In celebration of trees

It’s undeniable. There seems to be a universal human response to the majesty of trees. Trees do us a lot of good and not all their benefits are visible by the eye. These benefits are often grouped by their social, environmental, and economic qualities.

(Be sure to see the upcoming Township events that pay tribute to trees listed below.)

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Social benefits

One might say that trees help make us happier. They provide a sense of place and when we are in their presence, we feel serene and peaceful. Trees’ calming effects extend to the workplace, where trees can reduce worker stress. It’s also been cited that trees can decrease recovery time after surgery or illness and reduce crime in urban communities. A large, mature tree imparts a sense of majesty, strength, and even awe. This and their capacity for a long life may be why they are so often planted as living memorials to those we love and have lost.

The oldest verified flowering tree is a 2,293 year-old Sri Maha Bodhi Sacred Fig. It is also the oldest human-planted tree, known to be planted in 288 BC at Anuradhapura, Sri Lanka.

People are drawn to shaded parks, pathways, and sidewalks, which in turn encourages social interaction and enhances a sense of community.

Environmental benefits

Trees improve the environment by moderating our climate from sun, wind, and rain. Sun is absorbed or deflected by leaves and the larger the tree, the greater its cooling effect. In urban environments, trees moderate the heating effect caused by pavement and buildings. Compact foliage and dense tree plantings provide an effective windbreak. Rain and stormwater runoff is not only slowed by trees, but is reduced by the water trees take up by their roots and store.

Improved air quality is another great benefit—leaves filter the air we breathe by removing particulates and pollutants (such as ozone, sulfur dioxide, nitrogen dioxide, carbon monoxide, and lead) and replace them with oxygen. They absorb the greenhouse gas carbon dioxide through photosynthesis. Trees are natural air conditioners that can lower temperatures 6 to 8 degrees by evaporating water through their leaves. Their roots stabilize soil and prevent erosion, and improve water quality by filtering rainwater.

Trees can block and absorb sound, reducing noise pollution by as much as 40%.

Finally, trees provide important food and shelter for urban wildlife, including birds, pollinators, and small animals.

Economic benefits

Although determining a “value” of a tree can be very difficult, trees increase in value as they grow. The value of trees is also evident in home sales: homes landscaped with trees sell more quickly and are worth 5% to 15% more than homes without trees. When trees are planted strategically to shade a home, air conditioning costs are lower. And when they form a windbreak they can reduce heating costs in winter.

Native trees

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The native Mexican Plum, Prunus mexicana, has a spectacular spring display that is a feast for the eyes and pollinators as well.

There is a wealth of native trees to use for landscapes in our area. The benefits of native trees are many and can include colorful spring blooms, fall color, or food and nectar for wildlife. Natives are well-adapted to our weather conditions and soil, and once established, require no supplemental water (except for times of extreme drought).

View and print the list of Trees Suitable for The Woodlands. This list is far from exhaustive, but meant to provide a good sampling of those that can be found at local nurseries and provide special benefits.

Upcoming events

Mark your calendar for these events that each in their own way, celebrate trees.

Arbor Day Tree Seedling Pickup
The Howard Hughes Corporation® is excited to host the Arbor Day Tree Seedling Pickup on Saturday, January 26, 2019 from 10 a.m. to 2 p.m. at Hughes Landing®. This year, more than 44,000 tree seedlings will be handed out, representing nine varieties including Bald Cypress, Laurel Oak, Live Oak, Loblolly Pine, Overcup Oak, River Birch, Sawtooth Oak, Silky Dogwood and Water Oak.

2019 Community Tree Planting
The community will come together to keep the woods in The Woodlands at the fifth annual Village Tree Planting event Saturday, February 9, 2019, from 8 a.m. to noon at Spindle Tree Ponds Park in the Village of Sterling Ridge. Volunteers of all ages are called upon to help reforest our community. Register now!

Creating Habitat in the Garden and Community
Saturday, February 2, 2019 from 8:30 a.m. to 1 p.m. at The Woodlands Emergency Training Center. This free seminar will address how wildlife has been impacted by growth and why home and community habitats matter. Learn how to create habitat for butterflies, bees and birds and help them thrive. Register now!

