Forests are critical to the health of the Chesapeake Bay—they protect clean water and air, provide habitat to wildlife and support the region’s economy. However, since European settlement of the region in the 17th century, deforestation has taken a toll on the once thriving forests of the mid-Atlantic region. Human influences such as development and parcelization have reduced forest acreage from 95 to about 45 percent of historic coverage.
Deforestation in the Bay region may seem a problem that is too complex to tackle, but one man, dubbed the modern-day Johnny Appleseed, is proof that a little curiosity, passion and hard work can have profound effects on the environment. John Smucker, a Technology Education teacher at Northwest Middle School in Taneytown, Maryland, has become a catalyst for reforestation efforts, melding his engineering experience with restoration initiatives.
Smucker recalls the moment 10 years ago that sparked his interest in forest restoration. “It all started behind my house with a reforestation effort, but all of the trees that were planted slowly died. I didn’t like that so I did a lot of research to help [the trees] out and fell in love with the process, which led me to start dropping acorns into empty tree shelters,” said Smucker.
The moment created a ripple effect that resulted in Smucker spearheading forest restoration by organizing volunteer plantings and entering into a partnership with Mount Saint Mary’s University and the Francis Scott Key Center. Both locations provide space for Smucker to grow the thousands of trees he uses for plantings.
Smucker spends about 700 hours every year in all aspects of creating riparian buffers, like meeting with landowners, auguring the holes, organizing the volunteers and also conducting the most critical part of the process Smucker says, maintenance. Plantings are held on Saturdays during April, May and October – the most opportune months for tree survivability and comfortable outdoor temperatures for volunteers to work.
When choosing planting locations, Smucker explains, “Being a grower really is a game changer for me, because I can fully understand what the trees need to survive.” Once a site is selected, he samples the soil, observes what plant species are in the area, spends time in his greenhouses flagging all of the appropriate trees for the site and rallies his volunteer base around the planting.
When it comes to tree plantings, the name of the game is fun and education. Many of his volunteers are young people who are in a mindset to learn. Each planting is preceded with an ecology lesson highlighting the importance of riparian zones, stream shading and nutrient removal. “As a middle school teacher it is important to organize the event so it’s fun and rewarding, because if they get frustrated, they will associate that frustration with tree planting. If they associate it with fun, then the environmental stewardship will perpetuate a lot better. If it’s organized right and goes smoothly then it’s a feel-good thing, just like in the classroom,“ Smucker explained.
Smucker encourages his students to work out solutions to engineering problems with the tree plantings and challenges them to think up innovative ways to overcome obstacles. “Tree planting and technology education are really the same thing. It’s problem solving and the engineering design process. What is the problem? What is the solution? Evaluate and modify,” said Smucker.
Over the years, Smucker’s volunteer base and partner organizations have expanded to the point where he has been able to launch an organization of his own, Stream Link Education, a nonprofit that organizes and leads tree plantings with local community members, organizations and businesses. “The coolest thing I think we do is Natives for Nonprofits. We grow trees for giveaways to other organizations, which is great because budgets are really tight and donations are hugely welcome. It also helps establish partnerships, not because I want something in return but because it’s neat to make connections,” said Smucker.
Smucker aims to perpetuate choices and actions by providing people with hands on educational experiences. “If you’re excited about something and value it, then demonstrate the value, they [the volunteers] will see it. The excitement can be catching,” he said. He continued to explain that in addition to educating others and improving the environment, his enthusiasm for restoration remains strong because he is still able to grow as well, “I’m going to turn 50 in January and I’m thinking, ‘if I do this right, I’ve got my 50’s and 60’s and if I can stay healthy, I can do this for a long time.’ And that’s great. There is always something to learn.”
To view more photos, visit the Chesapeake Bay Program's Flickr page
If last week’s sixty-degree days weren’t enough to convince you that winter has bid us farewell and spring is just around the corner, these harbingers of the changing seasons surely will! Take a look around your backyard, community or local park for these five telltale signs of spring in the Chesapeake Bay region.
(Image courtesy bbodjack/Flickr)
If you happen to live near a pond or wetland, you may be accustomed to hearing a chorus of “peeps” in early spring. The northern spring peeper is one of the first to breed in spring. This small amphibian’s mating call is described as a “peep,” but it can be almost deafening when hundreds of frogs sing in one location.
(Image courtesy bobtravis/Flickr)
These yellow beauties are the first bulb plants to pop up each March, sometimes emerging through melting snow and always signaling warmer weather ahead. Any gardener will tell you there’s no way to tell exactly when daffodils will bloom, but they seem to pop up almost overnight. A website tracks photos and reports of the first daffodil sightings each year around the world.
