Tree Addictions

Tree Addictions

By: Steve Roark

TN Dept. Agriculture, Forestry Division

 Trees provide thousands of products we use every day and they are a great blessing to our society.  Some tree products are even addictive and consumed in large amounts.  Take chewing gum for instance.  A few decades ago the chewy part of gum was obtained from a tree called the Sapodilla that grows in Central America.  The sap from the tree is called chicle, and was the mainstay of the chewing gum industry until after World War II, when synthetic gums largely replaced it.  Gum chewing is a common habit and some folks are never without it.

Another very popular vice is chocolate. The main flavor ingredient is from the Cacao tree, another tropical plant that produces squash-like pods that contain the all-important cocoa seed.  Chocolate is blamed for the mass consumption of empty calories that are eaten in place of more nutritious, less fattening foods.  But a silver lining of chocolate is that the dark variety does have antioxidants and some positive nutritional components. But to get the benefit you have to go with dark-dark chocolate, like 75% cocoa content. Chocolate is also a source of caffeine, an addictive stimulant. “My name is Steve, and I’m a chocoholic.”

Speaking of empty calories, another heavily consumed product is soft drinks, of which the dark colas (the ones with caffeine) are the most popular.  Coca-Cola, Pepsi-Cola, Royal Crown-Cola, all the cola drinks use the nut from the Kola (also called cola) tree for that popular cola flavor.  The tree grows in western Africa and is a cousin of the Cacao tree.

Those who cannot face the day without that morning cup of coffee should give thanks to the Coffee plant, a woody evergreen shrub grown in Africa and the tropical Americas.  The roasted seed (they are technically not beans) provides that all-important jolt of caffeine people have grown to depend on.

 

coffee cup of photo

 

Iced and hot teas are also popular caffeinated beverages consumed by half the world population.  It originates from the young leaves and leaf buds of the Tea plant, which grows in many Asian countries.  There are several varieties of Tea Plants, but all are woody evergreen trees that can grow 50 feet tall, but are normally cultivated in plantations to only grow to around waist high.

The recent energy drink craze is like coffee on steroids.  The caffeine source for these high octane beverages varies, but one common source is Guarana, obtained from seeds off a vine by the same name, which grows in the Amazon forest.

No doubt this will change your caffeine habit (whatever form it is), but the reason all of these plants produce caffeine is that it acts as a natural toxic pesticide to protect it from insect attack. So you are consuming something considered poisonous in the plant world….something to talk about at the breakfast table.

 

Advertisements
Posted in Uncategorized | Leave a comment

Firewise

Firewise 3

Living with Fire

By: Steve Roark

TN Dept. Agriculture, Forestry Division

The anniversary of the fires of Gatlinburg is coming up, so I thought it good to discuss fire and our relationship with it especially in a forest. We live on a planet where carbon chemically reacts with oxygen and sufficient heat to produce heat energy and light, a process we call “fire”. The carbon is mostly produced by plants like trees and grass.  Since almost any plant material can burn, fire is a very common phenomenon, doing either harm or good depending on where and what it consumes.

Fire can be seen as good when it is used as a tool, such as burning brush piles or leaves.  It can be used to prepare a site for tree planting by removing woody debris, or improve some wildlife habitats.  It remains good as long as it stays where it belongs and burns only what is intended.  Keeping it good requires planning and management, a process we call prescribed fire.  Fire becomes bad when it starts and burns things unintended, what we call wildfire.  Wildfire lives only to consume fuel and it doesn’t care if the fuel is leaves or a house. So, if your home is located in the woods, fire will treat it like any other fuel and burn it if it can get to it and under the right conditions.

Many of us like being close to nature, and so building a home in a forest or other “wild” places is understandable. There’s a catchy name for houses built in the woods: The Wild Land Urban Interface, or WUI for short.

Here’s the deal: a forest drops tons of dead leaves, needles, twigs, branches, even entire trees (all carbon remember) every year.  This dead material is what fuels a wildfire and allows it move around. A house in the woods receives some of this downpour of dead fuel, and if allowed to can accumulate on the lawn, in flower beds, against the foundation, and even in gutters and on roofs. So a wildfire could burn right up to the house and potentially catch it on fire.  Floating embers (called fire brands) produced by the fire could land in a leaf filled gutter or roof and start them ablaze as well.

