Endangered Butternut trees naturalized in Vancouver?

Butternuts are a tree it’s hard not get obsessed with. Their famously rare, tasty, creamy, buttery nut. A nut that I’ve still yet to try, but (annoyingly) consistently read and hear people raving about. Even the Vikings, who were the first to cross the Atlantic Ocean to North America, seemed to love it. Old Butternut shells in a Viking encampment in Newfoundland and Labrador – too far north for the Butternut to grow – are proof the Vikings travelled deeper into North America then thought OR engaged in trade with First Nations. Both equally fascinating conclusions.

No nut for me yet because Butternut trees are endangered and headed toward extinction. The Butternut canker has killed a large percentage of their population and scientists now scrambling to create disease resistant hybrids to ensure they don’t vanish completely.

I’ve personally witnessed a number of young Butternuts planted in Ontario cities, only see them quickly killed off by the canker within a couple years of planting.

Butternut shape vs Black Walnut shape via Practical Self Reliance

I’ve spent a lot of time wandering around Southern Ontario cities and forests searching for large Butternuts but only twice have I come across two large and healthy ones. One growing in Kitchener along the banks of the Grand River which was apparently planted in the early 1900s as apart of abandoned arboretum but now is a mostly naturalized forest. Another, surprisingly, growing in someone’s front lawn just behind my apartment in Guelph. The city in their street-tree database had mislabeled it as Butternut’s sibling species, the very similar Black Walnut, but there was no denying those football shaped nuts compared to Black Walnut’s spherical, tennis-ball-looking ones. I got a good “deer in headlights” look from the owner of that house once when I caught them outside once and proceeded to give them waaay too much information about their tree.

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Those Fluffy White Seeds that cover Vancouver every late spring? Unlocking the secrets behind them could be a very powerful tool in fighting climate change.

Every late May the sky of Vancouver is full of swirling and dancing cotton seeds. They fly in through open windows, up noses, and cover the ground like snow. The source of these mischievous, poofy snowflakes is the towering Black Cottonwood (Populus balsamifera ssp. trichocarpa). It’s the tallest deciduous tree species in BC and maybe in Canada. Its long, thick trunk can hold its own against the mighty Douglas-Fir. However, unlike our giant conifers, at the top the canopy opens to a lush green and silver crown that seems to flash like a starry night sky in the wind.

And it doesn’t make any sense how it can get this big.

Or at least it didn’t. Until recently Science could only speculate how the Black Cottonwood could grow to such a massive size. Broadleaf trees, that lose their leaves every fall, require a lot of nutrients to grow and produce these leaves every summer. This is unlike evergreen conifers that use nutrients more efficiently by creating longer lasting leaves/needles. Typically, the tallest broadleafs are found in nutrient rich grassland or forest soils, but the Black Cottonwood somehow is able to grow to its huge size on disturbed or flooded soil where nutrients are lacking.

cottonwood_treeAs you pass by an empty city lot or dirt-covered back alley, take a closer look and you are sure to see some cottonwoods springing up. Their windblown seeds allow them to travel and invade soils from long distances away. How do they do it? How can they grow so big in such empty places?

The main nutrient trees need that is often lacking is Nitrogen, the key element in protein. It’s needed by all life for growth, movement, and DNA. In trees it is especially important because it is used for chlorophyll, the site of photosynthesis. No nitrogen, no leaves, no growth.

If you can’t remember your high school biology (or if you failed your UBC Bio Exam…), nitrogen is very abundant in the atmosphere, but it is in a form that can’t be used by plants or most life on earth. In fact, the agricultural revolution, and the reason you can find such a diversity of food at your local grocery store, is all thanks to the discovery of how to fix nitrogen in a usable form via a mechanical process. This “mechanically-fixed” nitrogen is how farmers manage to grow a new crop every year without exhausting the nitrogen in the soil. It’s also now where most of the nitrogen in your body ultimately comes from. It can be traced back to a nitrogen fixing plant somewhere.

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Blackberries, Bunnies, and Owls. An Urban Ecology Fantasyland in Vancouver’s Jericho Beach Park

Previously published as a twitter thread.

There’s a surreal, magical natural area in Vancouver’s Jericho Beach that deserves a thread. Cute bunnies that hop up and eat from your hand. Tame owls that will allow you get almost close enough to touch. Delicious Blackberries everywhere. Straight out of Disney Fairy Tale.

The rabbit population has become well known tourist attraction and the owls are just starting to become one – more and more birders coming in the evenings to get photos. It’s also a promised land for blackberries, people bringing buckets to fill up.