If you can’t get enough of these buttercup blooms, head over to the American Daffodil Society’s National Convention in April in Baltimore.
(Image courtesy Martin LaBar/Flickr)
Where there are flowers, bees should follow – but native bee populations have fallen rapidly in recent years. Find out how you can make your yard a bee haven and help give bees a home! (Don’t worry – most of the Chesapeake Bay watershed’s native bees don’t sting!)
A bee-friendly backyard will benefit you and your garden: bees pollinate plants and crops, a service that’s worth millions each year to our economy.
“PEENT! PEENT!” The mating call of the American woodcock may be a familiar sound if you stroll through in open forests this time of year. Males put on an elaborate show most evenings in early spring. After repeated “peents,” he flies upward in a spiral, reaching a height of about 300 feet. Then he begins chirping as he dives back down in a zig-zag pattern, landing right next to his chosen female.
Read how renowned nature writer Aldo Leopold described the woodcock mating ritual in A Sand County Almanac.
(Image courtesy Lynette S./Flickr)
This bright green, large-leaved wetland plant that appears in early spring may actually help melt leftover snowfall. Skunk cabbage generates temperatures up to 59-95 degrees above the air temperature, allowing the plant to literally break through frozen ground and sprout when temperatures are still too cold for other plants to sprout.
The plant’s foul odor attracts pollinators, including flies and bees, and discourages predators.
These dreary winter days got you down? Fortunately, there's still plenty of color out there! We’ve compiled a list of nine native plants that are particularly beautiful during our coldest season. Go on a scavenger hunt for them, or plan on planting them this spring to brighten up your yard next winter – not to mention provide food and shelter for wildlife all year round.
(Image courtesy Tigermuse/Flickr)
Two varieties of this small tree flower in late winter. Extracts found in witch hazel's bark and leaves help shrink blood vessels back to their normal size. Witch hazel extract is used in medicines, aftershave lotions, and creams that treat insect bites and bruises.
(Image courtesy Mary Keim/Flickr)
Wildlife feed on inkberry’s purplish-black berries, which often persist through the winter. Raccoons, coyotes and opossums eat the berries when other foods are scarce. At least 15 species of birds, including bobwhite quails and wild turkeys, also rely on this plant.
(Image courtesy Wallyg/Flickr)
Winterberry is very easy to grow, and isn’t susceptible to many pests and diseases. Its bright red berries stand out in mid-winter snow and look beautiful in holiday arrangements. Not to mention they provide excellent nutrition for winter wildlife. But be careful – they’re poisonous to humans!
(Image courtesy Patrick Coin/Flickr)
This low-growing shrub has purplish berries that last through the winter. In early summer, staggerbush's unique, urn-shaped flowers will surely accent your landscape beautifully.
(Image courtesy JanetandPhil/Flickr)
Yellow-rumped warblers rely heavily on northern bayberry’s berries, which have a waxy, light blue-purple coating. When this deciduous plant’s leaves are crushed, they give off a spicy scent. Bayberry essential oil is extracted from these leaves and used to scent many products.
(Image courtesy treegrow/Flickr)
Sumac berries are quite sour, so they usually aren't the first choice of wintering wildlife. But they are high in vitamin A and have helped many a bluebird when insects are scarce. Shining sumac’s shrubby nature is perfect for critters looking to take cover.
(Image courtesy flora.cyclam/Flickr)
Staghorn sumac is easily identified by its pointed cluster of reddish fruits, which often last through the winter and into spring. Since it can grow in a variety of conditions, staghorn sumac is perfect for novice gardeners. Humans have used the fruit to make a lemonade-like drink high in vitamin A. Native Americans used the plant to make natural dyes, and often mixed it with tobacco.
(Image courtesy Kingsbrae Garden/Flickr)
Southern arrowwood is an eye-pleaser year-round, with furry, white flowers in summer, wine-red foliage in autumn and dark blue berries in winter. This shrub prefers well-drained soils.
(Image courtesy underthesun/Flickr)
Yellow birch trees even smell like winter; when their twigs scrape together, they give off a slight wintergreen scent. The tree is named for the color of its bark, which will brighten up any winter landscape.
Do you have a favorite native plant that looks great in winter? Tell us about it in the comments! And if you’d like more suggestions for native plants that provide winter interest, check out the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service’s Native Plants for Wildlife Habitat and Conservation Landscaping: Chesapeake Bay Watershed.
