, and some trees are affected at a faster rate than others. The picture below is of dieback that has occurred in Utah as the result of this adelgid.
If enough trees are fortunate enough to survive the invasion then they may be able to develop a natural resistance over time and eventually co-exist with the adelgid, but the problem is that doesn't typically happen. What usually happens is that the insects become too numerous, and cause too much damage, that the tree doesn't have a chance and dies off before they can begin to develop any real resistance.
How can you recognize it?
The Balsam Wooly Adelgid is a small, soft-bodied insect that first appears as a small, white, wooly spot on true fir trees. They are small and hard to find, and are usually on the tree for several months before damage begins to appear. They typically cause something called "gouting" on the trees. The USDA describes gouting as "swollen, deformed branches and persistent woody swellings at branch nodes and terminal buds, and bark calluses." The result? Before the trees actually die, their growth and appearance are affected, which means that trees that were slated for commercial use are no longer marketable. Below is a picture of swollen tissue in the twigs of a tree.
There are four stages in the lifecycle of the Balsam Wooly Adelgid: egg, crawler, stationary immature, and adult. The entire population of these adelgids in the U.S. are female. Females are capable of reproducing without males, and each one can produce as many as 200 eggs that are exact genetic copies of the adult. When the egg first hatches, the emerging young are referred to as crawlers, and these are the only locomotive forms of this adelgid. They can move on their own throughout the tree or can be carried for longer distances via wind or animal dispersal.
Once the crawler finds a good spot to feed, they insert their mouthparts into the bark and never move again. Their first winter is spent dormant on the tree as the stationary immature form. In the spring, the immature adelgid begins feeding again and goes through several molt cycles as it transforms into an adult. In some areas there are two lifecycles per year and where this occurs, adult populations peak in both the spring and fall months.
The adults are small (about 1mm in length), dark purple to black, nearly round, and wingless. It is the adult that produces the waxy, wooly substance that serves to protect both the adult and her eggs until they can mature.
Here is a picture of the underside of a female Balsam Wooly Adelgid. Note the stylet that is pointed out in this image. The adelgid uses this feeding tube to puncture the bark and feed off the tree itself.
Once the stylet is inserted, the adelgid injects a substance into the tree that causes abnormal wood growth and interferes with the proper transport of nutrients and water in the tree.
The initial infestations typically cause the most destruction as the adelgids have encountered a new supply of susceptible trees. Because all the adelgids are capable of reproducing, the population growth tends to be exponential. There is typically a lot of tree death in the first few years after an infestation, but the later waves are usually less destructive due to fewer host trees. It takes several years for new trees to grow large enough to become susceptible host plants. It does appear that once adelgids colonize a stand of trees then they are there permanently.
Management and control of the species
Several insects and spiders may feed on the adelgids, but none have been shown to have a preference for this species in particular. There have been several predator insect species introduced from Europe, but these haven't been shown to have a significant effect so far. If the trees that are attacked can survive for more than 1 to 2 years they may develop a wound layer that is impermeable to insects, but this is not widespread throughout the tree and, as the tree grows, it continues to be susceptible to new attacks.
In the northern latitudes, only adelgids below the snowline will survive the extreme cold, so trees in extreme elevations may be less susceptible than lower elevation individuals.
What about insecticides?
Since the adelgids are hidden in crevices and protected by their wooly coating, arial spraying of large areas is not really effective. Spraying individual trees from the ground has shown to be effective, however. Contact insecticides applied directly to the bark have been shown to be effective against the crawler stage. Insecticidal soaps and oils have been shown to be able to penetrate the waxy coating but it is important to get the timing right so the foliage isn't burned.
The good news is that these adelgids can be managed, but it takes vigilance and consistency to keep their numbers under control. That works fine for Christmas tree lots where individual trees can be monitored and treated, but in the wild, the reality is that this bug has wreaked havoc.
A disturbing example is in the most visited national park in the U.S., Great Smoky Mountains National Park. The Fraser Fir is the only fir species endemic to the Southern Appalachian Mountains and is restricted to high elevations in southwestern Virginia, western North Carolina, and northeast Tennessee.