It’s great example of the complex relationships of urban ecology. The rabbits are European rabbits – abandoned domesticated pets – – and are considered an incredibly invasive species (especially in Australia). Their survival at Jericho appears to be tied with the blackberries.

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Suzanne’s Simard’s Finding the Mother Tree provides a spark to a potential plant intelligence revolution

Previously published by UBC’s student newspaper, The Ubyssey.

Let me pitch you a science fiction story idea: A young government scientist, working for a government forestry department, discovers evidence that trees are intelligent and self-aware beings. Her work grabs the attention of the public and media, but is ridiculed by fellow scientists and the forestry industry. As years go by, more and more studies come out that support her findings. Suddenly society as a whole is forced to grapple with the idea that plants might just be conscious beings.

If this sounds like it would be a fun read, it’s because it is. This is a story arc in Richard Powers’ Pulitzer Prize winning novel, The Overstory. Powers based this book on the true story of UBC’s Dr. Suzanne Simard, who recounts her firsthand experiences in her new part biography/part popular science book, Finding the Mother Tree.

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The Great Catalpa Craze of the late 19th Century

This is a blog post copied from a twitter thread of mine.

There is a wizened Catalpa in Vancouver’s Jericho Beach covered in “DO NOT CLIMB” signs. The tree was likely planted during the Catalpa Craze that swept North America in response to widespread fears of a “timber famine”.


There’s a branch stump on the tree and if you count the tight rings you’ll find the tree is at least 100 years old. Not that old for forest tree, but one year in a busy public park is worth three in the forest.

This age means tree was probably planted around 1900, right in the midst of the Catalpomina. In the 1900s the shock of the mass deforestation Eastern North America had done was starting to kick in. There were predictions that US only had 15 years left of usable forest lumber.

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The Perfect Invader – The European Sycamore Maple and Vancouver’s City Forests.

About a few weeks ago I removed a a small sapling of a European Sycamore Maple (Acer pseudoplatanus) from a forest near me in Jericho Beach, Vancouver. It’s considered an invasive, shade-tolerant tree in the park. In fact, a 2014 report on the park was stunned just how much the tree was dominating new growth in the park and outcompeting other trees. It recommended they be actively removed as much as possible, but also grudging admitted that is was so well established that it’s dominance in the park might just have to be accepted and worked around.1

I figured I could do my part by removing at least one seedling. And my interests weren’t completely selfless, I thought it be interesting to see if I could somehow grow this baby as a house-plant. Maybe try some bonsai? This was mid-January and the tree was leafless at the time (like all deciduous trees are during the winter) so I just tossed it in an old milk carton with some soil, placed it by my window, and planned on forgetting about it till spring. Hopefully it would awake from winter dormancy then, but my hopes weren’t too high.

I was blown away when only a couple weeks later, in the midst of a Vancouver snowfall, it had leaves! Also, perhaps even more amazing, a maple sycamore seed that I had unknowingly collected with my soil had sprouted and was growing quickly!

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It Doesn’t Make Sense Environmentally Or Economically, So Why Does Canada Continue To Cut Down Its Remaining Giant, Ancient Trees?

TJ Watt’s photos of Old Growth Trees before and after logging in British Columbia. Source: The Guardian

Trees are seen as the quintessential renewable resource. Cut one down, plant one, and it all evens out. But this isn’t exactly true. Consider the 1,000 year old giant trees that make up British Columbia’s Old Growth forests. Ontario used to to have trees like these, massive White Pines that were cut down to become the backbone of the British Empire as ship masts. Ontario’s massive White Pine forests are now all gone. Most Eastern North American Old Growth is gone, along with the huge number of creatures that depended on these forests for food and shelter.

Ancient forests are not something you can grow back. If it takes a thousand years, it is not renewable. This was a fact put forward in a recent Sierra Clube report on diminishing BC forests entitled, B.C.’s Old-Growth Forest: A Last Stand for Biodiversity and was also acknowledged in a following government report on old growth: A New Future For Old Forests: A Strategic Review of How British Columbia Manages for Old Forests Within its Ancient Ecosystems.

Now sure, if you want to, you can point to the large number of protected forests and parks that BC has. You can argue that old growth will be conserved. That there will always be some of it left. My argument though is that we shouldn’t be getting rid of any of it. Let me lay it out.

