Do you remember how excited you were when we had those few days of really warm weather over the march break? We all felt that spring was coming super early this year and we were going to skip that phase of the spring where it's too warm to ski but too cold to spend time in the back yard. I will admit to secretly thinking that global warming isn't such a bad thing after all.
Also at that time all over the media, experts were speculating on what repeated ultra early springs could mean for our region. We could see more insects, more forest fires even more cases skin cancer et cetera. When it comes to trees, I was thinking about how the spring can be so climatically volatile and an early spring can easily mean severe damage to tender new leaves.
What has been happening over the past week and likely will continue for a few more days is that warm daytime temperatures are helping the trees to expand their leaves. At night however, we've been experiencing some cold night time temperatures that are freezing the new tissue and causing damage.
Trees will build new leaves late in the summer and keep them in tight buds that are held on the tree over the winter. In the spring, after the soil and roots thaw, trees send water up to the buds where the pre formed leaves are filled and expanded. During this process you can tap into that flow on sugar maple trees and make maple syrup. Usually bud break coincides with the last of the really cold nights where temperatures rarely go below zero and if they do it's only by a couple degrees.
Right now, because of the ultra spring boost, trees are working about two weeks ahead of the weather. Leaves are out of the buds on many species and filling with water. The freezing temperatures are turning the water in the leaves and twigs to ice and that expansion is causing plant cells to rupture and burst.
The net effect of this spring will take a few weeks to reveal itself. Many tree species will fare just fine but many others, particularly those whose range barely extends this far north, will experience some difficulties. These problems can range from light leaf scorching to wholesale leaf loss and branch death.
Two springs ago across the Prairies, green ash trees experienced very acute decline from this very phenomenon.
Should these fluctuations in spring weather remain a trend caused by global warming, we will certainly have some challenges to deal with down the road.
I recently read John Vaillant's "The Golden Spruce", a true account of a misguided environmentalist named Grant Hadwin who, undercover of night, felled the most culturally significant tree in British Columbia. This giant sitka spruce was special because its foliage glowed an unnatural gold unlike any other tree in the world. It was revered by the Haida nation as a living legend.
Hadwin had long objected to the mass deforestation on the west coast and killed the tree to try to prove a point that the loss of old growth coastal forests from logging cannot be justified by reserving small tracts of forest and individual specimen trees. You’d be hard pressed to find a West Coast resident that agreed with Hadwin’s actions; they were callous and cruel but he did accomplish his goal to raise awareness of the problems of coastal logging.
I was struck the similarities of the golden spruce calamity to the loss of our beloved white pine on the banks of Boulevard Lake last year. You may recall that am intoxicated fool with a chainsaw killed the tree that had been standing for well over a century. There was an outpouring of grief and anger over the incident as well as a clear appreciation for the tree before it was felled.
Unfortunately the motives behind the white pine’s destruction weren't those of an environmental activist. Had they been, perhaps as a community we too would have taken greater notice of the loss of our once majestic old growth forests. Wouldn’t it have been preferred to divert the all the media attention away from the crime itself to the fact that there are only a few handfuls of white pine of the same vintage that remain in our city?
Before Europeans arrived and began logging our area, the forests from thunder bay to Kenora were dominated by old growth red and white pine forests. Now all that remains are scattered individual trees and a few pockets of true old growth like at Greenwood Lake.
We have for so long been a community of loggers who have lost sight of the true value of our region’s forests. We have failed to cultivate our forests to become vast reserves of high quality spruce and pine instead we’ve let them degrade into messy tracts that we simply call “bush”.
To me, when we lose a veteran tree like the Boulevard Lake white pine, we’re losing our natural heritage. We as a northern community need to work harder to grow our forests to provide high quality building materials, products beyond raw pulp and two by four building studs. We as landowners need to get out into our forest and plant species like white pines where they can grow, protect them and give them room to grow into mature specimens.
That’s right. It’s the dead of winter and I’m still writing about trees.
Our city and our urban forest is geographically unique compared to most others in North America. We’re right in the middle of one of the biggest forests in the world. We are the polar forest opposite of our prairie companions like Winnipeg and Saskatoon.
For some, our proximity to limitless trees makes the need for a forest within our urban core miniscule. For most, we enjoy the forest around us and we’d like that canopy cover to merge seamlessly throughout our city streets.
And there, in my opinion, lies the root of a general lack of focus and investment in our street trees and backyard trees over the last several decades. Fortunately, thanks to the hard work of many “tree lovers” throughout our city, minds are changing and our populace is beginning to clearly see and understand the value of our street trees.
Our city’s government has done a fantastic job lately of nurturing and developing programs to enhance and protect our urban forest. They’ve enacted a tree protection bylaw and begun a cost sharing program that has drastically increased the number of new trees planted.
Collectively, as stewards of our city’s trees, we all have a long way to go. There still exists a general understanding that a tree is planted and then it’s removed when it gets too old or when it falls over on a windy day. Coaxing a tree along into graceful old age takes frequent attention by skilled and knowledgeable people.
The newest, and best so far, program to help grow a stronger urban forest is the Citizen Pruner Program. With two seasons under its belt, the program has produced over thirty volunteers, that through training and experience, are pruning the youngest of municipal trees to give them a better head start in life. Throughout the year they get together and prune away branches in young boulevard trees to encourage stronger growth and to reduce the chances of limb failures years down the road.
Not only are the Citizen Pruners positively changing our street trees, they have become a group of people who better understand the value of our trees and the attention and resources that it takes to grow them well.
There is still room to register for the program in 2012. You can find instructions on how to do so in The Key. Even if you don’t get involved, the fact that you’ve waded this deep into my article tells me you may be eager enough to speak up for the trees, for the trees have no tongues. Yup, that was a Dr. Seuss quote.