It has been reported that over 90% of the original population of Fraser Firs in the Smokies has been killed. Below you'll see some stark images to illustrate this point. These pictures were taken in the highest elevations of the Great Smoky Mountains National Park. Pay particular attention to the mountainside in these images where you'll see areas of green interspersed with brown tree remnants. Those dead trees are the Fraser Firs. A quick drive through the highest elevations of the park, up Highway 441 and Clingman's Dome road, will provide excellent views of the devastation on neighboring mountains.
If you want more specifics than I've gone into here, the US Forest Service has an excellent brochure you can download below.
There's also a more specific brochure on Balsam Wooly Adelgid management you can download below. It lists specific chemical agents that are approved to control this species. Until next time.
One of the things my wife, Marci, and I have tried to do with our property is truly make it a wildlife haven. We live on several dozen acres of woodland and manage it to provide an optimum habitat for as many species as we can. We were certified by the National Wildlife Federation as a Certified Wildlife Habitat shortly after we moved here over ten years ago and have actively managed the property as a wildlife haven since then.
One thing I've been interested in since I heard about it several years ago is the attempts to restore the American Chestnut (Castanea dentata) trees that were essentially wiped out by chestnut blight in the early 20th century. The mighty American Chestnut could grow to a height of over 100 feet tall and have a trunk diameter over 10 feet. They were strong, rot-resistant, straight, and perfect for use in building projects. At one point, the trees were so numerous in the mountains of Appalachia that, during bloom, the mountainsides looked like they were covered with snow.
, whi At one time there were billions of these trees from Alabama and Georgia to Michigan, but something called Ink Disease in the early 1800s began to steadily kill the chestnut trees in the southern portion of its range. The final blow to the species occurred at the beginning of the 20th century when chestnut blight (Cryphonectria parasitica) swept through the forests of the eastern US and decimated the remaining population. The pathogen is native to China but only causes minor problems for the Chinese Chestnut tree.
The blight is a canker disease that grows fast and typically continues to develop until it envelops the trunk and eventually kills the tree. It is present throughout the entire range of the native chestnut and has even spread to areas where chestnuts are planted far out of the native range. It also exists in Europe and China, but has been shown to be of little consequence in the Chinese Chestnut, which can wall-off the fungus before it takes hold, stopping it in its tracks. The European Chestnut has also been found to be susceptible to the disease.
For years there were rumors of a few, naturally blight resistant, American Chestnut trees that had survived the extinction but for some time that appeared to be just a rumor. Interestingly, the American Chestnut still exists, but what tends to happen is that they will re-sprout from the roots but they then become infected with the blight, and this kills the new tree growth back.
Over the years there have been many attempts to restore this great symbol of the eastern American forests but most of those attempts were met with failure. There are currently several organizations working to restore the American Chestnut in a variety of ways with the most successful attempts so far being to cross the American Chestnut with the Chinese Chestnut into a blight resistant hybrid.
While all these attempts are to be applauded, my personal interest has been the research into restoring the pure American Chestnut to its native range. Early last year I came across one of the groups that is working to try and re-establish the pure American Chestnut, The American Chestnut Cooperators' Foundation. I contacted them and inquired about participating in their research, particularly since I live in what was once the native range of the chestnut, have a background in scientific research, and have perfect habitat for these trees.
Unfortunately, I wasn't granted the opportunity to participate as I was considered to be too far from the main group of researchers. Disappointed, I sat it aside and planned to see if I could find another group I could connect with when I had more time. But, out of the blue, on October 10, 2021 I got an email saying that the group had more seeds than they expected this year and, if I still wanted to participate, I could do so. I'm not sure who was more excited, my wife or myself, but at any rate, we jumped in with both feet. The only catch? We had to get the seeds, all the supplies and materials (this is a research project after all), get everything prepared, and the seeds in the ground by the end of the month!