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Pandemic, Pine, and Charlie Brown’s Christmas Tree

Finding the “true meaning of Christmas” is something Hollywood wants you to think is more ethereal and challenging than it actually is. When I was young it was about presents and Jesus. Now that I’m older, I’ve realized the real value of the holiday winter break is simply because it is the only time of year were a large number of people collectively get a break. Yes, this isn’t true for a lot of people. But more of us get a break than any other time of year. The meaning of Christmas is getting a break with those you care about. Nuff said.

What I am really saying here though is I’m officially homesick for Southwestern Ontario. I hate it. I’m thirty-three hundred kilometers away in Vancouver and can’t go home for Christmas.

What really has me aching, is how different the landscape is in BC this time of year. Especially the trees. The otherworldly massive evergreens of the coastal forests of BC still stupefy me, but they also leave me yearning for the snow-covered deciduous forests of Ontario. The climate is much too wet for Ontario trees to grow here.

However, there’s one tree commonly planted in Vancouver’s smaller parks that still reminds me of home…. despite not actually being from my home. It’s the original Christmas Tree. The European Red Pine. Commonly known in Canada as the Scots Pine, Pinus sylvestris.

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A Tree of Two Worlds- On the Novelty of Pine’s Shade Intolerance

man standing surrounded with tall pine trees
A pine forest – @riccardomion via unsplash

Pine (Pinus spp.) trees fascinate me. Somewhere along their hundreds of million-year evolutionary history they decided to radically change their growth strategy away from their fellow coniferous, needle-leaf, trees. Pine trees instead adopted approach that was surprising similar to the new kids on the block, a new type of tree that was dramatically changing life on earth, the deciduous, broad-leaf, trees.

Coniferous trees (spruce, fir, hemlock) take a slow and steady approach to growth. While deciduous trees (oaks, maples, ash) live fast and die young. They grow in big bursts and don’t make it anywhere near the ages ancient coniferous trees can. Conifers leaves/needles last multiple years and are incredible efficient in water usage. Deciduous leaves typically only last less than a year, and their broad, flat surfaces use a large amount of water. Coniferous trees focus on growing tall with a long trunk and small side branches. Forming a triangular shape that helps them obtain immortality. Deciduous trees chase the sun, forming large branches that stick out every direction and angle.

Now it’s worth noting here that there are exceptions for every rule when it comes to plants. Its easy to find trees that behave differently to above generalizations (especially in diverse, intricate forests like the Amazon), but typically my generalizations above are correct. Having all these exceptions makes it hard to talk about trees. It’s one of the biggest things I’ve struggled with when blogging. How to generalize without misleading. How to find patterns and conclusions when there are always exceptions. It’s a wee bit frustrating.

However, there’s a rule about pine trees that I haven’t found an exception to yet. Pine trees seem to be the only conifer genus that has no shade tolerant species. This doesn’t sound like much, but stick with me. As I mentioned earlier, conifers take the slow and steady approach to growth. This allows conifers to become “climax species’”, which means they are the final form of species that end up dominating a forest. Slow growth + water efficient leaves is a combination that allows conifer seedlings to survive under the dense shade of other trees in a forest, biding their time till they can take over. Deciduous trees prefer open areas and grow best under full sun. Typically. deciduous trees establish a forest and then coniferous trees take it over.

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The Death of the Street Tree: The Elms of Winnipeg and Guelph

The Winnipeg Urban Forest. Photo by JOHN WOODS / WINNIPEG FREE PRESS FILES

It’s become a bit of a running joke among my friends how much I love the city of Winnipeg. To them its a frozen city in the middle of nowhere that’s the butt of a lot jokes, but to me – ever since I first arrived there on a freezing cold January morning to find I was locked out because my landlord had given me the wrong keys and taken off on vacation to warmer temperatures – it’s the greatest city in Canada.

Winnipeg is a regular target of the Simpsons

However, this blog post isn’t my “In defense of Winnipeg” masterwork that fundamentally alters how Canadians perceive their national geography (Keep an eye out for that though!). I just want to talk about one specific thing I love about Winnipeg here: The Trees.

Trees don’t do well in cities. Concrete compresses the soil and stops roots from expanding. Pollution stunts their growth and leaves them open to disease. In Canada they especially don’t do well because of the road salt over the winter. Come spring, leftover salt draws the incredibly important spring moisture out of a tree, deforming and essentially starving it to death. Ever wonder why you don’t see a lot of evergreen trees in downtown areas compared to leafy ones? No tree deals will salt that well, but it’s especially deadly to evergreens. Outside of cities (and away from humans) trees can live for a hundreds of years but in cities only about half of trees make it to 20.

White Pine (left) and White Spruce (right) are evergreens for which roadside salt is deadly. Images from TreeCanada

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