So bottom line: folks that live in the woods need to be pro-active in protecting their homes from wildfire.   Actions to take are common sense things: keep leaves raked up near the home; keep gutters and roofs clean, use non-burnable mulching material next to the house (not bark), don’t plant flammable landscape plants near the house. The goal is to keep your house and landscape in such a condition that it would withstand a wildfire even if no one was around.

There is a national educational program called Firewise that provides excellent advice on how to keep homes safe from wildfire. Contact your local state forestry agency for more information, or go online to www.firewise.org.

Posted in Uncategorized | Leave a comment

Tree Planting

Fall Tree Planting

By: Steve Roark

TN Dept. Agriculture, Forestry Division

While spring is the traditional season to plant trees and shrubs, fall may be better.  The soil is still warm on into December, and it gives the tree a chance to rest and get well settled into the soil before the spring growth spurt.  The following are a few guidelines on choosing and planting trees.

Where to get a tree: Your best source is a good nursery.  Try to get a one-year guarantee, because all the moving around the tree has had to endure is very stressful, and survival is not a sure thing.  Digging trees from the wild can be done, but these trees often have widely dispersed roots that are difficult to dig.  Moving trees from shady woods to a sunny yard may be too much for them to adapt to.  If you dig up trees, be sure and obtain permission from the landowner, and stick with small specimens with fewer roots.

Tree in hand 2 - Copy

Smaller is better:  Trees go through a period of shock after being transplanted and may just sit there and sulk for a while before they begin to grow.  This no-grow period may last a year for small trees, and up to five years for larger ones.  Given the price difference between the big trees and small, the choice is easy.

Check the roots:  With container grown trees, avoid big trees in small pots and ones that you can rock in the pot.  Watch out for root balls that are all big, ropey roots the size of a pencil or larger. Big roots are a sign that the tree is pot-bound and probably won’t survive. You want a root mass that has lots of tiny, fibrous feeder roots.

Check the profile: Look for a straight central trunk with wide limb angles.  Avoid trees with crossing branches and ones with narrow crotched branches.

Watch for trouble signs:  Wilted or dead leaves, insects, spots, skinned or cracked bark, or little holes that may be evidence of borer insects.  Your tree should look healthy and sturdy, with glossy, pliable leaves.

What kind of tree:  This is strictly up to the buyer, but check on the following: Match the tree to the sight, putting trees that like it dry in dry places.  Don’t plant trees that get big in tight spots like near your house or under utility lines.  If yard maintenance is an issue, avoid trees that drop fruit or a lot of twigs.  It pays to study up on your tree before you buy it.

 

 

Posted in Uncategorized | Leave a comment

Persimmon Hunting

Persimmon Hunting

By: Steve Roark

Tennessee Division of Forestry

 

Persimmons are a popular food source for many wildlife species such as fox, opossum, deer, raccoons, and many types of birds.  Humans find them quite tasty if gathered at the right time.  If you want to try some, be sure and take along the kids or grandkids, as they need a shot of nature every now and then.

 

Persimmon trees are very common in our area and can be found along country roads, fencerows, and abandoned farmland that’s overgrown and brushy.  Remember to get permission from the landowner before hunting anything, animals or plants.  You can identify the tree by looking for the inch to inch and a half diameter yellow/orange fruit hanging in the branches or on the ground beneath. The bark of the tree is black and has a blocky pattern.

Persimmon fruit photo.jpg

Persimmons start to ripen about the last of September, and many of the fruits will stay on the tree until mid-winter.  To be edible, a persimmon must be “mushy” ripe.  You will know when you’ve bitten into an unripe one because your tongue will almost go numb from the bitter taste.  Dead ripe persimmons are very orange in color, wrinkled, and soft.  Ripe ones will fall from the tree at the slightest touch.  The fruit is often out of reach, but just give the tree a good shake and they will rain down.  If you want to speed up the process, you can place a sheet on the ground before shaking to gather them up.  If you’ve never eaten persimmons, only eat a small amount at first in case of food allergies.

 

Persimmons are best eaten on the spot while you enjoy being outside.  If you want to keep some for later use you will need to run the fruit through a strainer to remove the husk and seed (each fruit has 2-6 large seed).   The resulting pulp can be frozen or dried.  To dry the pulp, spread it out on a cookie sheet and place in an oven on low heat until the pulp is leather-like.  Cut it into chunks and store in a glass jar.  Dried persimmon can be eaten like candy and is great mixed into hot or cold cereals, or fruit breads.