Natural Resources Specialist Paul Carlson reaches up a red oak tree, his eyes fixated on the 3-inch-diameter vine that has wrapped itself around the oak’s trunk.
The vine is known as Oriental bittersweet (Celastrus orbiculatus) and its effect on the red oak is comparable to a boa constrictor’s on a human: it strangles the tree and prevents the bark from receiving sunlight, which all trees need to survive. Sometimes the bittersweet vine’s weight will even uproot the tree.
In other words, if this vine is left alone, it’s very likely that the red oak will die. Along with it will disappear the wildlife habitat, forest cover, carbon absorption, erosion control, shade and other important benefits the tree provides.
“Once you recognize it, you’ll see it everywhere,” Carlson says, in reference to the bittersweet vine. He pulls out a pruner and a folding saw and slashes away at the bittersweet. I can almost hear the red oak take a breath.
You may not realize it, but not all plants are good. Oriental bittersweet is one of dozens of non-native weeds, trees, shrubs and grasses that are aggressively invading the Chesapeake Bay watershed’s delicate ecosystems.
As their name suggests, non-native weeds are not originally from this region. Therefore, they do not have any predators, parasites or pathogens here to limit their spread. Invasive weeds:
It’s estimated that invasive weed damage and control costs the United States $138 billion annually.
Ecologists, conservationists, gardeners and park maintenance staff across the Chesapeake Bay watershed are constantly looking for cost-effective ways to control these plant invaders.
Carlson and Montgomery County Parks Forest Ecologist Carole Bergmann – who can provide the name and origin of any plant I point to without consulting a field guide or iPhone app – have found an economically feasible and environmentally effective solution to the non-native weed invasion in Montgomery County, Maryland.
It’s called “Weed Warriors”: a county parks volunteer program that trains and certifies volunteers to identify and remove invasive weeds. Since the program began in 1999, Montgomery County’s Weed Warriors have put in more than 40,000 hours of volunteer service.
As the forest ecologist for all 36,000 acres of parks in Montgomery County, Bergmann realized she needed volunteers if she wanted to make a dent in the problem. “I knew that I couldn’t possibly do all the things I wanted to do without getting more people involved and giving them more responsibility and control.”
Last month, the Alliance for the Chesapeake Bay named Bergmann a 2011 “Chesapeake Forest Champion” for her work engaging more than 800 volunteers through the program.
At the final Weed Warrior training of the year in early November, volunteers follow Bergmann and Carlson through the forest surrounding Rockville’s Meadowside Nature Center, where the program is headquartered. Bergmann instructs her new volunteers to focus on vines during the winter season, and Carlson wrestles with the fall foliage to demonstrate correct vine removal tactics. The group passes around each vine and shrub, touching the bark, counting leaf lobes, and even smelling berries. It’s essential for Weed Warriors to correctly identify these plants.
“If you don’t know, don’t pull,” Bergmann implores. A plant may look like an invasive weed at first glance, but it could be an important native species that birds and squirrels depend on.
While removing all of the invasive weeds in Montgomery County is not feasible, Bergmann insists that isn’t her goal.
“The benefit of Weed Warriors isn’t just technical assistance. It’s that these volunteers understand enough to tell their neighbors, ‘Don’t buy English ivy.’”
The aggressive nature of invasive weeds requires that entire communities get on board with their extermination. In high-traffic and urban areas, such as Montgomery County, seeds of invasive plants such as kudzu and Japanese barberry often enter parks on the soles and bike tires of families and recreationists. Home owners are usually unaware that the exotic ornamental plants in their yard can invade parks and forests, overwhelming native vegetation and wildlife habitat.
“What’s really important is getting people to understand these things,” Bergmann says. “And in a way, to love the natural world.”
Bergmann knows that a sense of attachment to the natural world is what drives many Weed Warriors to volunteer. She has designed her program to foster this connection. Once volunteers complete a one-hour interactive computer training and attend a two-hour field workshop, the new Weed Warriors receive leather gloves, a hat and a “green card” that allows them to remove weeds at any Montgomery County park, whenever they want.
“People don’t always want to work in a group on the third Saturday of the month in a park across the county from where they live,” Bergmann explains. “They want to work in their park, the park that they watch their kid play baseball in every Saturday.”
Vincent Bradley of McKenney Hills decided to become a Weed Warrior after he participated in his neighborhood’s biannual cleanup this fall.
“At the cleanup, I saw this plant, porcelainberry, just taking over all of the others,” Bradley recalls.