Helpful resources

Visit the International Society of Arboriculture for loads of great information about trees. View and print their useful guides for planting and caring for trees:

New Tree Planting

Proper Mulching Techniques

Pruning Mature Trees

Insect and Disease Problems

Irrigation can’t replace rain

You’ve seen it. The luminous post-shower greenness of a lawn; the sudden growth spurt of a plant that didn’t seem to be doing much at all; or the effervescence of new blooms on an otherwise sleepy plant. Why are these effects so evident after a good rain and absent with irrigation?

What’s the magic of rain? It’s all about what it has that tap water doesn’t,  and what it doesn’t have that tap water does.  And this all boils down to chemistry.

Rain water is free of minerals

good elements

Rainwater lacks the minerals usually found in irrigation water. In The Woodlands, the water that flows through an outside spigot is the same as what flows from the kitchen faucet—that is, treated water suitable for consumption. This is of course, what you want for water use in the home, but your landscape can actually suffer for it when used in excess.

Chlorine and fluoride are the first plant-offending additives in treated water. Chlorine is a necessary disinfectant and fluoride helps to prevent tooth decay.  But nearly all plants are susceptible to chlorine toxicity and many are subject to fluoride toxicity as well—especially common house plants.

Another chemical component to tap water is sodium, which can help remedy the pipe-corroding effects of calcium and magnesium, also present. When a white sediment is present on the outside of containers or on the leaves of plants, it’s evidence of calcium and magnesium. Sodium, like chlorine, is toxic to plants.

Rainwater has the right stuff

good elements

Oxygen, nitrogen, and carbon dioxide. Rain highly saturated in oxygen goes right to the roots that take up this vital element. Nitrogen is what makes your lawn and plants seem to glow green after a good rain. Air is 78% nitrogen and this element in its nitrate and ammonium forms comes down in rain and is immediately absorbed by plants through their roots and leaves.

Carbon dioxide is also delivered to plants with rain. When carbon dioxide combines with other minerals in the air, it gives rainwater an acidic pH. Acidic rainwater (and we’re not talking about “acid rain” which has excessive pollutants mostly an issue in the Northeast) helps the soil release essential micronutrients such as zinc, manganese, copper, and iron that are vital to plant growth.

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Something can be said about the physical properties of rain too.

Rain penetrates the soil better than irrigation. Raindrops fall at about 20 mph while irrigation droplets fall at about 5 mph. And rain falls uniformly. Both properties help water reach plants’ roots. And they do something else: they help leach salts away from the root zone of a plant where they may have accumulated over time through irrigation. This cleansing effect can have a pronounced effect on new plant growth.

The cleansing effect of rain extends to the entire surface of a plant as well. We can see how foliage glows after a rain washes away mineral deposits, dust and pollutants from leaves. This is a boon to photosynthesis. Photosynthesis is much more efficient when light reaches a plant’s leaves unobstructed by grit and grime.

Harvest it

The benefits of rain water over tap water used for irrigation might even motivate a person to harvest rainwater. So often, rainwater harvesting is presented only as a method for conserving water. Yet it’s more than that. By storing up rain water, you’re also creating a supply of high quality water that your plants crave.

A Drip Irrigation and Rainwater Harvesting class will be offered free by the Township later this spring.

OE and tropical milkweed

The relative virtues and problems associated with tropical milkweed, Asclepias curassavica, continue to be a hot topic within the monarch conservation community, but the disparity between the two is becoming more and more clear. Scientific research suggests that its problems, namely its link to the spread of the Ophryocystis elektroscirrha (OE) disease, far out-weigh its virtues. In fact, it’s those very virtues—availability, adaptability, and long bloom season—that multiply its negative effects relative to the health and sustainability of the monarch butterfly species.

What is OE?

OE is a protozoan parasite that infects butterflies that host on milkweed. Its life cycle starts as a microscopic spore that breaks open when ingested by a caterpillar. Within the caterpillar, it grows and multiplies. Because a parasite depends on its host for its own life, OE rarely kills the caterpillar.

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OE spores are only visible under a microscope.