 

You’ll end up with a bunch of persimmon seeds, so if you want to go nostalgic you can check out an old mountain tradition that the seeds can be used to predict the severity of the winter.  Cut open a seed along its flat side and look at the center.  If you see a spoon shape that means you’ll be digging a lot of snow.  A knife shape indicates a cold winter where the wind will cut right through you.  A fork shape means a relatively mild winter with a split between warm spells and cold spells.  I’m told you can squeeze the seeds open with pliers to get at the center. You’re supposed to check several seeds to get a good reading on what’s to come.

 

Posted in Uncategorized | Leave a comment

Wind In The Pines

 The Wind In The Pines

By Steve Roark

                                          TN Dept. Agriculture, Forestry Division

Surely sometime or other you have heard the quiet sound of the wind blowing through a pine tree, and paused to listen.  To me the soft sighing evokes peacefulness, and a little sadness.   The Japanese even have a special word for it: matzukaze (wind in the pines), which expresses a feeling of exquisite solitude and melancholy.  The phrase “wind in the pines” is often found in poetry and songs, so there is something about it that touches the human soul.

Pine, shortleaf

Let’s review a past science lesson.  Sound originates as a vibrating object, whether from a guitar string, vocal cord, or a pine needle vibrating in the wind.  The sound is carried to your ears by oscillating air molecules (sound waves), which in turn cause your eardrum to vibrate, allowing you to hear. Smaller, narrow objects, like pine needles, vibrate faster and so the pitch is higher, and the many thousands of vibrating needles combine in chorus to produce a constantly changing murmuring sound.  Other trees make sounds when the wind blows of course, but it’s different.  Broadleaf trees like oak have a lower pitched sound because the leaves or twigs and limbs are larger and vibrate slower, so the sound is deeper.  In a storm the thousands of trees around us combine to produce the “roar of the mountains”.  To me the voice of a pine is feminine, while that of the oak, hickory, and other hardwoods is masculine.

Here is an old Estonian legend explaining why trees whisper.  In the early days of the Earth, not long after humans were forced to leave Paradise, a man went out to the forest to cut wood. The first tree he came to was a pine tree, and as soon as the man lifted the axe he heard a voice cry out. “Don’t strike me. Can’t you see the sticky tears that are already coming out of my body? If you hit me it will bring you bad luck.” The man saw the sticky sap in the tree trunk, so he moved on further into the forest. He came to a spruce tree and again raised his axe. But the spruce tree protested. “Don’t cut me down. You will find me of little use, for my wood is twisted and knotty.” Unhappily, the man went on until he came to an alder tree. Once more he raised his axe to strike but the alder cried out “don’t wound me! Whenever I am cut, sap runs from my heart and will stain your axe blood red.” The man went no further but called out to God. “How am I to get wood to make fire and to build shelter? Every tree I meet cries out and pleads that I not cut it down.” God took pity on the man and said: “Return to the forest. I will see that hence forth no tree will talk back or contradict you.” The man did as he was told and this time no tree spoke to him. None protested as he cut them down to make shelter and to make a fire. The trees were not happy about this, but they dared not complain aloud to God. Instead, they began to whisper softly, each time a person entered their domain in the forests. If you approach a group of trees anywhere, you can still hear them softly whispering to each other. They are gently complaining about their poor treatment at the hands of humans.

There are several references to the sound of wind in the Bible: “The wind blows where it wills, and you hear the voice thereof, but know not whence it comes, and where it goes.  So it is with everyone who is born of the Spirit (John 3:8 ASV).

 

Posted in Uncategorized | Leave a comment

Why Leaves Fall

Why Leaves Fall

By: Steve Roark

TN Division of Forestry

This time of year you usually see news articles explaining why leaves change color and how good the fall colors will be.  I’ve certainly written plenty of them myself, but never covered the subject of why tree leaves fall off in the first place. So here goes…

Spring and summer are great times for tree growth, with long days and plenty of warmth, sunshine, and rainfall.  Trees take advantage of this time and put on the majority of their growth by mid-summer, storing some of it as carbohydrates in the trunk and branches for next year’s growth spurt.  They do so because winter is a lousy time for tree growth.  It’s cold, tender plant cells freeze, days are short with less sun energy, there’s less soil moisture, and what moisture is there can be frozen and unavailable.  So the survival tactic broadleaf trees take is to cut their losses, drop their leaves, and go dormant to sleep through the hard times, thus conserving their energy.  Lack of moisture is probably the biggest factor in taking the dormancy route, because trees need a lot of water to do the photosynthesis thing.  A large oak tree can take up over 50 gallons a day to pull in nutrients from the soil through a water delivery process called transpiration.

