Essay Archive

June 2021

Pollen

Everyone recognizes the iconic orange and black monarch butterfly or the black and yellow European honeybee as pollinators, but many birds, butterflies, moths, beetles, flies, wasps, reptiles and even small mammals like bats can provide pollination services as well. Over 75% of all flowering plants are pollinated by animals. It is estimated that one out of every three bites of food we eat is the result of pollinators. What exactly is pollination, you ask? Pollination occurs when pollen is moved from the stamen or male part of a flower, to the stigma or female part of the same flower or to another flower of the same species. This causes the plant to produce seeds, nuts or fruit for reproduction. Some plants are able to self-pollinate, while others may be fertilized by pollen carried by the wind. But most flowering plants require a little extra help, and they have developed a myriad of techniques to attract pollinators. Wild Ginger (Asarum canadense) and Pawpaw (Asimina triloba) flowers have evolved to mimic rotten meat in color and scent to attract flies and beetles. Sphinx moths, on the other hand, prefer pale or white flowers that open in the evening and have a sweet smell. While some pollinators intentionally collect pollen, others move it unknowingly when it sticks to their body as they search for food, shelter or even a mate. Passionflower (Passiflora incarnata) is mainly pollinated by carpenter bees. Its flower shape matches the size and shape of the bee in such a way that pollen is deposited onto the back of a nectar-collecting bee and is carried to the next flower. Pollinators have evolved alongside native plants and have developed intricate relationships with them. In fact many pollinators only feed on specific native plant species. Up to 45% of native bees are considered pollen specialists, only using pollen from one species (or genus) of plants. Because hummingbirds specialize on nectar feeding, they play an important role in pollination. These small migratory birds serve as a link between plant populations by visiting flowers and moving pollen over great distances. The red color of Wild Columbines (Aquilegia canadensis) isn’t generally attractive to most pollinators, but Ruby-throated hummingbirds seek out that flower because their long beak and tongue are perfectly suited to its shape. Pollinators are considered keystone species, because many other species depend on them. They are vital to maintaining healthy ecosystems. Unfortunately their numbers are diminishing. You have probably heard of the decline of monarch and honeybee populations, but many of our other pollinators are in decline as well due mainly to loss of habitat as well as pesticide and herbicide use, pollution, disease, and climate change. Pollinators need our help! What can you do?

  • Plant native plants and remove invasive plants.
  • Eliminate or limit the use of pesticides and herbicides.
  • Reduce the size of your lawn.
  • Provide nesting sites.
  • Use amber or yellow lightbulbs in outdoor fixtures.
  • Tell local and state government officials that you care about pollinator health.
  • Inform and inspire others.

Pollinator Week is an annual event celebrated internationally in support of pollinator health and takes place June 21-27, 2021. Nic Patton  


May 2021

Sharing the Bounty

“If you have a garden, you have a nursery” a friend of mine once said, and he was right. Anyone whose garden regularly produces an overabundance of celandine poppies, beardtongues, wild petunia, coneflowers, black-eyed susans, grey goldenrod, or aromatic aster will agree. The grasses may be even more enthusiastic self seeders, for in an intentionally established meadow or prairie they tend to outcompete the flowers. Shrubs and trees, too, sprout from seed, sometimes in large numbers. I have passed along many St. John’s worts and eastern red cedars, and I could have given away a staggering number of oaks and maples, if I had the time and energy to dig up their long roots.

Wild ginger contributed to a Wild Ones Plant Exchange in the past

Many plants spread by underground rhizomes or above ground runners, either fast or at moderate speed. Who has not planted a well-proportioned clump of short-toothed mountain mint and delighted in the pollinators buzzing around its tiny flowers only to discover two years later that this spreader seems determined to take over the garden. My original arrowwood viburnum has sent up side shoots that grace other Lexington gardens now, and the same is true for my bladdernut, sweetshrub and Itea. Pawpaws and sassafras growing in gardens constantly beg to have their far-running suckers dug up, potted and given away.

So why have such aggressively spreading plants not taken over the world or at least their particular niche in it? The answer, of course, is competition. In its natural habitat a plant lives among dozens if not hundreds of other plants, all crowding in on its space. The wild ginger which has just emerged along hiking paths of the Bluegrass woods is embedded among its competitors: mosses, spring and fall-blooming wildflowers, ferns about to send up their fronds, emerging trees and shrubs. It never outgrows its space because that space is limited by all the other plants that want to grow there.

A garden, by contrast, is a piece of ground where nature has been disturbed, and weeding maintains that disturbance. Gardeners, by definition, will not tolerate their cherished plants to be hemmed in by clovers, dandelions, chickweed, crabgrass or other garden plants. Wild ginger makes a great garden plant. It can be a native substitute for hostas. Its neatly rounded leaves slowly expand from the center forming a deciduous ground cover in shaded areas. And like so many other native plants, it lends itself to being moved around. When a patch of ginger seems too large, their shallow but thick roots can easily be dug, potted up and shared. A garden is a nursery indeed!

Beate Popkin  


 

April 2021

Urban Nature 

Until quite recently, people thought that cities are places apart from nature. Even urban gardens and parks were designed to appeal to human eyes rather than respond to the needs of birds and pollinators. Cities, so the assumption went, exist to fulfill the desires of people, and nature exists in the fields, prairies and forests where plants and animals grow and live, largely separated from the threat that those desires pose to them.

But the assurance of in an intact nature unaffected by human exploitation is now gone. All plants and animals in all parts of the world are subject to climate change or soon will be. Species extinctions due to habitat loss occur with greater frequency. They also happen routinely when diseases and predators are introduced to parts of the world where organisms may be defenseless against them. Just think of ash trees threatening to go extinct in North American forests because the emerald ash borer was accidentally imported in shipping crates from east Asia.

All these threats originate in cities where human wishes are shaped and technologies are invented to fulfill them. Historians argue that from the beginning of civilization, that is for the last 10,000 years, cities could grow only because they extracted natural resources from the land that surrounded them. Now that over half the world’s population lives in urban areas, that resource extraction and the destruction of nature it entailed have truly gone global. Separating the natural environment from the urban environment no longer makes sense. There are no spaces on this earth where the evolution of wild species still occurs unaffected by the life humans have created for themselves. In other words, nowhere is nature independent from our urban spheres of concrete, steel and asphalt, dotted, here and there, with manicured greenspaces.

The City Nature Challenge questions a sharp division between the urban and the wild, but it reverses the common perspective: rather than focusing on the damage that urban habits and lifestyles inflict on nature (important though these issues are), the event proposes to celebrate the resilience of nature as it manifests itself in built-up areas. For it turns out that nature does thrive in cities. Plants and animals find spaces where they can live and reproduce.

Wanting to inspire urban dwellers to go out and discover, photograph, and document wild plants and animals all over Fayette County, The City Nature Challenge could hardly be more closely aligned with our Wild Ones mission. We have always promoted gardening for nature, no matter how small our urban plot. Participating in the Challenge allows us to leave our trowels in the garage for once, grab our phones or cameras and go out to just observe, record and enjoy nature. If we truly care about its destruction – about climate change, habitat loss, species extinction – would it not be a good idea to start by knowing the nature around us: the habits of the birds at our feeder; the species of bees collecting pollen on the clover in our lawn; the names of the wildflowers that may have survived along a creek after a hundred years of urban development?

Beate Popkin

 

 

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 Cole


 

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