But the disease affects the development of the adult butterfly while pupating, and adults emerge weak and often with crippled wings. While many monarchs may carry OE as spores attached to its wings and thorax, the size of the spore-carrying population and the heavy level of spores within that population in the Gulf Coast region—especially Texas and Florida—is cause for alarm. Visit Project Monarch Health for more about OE.

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An adult butterfly with OE has no chance of survival when wings are malformed.

Recent studies corroborate earlier studies and tighten the link between tropical milkweed and an increase of OE. Gardening to help conserve monarchs requires an understanding of the risks associated with tropical milkweed as well as the steps to take to minimize its ill effects.

The introduction of tropical milkweed in the U.S.

Monarch enthusiasts with the best intentions were thrilled when local nurseries began to offer tropical milkweed for sale and embraced the Mexican native with gusto. It didn’t take long to discover that aside from being very easy to grow, monarch butterflies love this variety of milkweed. It seemed that a solution was in hand to help restore milkweed habitat for the Eastern migratory monarch population. As a result, tropical milkweed has been well established in parts the southern states—especially southeast Texas and southern Florida.

Then research began to emerge that showed an increase in monarch disease caused by OE was linked to tropical milkweed grown in the southern states.

What the research shows is particularly troubling for the monarch migration that passes through Texas gardens to feed and breed.

The effects of tropical milkweed

Research by Karen Oberhauser, Dara Satterfield, and others has and continues to demonstrate that OE in monarchs increases where tropical milkweed flourishes. (See links to studies at the end of this blog.)

What’s been determined is that the proliferation of tropical milkweed (in the southeastern parts of Texas and south Florida in particular), coupled with its near year-round foliage and flower production does two things:

It interferes with the monarch’s migratory cycle. Tropical milkweed encourages them to linger in the southern states and continue breeding and laying eggs, “trapping” them here where they cannot survive temperatures that drop toward the freezing mark. Possibly more important is the effect of milder winters. Given a non-stop supply of milkweed, interference with normal migratory behavior produces populations of monarchs that overwinter in Texas and Florida instead of completing their migration to the oyamel fir tree forests of central Mexico.

Monarchs who stay in the southern states for the winter are five to nine times more likely to be infected with OE than migrating butterflies.

It significantly increases the rate monarchs are infected by the debilitating OE protozoan pathogen. If mild winters don’t produce a freeze, infected milkweed continues to thrive, not dying back like native milkweed species. This means infected plants persist. Infected plants in Texas are especially harmful because they sit in the gateway for the spring and fall monarch migrations.

Migrant butterflies at sites with overwintering residents were 13 times more likely to have infections compared to migrant populations that don’t come in contact with residents.

Adult monarchs migrating from Mexico in the spring that visit infected plants pick up hundreds of OE spores and carry them to other plants—increasing the number of infected plants and as a result butterflies, exponentially.

What to do?

If there’s any good news in this it could be that originally, most of the tropical milkweed planted was done so in gardens. By definition, gardens are tended. Gardeners should consider taking one of two actions.

Replace tropical milkweed with native species. While native varieties are more challenging to start, the effort would help minimize the spread of OE. Try these native species:

  • Asclepias incarnate, Swamp milkweed
  • Asclepias perennis, Aquatic milkweed
  • Asclepias tuberosa, Butterflyweed
  • Asclepias verticillata, Whorled Milkweed
  • Asclepias viridi, Green milkweed

Or, be diligent about cutting it back every winter. Cut tropical milkweed plants to within four to six inches of the ground each October.

If you have tropical milkweed in your garden and didn’t cut it back in October, do it now.

Milkweed for habitats

Milkweed used for non-gardening purposes poses a more clear guideline. Dara Satterfield  recommends, “that habitat restoration for monarchs focus on native species of milkweed, which are synchronized with the monarch’s natural migratory cycle and do not enable the year-round breeding that can lead to high parasitism rates.”

The spring migration approaches

Tracking the spring monarch migration starts on February 14. Visit Journey North to learn how you can enter your own monarch sightings and track the migration real time.