When we heard that I have to admit that we both hesitated for a hot minute. Could we really do it? Between working full time and other responsibilities we have, was it possible? We figured we had the room for 30 seeds, but the time required for all the prep work was more than a little daunting. It would take up all of our free time for the next few weeks, but what the hey? It's for the good of the planet right?
So, long story short, we ordered the seeds and all the materials needed to start the project, picked out the sites, and got to work. We had to build 30 cages out of hardware cloth to protect the seeds, and if you've ever done any work with hardware cloth, then you know the cuts, scrapes, and pokes, we dealt with there. We then had to dig the holes, set the cages several inches into the ground to protect the seeds from raccoon and other critters who might find the seeds to be delightful, secure them with rebar, and then get the seeds in the ground.
Well, life happens, and it turns out, daylight hours are limited, so we ended up getting the last seeds in the ground on November 2nd. But then we realized a problem. As the last few cages were going into the ground, my wife did a count and realized that we had more seeds than cages. Six more to be exact. I'm sure I gave her a look of pure aggravation. We'd been working for weeks to get this done, had even dug in the dirt and mud after work on some days, and now she's telling me that we have extra seeds? "Did they send us extra," I asked. "No," she assured me. She'd counted them when they first arrived. What that meant, was somewhere, in the 25 cages we'd already put in the ground, there were holes with no nuts in them. I was speechless.
I said we'd have to make more cages and dig more holes, and she, being the stubborn (ahem, determined) person she is decided to go back through the cages she thought could have been overlooked, remove the cages, dig up the hole, and find where the nuts belong. I told her that after she couldn't find them we'd make some more cages, and I'm pretty sure I was the one who got the death stare that time. But, miracle of all miracles, she did it in just a couple hours time. Whew! I didn't want to make any more cages, and I really didn't think my hands could handle much more.
So now, we wait. And we've been waiting since early November. We've checked the cages multiple times over and have so far, not seen any sign of tampering by any critters. We tried to deter raccoons and squirrels from digging up the seeds by adding cayenne pepper around the cages. So far, so good.
We hope that at least some of them will sprout. In a few weeks we'll start to peek into the cages to see what's happening. And then we have to monitor the trees for any signs of blight for the next three years, but that still remains to be seen. Keep your fingers crossed, and hopefully we'll see some trees sprouting soon. I'll keep you posted. Until next time.
What is it?
The Hemlock Wooly Adelgid (Adelges tsugae) is an aphid-like insect that has infested Eastern and Carolina hemlock trees in the eastern and southeastern United States. It is native to Japan, was first recorded in the US in the 1920s, and was first reported in Virginia in the early 1950s. By 2005, it had spread from Maine to Georgia and has now infested at least half of the hemlock's range.
It is the nymph form of the adelgid that attaches and feeds on the twig tissue, depriving it of stored nutrients and eventually killing it. When enough damage is done, the whole tree dies. In the picture above you can see how a couple of the needles have already turned brown where the adelgid has been feeding.
As the adelgid matures it develops a white, waxy, almost wooly-looking substance around it. This substance helps protect the adelgid and its eggs from predators. A quick look at the underside of the branches from late fall to early summer can tell you quickly whether adelgids are present.
If left untreated, the trees are defenseless and mortality can occur in as little as three years, particularly if the trees are already stressed by drought or other disease. The worst affected areas have been in Virginia, parts of West Virginia, Pennsylvania, New Jersey, and Connecticut.
The picture below is a migrograph of the adelgid itself.
What can be done about it?
The National Park Service and US Forest Service have been working aggressively since 2006 to try to control the population of adelgids, but, for now at least, the prognosis isn't good. They have been treating as many trees as possible with insecticides injected at the base of the tree. Unfortunately, the focus has been on saving the trees in widely visited areas and not as much has been done for trees farther into the canopy.
The fear is that, unless researchers can find a cure for this infestation, the hemlock will eventually join the ranks of the American Chestnut and American Elm as just another majestic tree we've lost.
What can I do about the trees in my backyard?
