Essay Archive

March 2021

The Miracle of a Dying Tree

The red oak tree in our wooded backyard had been there for decades. It stood looking over Herrington Lake and every year was a host to birds and caterpillars of many species. A piliated woodpecker visited it regularly and barred owls hooted from its branches at night. It was a treasure and an important part of the natural, native environment that we have allowed and encouraged. And then it died last year, suddenly with little warning. It was not close to our house and was not falling apart onto other trees. What to do?Our arborist, Jason McKinney, who loves naturalized gardening, said it was a hardwood which could stand for some time. It was obvious he was not anxious to cut it down. And so, we decided to leave it, at least for a while, and see what would happen.Last spring, there it was, 50 feet tall, still towering over the trees nearby, but its leaves and its shade were gone – though other shorter trees helped fill in the spaces. The wildflowers sprung to life and bees flocked to the Virginia bluebells, mayapples, foam flowers, wood poppies and wild columbines that were encouraged by a bit more sun. A two-foot tall tulip poplar that had planted itself a few years ago began to grow with abandon. It even had two blooms for the first time. Small maples also began to grow. A bald eagle lit in the top of the dead tree during a hard rain and stayed there for almost 30 minutes, too soaked to fly. And, magically, the first hummingbird of the season came to the columbines, touched every bloom, then flew onto the tip of a bare branch and rested there between sips of nectar.By fall, we were so very happy with our decision to let nature care for itself. Color was provided by the red leaves of the Virginia creeper that quickly took possession of the dead trunk. The red and sugar maples growing behind the tree were now much more visible. Wood asters and zigzag goldenrods that had languished there for 13 years were happy in less dense shade and covered by small skipper butterflies and tiny bees. The hummingbirds were gone but other migrating birds were everywhere and could now be observed easily. A screech owl took up residence in a hole near the top of the trunk. And that tulip poplar was taller than myself and would keep growing.The words “Leave It Be” come to mind every time I gaze at our old friend. I can’t wait to see what treasures the red oak will bring in the future. Life goes on and, in its dying, the tree became a beacon for those that were left behind.Linda Porter 
 February 2021

Transforming Downtown Lexington: Town-Branch Park

With all the pandemic bad news in 2020, you might have missed hearing about an ongoing project to create a vibrant new park in the heart of downtown Lexington. Town Branch Park will be more than nine acres in size replacing the Manchester Street Parking Lot between Oliver Lewis Way and the updated Rupp Arena complex (see the Google Street View for the location).Town Branch Park is part of a transformative plan for downtown Lexington. Three organisations are involved in implementing the plan, and two of these have “Town Branch” in their name. So the relationships between these organizational entities and the physical locations for which they are responsible can be a bit complicated.Town Branch Park is a private 501c (3) organization founded in August 2019 as a park conservancy to build and then maintain Town Branch Park. This is the first park conservancy in Lexington but many exist around the country. In Louisville, the Olmstead Park Conservancy works with Louisville Parks and Recreation to maintain the Louisville parks. New York City has a Central Park Conservancy and the famous High Line Park in New York was created using the conservancy model. In fact, in July 2020 Town Branch Park joined the High Line Network, https://network.thehighline.org/ .The City of Lexington is developing Town Branch Trail, a bike and pedestrian trail part of which will run through downtown from Third and Midland to Rupp Arena. From there it will continue along Town Branch Creek ending at the entrance of Masterson Station Park.Town Branch Commons is a sort of umbrella organization for both Town Branch Park and Town Branch Trail. It is made possible by a public-private partnership between Town Branch Park (the conservancy) and the City of Lexington. Town Branch Commons, however, is also the name of a physical location, a sort of roadside park that will run from the Isaac Murphy Memorial Art Garden on Midland and Third to Town Branch Park connecting two downtown parks. The Town Branch Trail runs through the Town Branch Commons area along Midland and Vine. If you have been downtown, I’m sure you have noticed this on-going construction.Regardless of how these Town Branch entities are related, the group of projects will transform downtown. Town Branch Park will serve as the hub, connecting the Town Branch Trail to the Legacy Trail. Park plans include daylighting some of the original Town Branch stream.Economic benefits include assisting the city with storm water management and with meeting the requirements of the EPA Consent Decree finalized in 2011. Since the park is adjacent to the new entertainment complex, Rupp arena and the convention center the park will enhance the downtown experience supporting tourism and property values.In addition, the park will add much needed green space and tree canopy to downtown. The Trust for Public Land ranks each of the 100 largest U.S. cites based on access to public parks. Lexington’s rank is 62 with only 54% of Lexington residents living within walking distance (½ mile) of a park (https://www.tpl.org/city/lexington-kentucky ). By comparison, Cincinnati ranks 5th with 82% of residents living within walking distance of a park.Come join us at our Feb. 4 meeting (by Zoom) to find out more about Town Branch Park. I am looking forward to enjoying downtown Lexington and our new park in the future.Laura Cole
 December 2020