Leaves autumn maple

After a long summer leaves are pretty worn out anyway, so dropping them is a way to start next season with a fresh set to grab that sunshine.  Trees also take advantage of leaf drop by moving waste products into the leaves before jettisoning them, thus providing a slick way to take out the trash. One additional plus to dropping leaves is that they provide a natural mulch on the forest floor that protects the soil and tree roots.  Eventually the leaves are broken down by mico-beasties that cycle the materials back into the soil for re-use.  It’s a really sweet system.

If it’s so sweet why don’t the evergreens do it?  If you’ve noticed, pine, spruce, and fir species can eke out a living in dry and cold places, which allows them to grow in places nobody else wants to.  Their tactic is to grow leaves that are needle-like, which have less surface area exposed to the cold and dry.  The skin of the needle is thicker and coated with a heavy wax which prevents moisture loss, and the fluid inside the needle cells contains a type of antifreeze.  The upshot of all this is that evergreens can do very well in shorter growing seasons and harsher conditions, and don’t have to store and expend energy growing an entire new crop of needles.  Needles do eventually fall off after 3 or so years, but do so gradually so it’s not noticeable.

So enjoy the fall colors this year, and be humbled by the elegant survival system that makes it all possible. Also look up and give thanks for living in an area where it happens at all, because the presence of a large number of trees having brilliant fall foliage is not a common thing. The only other places on the planet with a similar abundance of foliage colorations are northern China, Korea, and Japan. So we are blessed.

 

 

 

Posted in Uncategorized | Leave a comment

Elderberry

Elderberry

By Steve Roark

TN Dept. Agriculture, Forestry Division

Elderberry is a fairly common plant that likes to grow on moist sites with rich soil.  It was once held in high esteem by both European settlers and Native American tribes for its medicinal and food value.  It is also a highly prized food for several wildlife species.

The European version of elderberry is the Black Elder, also called Elder Tree. The word Elder comes from the Anglo-Saxon word “aeld” meaning ‘fire’.   In medieval times it was the most revered of trees, and was said to have powers to do both good and evil.  It was planted to ward off witches, and one could be cursed for cutting or burning an Elder tree.  The tree was considered the medicine chest of country people, and almost all parts of the tree were used to treat some malady.  Tradition holds that Judas hanged himself on an Elder Tree.

Our native Elderberry (Sambucus Canadensis) grows as a mult-stemmed shrub that average 3-10 feet in height.  It has very showy white flowers in early summer that form in flat-topped clusters.  The leaves are compound, made up of 5 to 11 leaflets that are lance-shaped with a toothed edge.  The leaves form on the branches in opposing pairs.  In late summer and fall the flowers are replaced by clusters of small purple-black berries about the size of a BB. Each berry has a large seed pit.

Probably the best known use for the fruit of elderberry is for making wine, which in earlier times was primarily used as a medicinal.  Elderberry wine or a tea made from berries and peppermint was used to treat colds, induce sweating, and treat nausea.  Native Americans used the leaves as a poultice to treat cuts, sore joints, and stop bleeding.  A very tart drink can be made from the ripe berries, which for my part needs lots of sugar.  Jelly can also be made from the berries, but you’ll have to add pectin.  The berries are very rich in Vitamin C, and also contain Vitamin A, calcium, iron, and potassium.  A word of caution here: the bark, root, leaves, and unripe berries are consider toxic, so be sure the berries are good and ripe.  As with any unfamiliar food, always eat only a small portion at first in case of an allergic reaction.

Elderberry is an important source of summer food for many kinds of songbirds. Game birds, squirrels, and deer also feed on the fruit and foliage.

 

Ripe cluster of Elder berries on the tree

Ripe Elder on the tree in my garden

Posted in Uncategorized | Leave a comment