There is one Eastern Hemlock tree on my property and, unfortunately, I discovered that it was infested several years ago. I went to Lowe's and bought a commercially available insecticide (Bayer Advanced 12 Month Tree and Shrub Insect Control - now called Bio Advanced 12 Month Tree and Shrub Insect Control) that you bury at the base of the tree. I treated it for a couple of seasons and, so far, the tree is doing fine. Typically, I don't endorse the use of pesticides or insecticides, but given the damage this adelgid can do, I decided it was the lesser of two evils.
There's a great document from the University of Michigan for homeowners who are needing help with the adelgid problem. Here's a link to download it:
And if you'd like a fact sheet on the Hemlock Woody Adelgid, you can download that here:
Hemlock forests make up over 90,000 acres in Great Smoky Mountains National Park where this valuable tree helps to keep streams cool and provides habitat for a number of species. With the park being so close to where I live, naturally I wondered what they're doing about the problem, and as it turns out, quite a bit.
They're using predator beetles that prey exclusively on adelgids, but it takes some time for these beetles to reproduce enough to be effective. Between 2002 and 2011 the park released over half-a-million beetles. The results are still being studied, but they look promising so far.
They're also using systemic treatments of imidacloprid which is the ingredient in the Bayer Advanced treatment I used myself. This has shown to be a highly effective method for several years, and trees whose foliage had already turned gray have flourished and been able to produce new growth.
The last thing they're using is foliar treatments where they spray the foliage with insecticidal soap and horticultural oils that smother and dry out the adelgids on contact. Unfortunately, it only kills the bugs that are on the tree at that time.
The park's adelgid control is being funded through the Save the Hemlocks initiative of the Friends of Great Smoky Mountains National Park. For additional information, or to learn more about how you can help, visit the Friends of the Great Smoky Mountains National Park‘s website or call (865) 932-4794.
Until next time.
As I sit on my front porch on this cold, rainy morning in East Tennessee, I'm listening to the song of a Carolina Chickadee in the edge of the woods near the bird feeders. The lilting Phee-bee-phee-bay of his song is a welcome sound that indicates spiring is not too far away.
I've noticed more bird songs in the yard over the past few weeks and it seems I'm not the only one who is impatient for spring. In the winter months we tend to hear birds calling, but songs are something special and are reserved for the breeding season. As winter begins to draw to a close we still hear the birds calling, but we start to hear more bird songs as the males start to practice their vocals to gear up for mating.
But winter isn't over yet. There are still several Purple Finches hanging around the feeders, and they should be here for another six to eight weeks before they move to their breeding grounds farther north. I don't know what it is about this property, but we have an unusually high population of Purple Finches. As crazy as it sounds, its not uncommon to be able to count 50+ individuals at any given time. When we first moved here, we submitted our first batch of data for the Great Backyard Bird Count and had someone follow up with us to make sure we hadn't erroneously counted House Finches. My wife sent some photos to prove we knew what we were talking about, and that satisfied them. We had to submit proof for the next couple of years but then they finally stopped asking.
I talked to a birding friend a few weeks ago and he was telling me how few Purple Finches had been reported in his area in the last few years. The fear is they may be on the decline, so I feel very fortunate to have as many as we have here. Below is a video my wife took a month or so ago that shows a flock of purples on one of their favorite feeders. There is an American Goldfinch or two in the mix occasionally, but there are mostly Purple Finches, male and female, in the frame. This is a typical morning sight on the feeders here in the winter.
Ahh well, such is the life of a creatures and critters biologist. You do what they need you to do even if the aesthetic isn't perfect. That explains why I have several brush piles in the edge of the woods and why I don't remove dead trees once they die, but that's a story for another day. It's getting cold out here on the porch, so I think I'll go in and warm up in front of the fire. Until next time.
Madbird Biologist - Mark A. Dunaway
I am a wildlife biologist and nature recording expert who is passionate about our planet and the species we share it with. I am an advocate for conservation and enjoy educating others about the plants and animals around us. Tag along with me as I document what I'm up do or talk about things I think others may be interested in. Thanks for joining me on this journey into the natural world.