Biodiversity in Kentucky

Have you ever wondered about the biodiversity of Kentucky and more specifically the Red River Gorge?Kentucky boasts a wealth of native biodiversity. The rolling hills, plains, and mountains in our state contain over fifteen thousand insect species, two thousand plant species, about three hundred seventy bird species, as well as over five hundred arachnid species…which some of you may not be too happy to know about. One of our state’s ecological hotspots is the Red River Gorge located in Slade, KY. This site is known to host over one thousand five hundred different plant species. Our upcoming speakers are specialists on this topic and will be highlighting the native plant diversity of the Red River Gorge on Thursday, December the third at 7:00 PM via Zoom.So, what are some threats to our biodiversity?

Wooly adelgid on hemlocks in the Gorge

Invasive plant and insect species pose some of the greatest threats to our biodiversity. We all know of the common urban menaces such as bush honeysuckle, winter creeper, and the brown marmorated stinkbug. Hemlock wooly adelgid, an import from Asia that looks like an aphid, is currently wreaking havoc on our native hemlocks in areas like the Red River Gorge. The insect feeds on sap and coats the leaves with a waxy substance. This feeding process eventually cuts off nutrient flow and kills the tree. Hemlocks offer shade in many river valleys and near streams. The loss of these trees can disrupt the temperatures of our waterways which reduces biodiversity. Some of the easiest ways to prevent the spread of pests like these are to make sure you clean and change shoes when hiking. If you know you are working in an area with lots of invasive species it is wise to sanitize clothing before going into another natural area. Public education about biodiversity is our best ally, and donating to local environmental organizations that protect native species is one of the best ways to preserve our natural heritage.Cody Jones
 November 2020

The Natural Areas of Fayette County

We in Lexington are fortunate to have three designated natural areas under the care of the city’s Department of Parks and Recreation: McConnell Springs, Raven Run and Hisle Farm Park.  On November 5 Wild Ones offers an opportunity for our members and Friends to hear from the newly appointed director for these natural areas, Jennifer Hubbard-Sanchez.

Spring wildflowers at Raven Run

According to an LFUCG brochure called Bring Back the Bluegrass, “Lexington’s natural areas exist to preserve the beauty of the Kentucky Bluegrass Region.”  Each natural area is unique. However all are open for public use, all three are noted as good spots for bird watching and all are managed to promote native plants.You are all probably familiar with McConnell Springs, a smaller park of 26 acres located right in town.  I was sure I was lost on my first visit because the road into the park runs right through an industrial area.  The park has walking trails for foot traffic only; it is a unique experience to walk through the trees hearing (and sometimes smelling) the industrial processes going on out of sight.  McConnell Springs has a number of very interesting hydrological features and a 250 year old Burr Oak.  The park gets a 4.5 rating on Tripadvisor.com; visitors noted the nice visitor’s center, the trails and the charm of this park in the middle of industry.  The Friends of McConnell Springs is a 501c(3) organization that works with LFUCG to support the park as a historical site and natural area.  In 2019 Wild Ones provided a grant to support the planting of native shrubs in a detention basin in front of the McConnell Springs visitor’s center.