Delve in and learn more about tropical milkweed and its effect on the health of monarchs with these recent studies:

Patterns of parasitism in monarch butterflies during the breeding season in eastern North America, Ecological Entomology, 2018

Migratory monarchs that encounter resident monarchs how life-history differences and higher rates of parasite infection, Ecology Letters, 2018

Monarch butterfly migration and parasite transmission in eastern North America, Ecological Society of America, 2011

Loss of migratory behaviour increases infection risk for a butterfly host, The Royal Society Publishing, 2015

Learn more about native milkweed species at these resources:

Native Plant Society of Texas

Ladybird Johnson Wildflower Center Plant Database

PDF of Identification of Milkweed in Texas, by Texas Parks & Wildlife

Resolution for a greener year

This New Year, while fine-tuning your list of personal resolutions, how about including a few goals to help the environment? Changing habits can take effort. One theory of behavior change is the Fogg Behavior Model (FBM). This model posits that motivation, ability, and triggers are the three key factors for any behavior change—the higher the motivation, the greater the ability to perform the new behavior and the presence of a trigger drive how well one can make a change.

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The Fogg Behavior Model. The different levels of ability and motivation define whether triggers for behavior change will succeed or fail.

Here are ten “triggers” for resolutions that can make for a healthier earth.

Who’s in?

Use reusable shopping bags. Plastic bags are the second most prevalent form of litter, with over 4 billion bags getting carried by wind, clogging storm drains and littering our forests, rivers, and oceans every year. According to Plastic Oceans, eight million tons of plastic end up in our waters each year harming marine life. Carry a tote or two and forgo the plastic bag.

Turn off the water while you brush. It can save up to 200 gallons of water a month. That’s good for your water bill and the environment. Learn more ways you can conserve water in your home at Sustainability.ncsu.edu.

Reduce your lawn. Lawns are water hogs that also are often chemically dependent. Cut back on turf grass and plant natives instead. This single step helps conserve water, reduces polluted water runoff, and enriches biodiversity.

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Compost kitchen waste. Organic waste in landfills generates methane, a potent greenhouse gas. By composting wasted food and other organics, methane emissions are significantly reduced. So refrain from dumping those nitrogen-rich coffee grounds or calcium-loaded egg shells and other organic kitchen waste. Enrich the soil instead. Learn more about the environmental benefits to composting at EPA.gov.

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Ditch paper towels. They may be easier, but in one year alone, Americans use 13 billion pounds of paper towels. That’s about 45 pounds per person. If everyone used just one paper towel less, 570 million pounds of paper waste would be eliminated per year. In case that’s not enough motivation to make a change, it goes without saying that paper towels simply can’t rival the charm of a vintage tea towel.

Eliminate phantom power usage. When household devices are left plugged in they still use energy—even those chargers with no phone or tablet attached. The draw may be small, but collectively and over time it adds up. Unplug. Or, use a smart power strip that reduces your power usage by shutting down power to products that go into standby mode. Doing so may save you some cash. Statistics vary, but experts say standby power consumption ranges from 5 to 10 percent of total household energy consumption on average.

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Cook from scratch. In a busy household, this may be challenging but the benefits are manifold. Processed foods come with loads of packaging that ends up in landfills yet deliver little nutritional value. Cut down on waste and improve health with some good old home cooking.

Bring your own water bottle. Not only do all the plastic water bottles we use require 17 million barrels of oil to be produced, in 86% of the time they end up in landfills. You’ve seen some of the neat reusable water bottles on the market—consider buying one and using filtered tap water instead. A Bottled Water Report by the World Wildlife Fund points out that there are more standards in regulating tap water in the U.S. and Europe than in the bottled water industry.

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Walk, bike, use public transportation. Bikes have been hailed as the most efficient transportation ever invented. Why not bike for those short trips? While helping to reduce emissions and saving on gas, you’ll be helping yourself stay fit at the same time.

Cut back on meat. This may challenge carnivores, but consider this: industrially farmed corn and soybean that feeds livestock is a major source of greenhouse gasses and air and water pollution. What’s more is that it takes more than 2,400 gallons of water to produce just 1 pound of meat. Yet, only 25 gallons of water are required to grow 1 pound of wheat. You can save more water by not eating a pound of meat than you can by not showering for six months!

When you crave that steak, only buy meat from grass-fed livestock. Eating less meat can have health benefits too. Check out more information about the benefits of reducing meat in your diet by The Mayo Clinic.