Kentucky River from the Raven Run overlook

Located in south eastern Fayette County along the Kentucky River, Raven Run is a much larger park at 734 acres. The park showcases the Kentucky River Palisades (including flora and fauna) and is known for its wonderful spring wildflower display. I’m sure you have enjoyed wildlife viewing and scenic overlooks along the 10 miles of walking trails.  It always feels very remote from the city even though it is within Fayette County.  I have found it especially enjoyable during the pandemic since this popular park is subject to capacity restrictions; however, currently (in October 2020) pre-registration is required for hiking.  Raven Run is also supported by a 501c(3) organization, the Friends of Raven Run. Volunteers work on invasive plant control and trail maintenance.  Raven Run has a nature center with a native plant garden in front.

Hisle Park in winter

Hisle Farm Park is the newest (and least known by the public) Fayette County natural area.  My first visit was this year for a Wild Ones event. It is on an old 280 acre farm with wide trails through rolling pasture land about 5 miles north east of the city.  Trails are shared use for hiking or horse riding, leashed pets are allowed.  The old farm pond is available for fishing.    The website greatruns.com notes Hisle Park as a good place for a hilly trail run in Kentucky horse country. Apparently, Hisle Farm Park does not have a Friends organization yet and it isn’t listed on TripAdvisor, so now is the perfect time to visit this park.As part of the creation of the LFUCG 2018 Master Plan, the public expressed a need for more hiking opportunities, walking trails and more natural areas.  LFUCG Parks and Recreation Management’s goal is to naturalize more park space in Fayette County benefitting both people and wildlife.  So, join us for our November 5 Zoom meeting to explore the future of our Fayette County natural areas.Laura ColeOctober 10, 2020

Some Reflections about Pruning Trees

Urban trees live in a very different environment from trees in the forest. They are often surrounded by pavement, struggle with compacted soils and absorb polluted air, while forest trees grow in loose shaded soils rich in organic matter. But there is one thing urban trees tend to have going for them: plenty of light and space to spread their branches. Forest trees, by contrast, must compete for light losing their lower branches as they struggle to reach the life-giving sunshine.

White oak in Gainesway subdivision

From our perspective as urban dwellers we could say that forest trees prune themselves as they grow. City trees, on the other hand, require pruning so that they can accommodate the activities taking place around them. For most people pruning a tree means simply cutting off the branches that are in the way of mowers, pedestrians, cars, buildings, or any other object that we value in our human-made world. Few consider pruning to give a tree a healthy structure so that it can live a long and trouble-free life in the urban environment. Part of the reason is that pruning cuts made for the tree’s health require some understanding of its growth and are less intuitive than the cuts we make for human convenience.

Pruning cut beginning to heal

The question how a tree will live in the space where it is placed arises a year or so after planting when it has largely recovered from transplant stress. During the first year it needs all its leaves to photosynthesize and help it develop a strong root system, but after that it can shed up to 25% of its foliage during pruning without suffering harm.

Pruning cut almost healed

Young trees in open spaces often develop one or several strong branches starting low on the trunk. Or a central leader may split a few feet above ground into two equal upward striving trunks which will cause instability later. To correct either of these situations seems to require cutting off a large portion of the young tree, more than the 25% it could easily cope with. There is, however, a better approach. Removing those large branches (or the unwanted co-leader) should be spaced out over two or even three years. In the first year they can be cut back by one half or one third of their length. This encourages the tree to invest more of its energy into its trunk and other branches while the trimmed branch (or co-leader) becomes weaker and thinner by comparison. Eventually it can be cut off altogether.

Pruning cut prevented from healing due to stump

Good pruning cuts are always made at the base of the branch being pruned so that the wound can heal quickly. Branches usually form a “collar”, more or less obvious, where they grow away from the trunk or a larger branch, and the cut should be made just outside that collar. The wound that results diminishes in size as the bark encircles it and eventually grows over it. The pruning wound will not heal as long as a dying stump protrudes from it. (See illustrations)A tree that gracefully occupies the place for which it was designated is an object of great beauty. It spreads its evenly spaced  branches without encumbering humans and lives in harmony with the built environment. Watching and gently steering its growth is a gratifying project that can help us reflect about the intersection between the social and the natural worlds on the basis of personal experience.Beate Popkin