Like many other invasive weeds, porcelainberry was planted by millions of unknowing gardeners because of its pleasant, ornamental beauty: berries ranging in color from deep purple to brilliant turquoise. But to Bradley, the plant’s destruction in his neighborhood park was anything but beautiful.
Bradley began to pull on the bittersweet vines that elevated the porcelainberry. One day, a cleanup supervisor stopped him to explain that he was using the wrong technique: tugging on the vines instead of simply cutting them. Bradley decided he had more to learn if he wanted to make a difference.
“I always appreciated nature,” he says. “My father taught me about trees when I was a kid, and ever since, I’ve been interested.”
Bergmann advises Bradley and other Weed Warrior volunteers to maintain this sense of curiosity. “Come back every season,” she says. “You need to keep learning about your surroundings. It will make you happier.”
As invasive weeds continue to spread, policies are catching on. Many invasive plants are no longer sold in garden stores. Some municipalities, cities – even entire nations – are enacting legislation to limit their distribution.
For example, England has outlawed the cultivation of Japanese knotweed since 1981. In 1990, the UK classified the plant as a “controlled waste,” meaning that even the soil that once contained the plant must be disposed of at a licensed landfill.
Bergmann has some simple advice for all Weed Warriors, certified or not.
Want to get involved?
You can help stop the spread of invasive plants by signing up to become a Weed Warrior. Training takes place on the last Wednesday of the month from April to October. If you can’t make the commitment to become a certified Weed Warrior, you can still make a difference. Special Project Weed Warrior events offer community members the chance to learn about and remove invasive plants in their local county parks.
No matter where you live in the Chesapeake Bay watershed, you can still help stop the spread of invasive weeds. Here are a few invasive plant resources that can help you do your part:
(Porcelainberry image courtesy Steve Guttman/Flickr)
The Alliance for the Chesapeake Bay and the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service have launched the Native Plant Center, an online guide to help homeowners identify and choose plants that are native to the Chesapeake Bay region.
Users to the website, www.nativeplantcenter.net, can search for native plants by name, plant type, sun exposure, soil texture and moisture. Users can even find native plants with the same characteristics as some of their favorite non-native plants. The website also includes a geo-locator feature to identify plants suited to a user’s specific location.
Planting native plants is an important part of restoring the Chesapeake Bay. Residents who replace their typical backyard landscaping with native plants use less fertilizer and pesticides, provide critical habitat for pollinators, and reduce polluted runoff to storm drains.
The portal uses the U.S Fish and Wildlife Service’s native plant database, associated with the publication Native Plants for Wildlife Habitat and Conservation Landscaping: Chesapeake Bay Watershed.
To learn more about native plants, visit www.nativeplantcenter.net.
The birds are chirping, the sun is starting to feel warm on your face, and those afternoon thunderstorms are rolling in. It’s officially spring in the Chesapeake Bay region, which means it’s time to get outside and plant!
If you’ve been looking for a way to help the Chesapeake Bay, planting native plants in your yard is a great way to make a difference. Native plants are adapted to our region's environment, so they need less watering and no fertilizer – which saves you money. Less work, less cost and helpful to the Bay? Sounds great to us!
Here are ten native plants we recommend you plant in your yard this year!
Coneflower (or Echinacea) is a popular, long-lasting perennial that grows 2-5 feet tall. Its bright lavender flowers attract butterflies, hummingbirds and other beneficial wildlife. Coneflower is also known for its herbal remedies as an immune system booster.
Sweetbay magnolia is a slender tree or shrub with pale gray bark. It is native to all the Chesapeake Bay states, except West Virginia. It usually grows 12-20 feet tall, but occasionally reaches 50 feet in the southern part of its range. When in bloom, the plant’s fragrant magnolia flowers open in the morning and close in the evening.
Scarlet beebalm is a popular perennial with tufts of scarlet-red flowers. The 3-foot stems are lined with large, oval, dark green leaves that have a minty aroma. Scarlet beebalm will attract hummingbirds to your garden.
This popular, beautiful shade tree tree grows 40-60 ft. in cultivation, occasionally reaching 100-120 ft. in the wild. Red maple is named for its brilliant red autumn leaves. It has the greatest north-south distribution of any East Coast tree species.
Considered one of the most spectacular native, flowering trees, flowering dogwood is a 20-40 foot, single- or multi-trunked tree with white or pink spring blooms. Its fruit is known to attract birds and deer.
The eastern redbud is a 15-30 foot tree with a purplish or maroon trunk and a wide, umbrella-like crown. Its tight, pink flower clusters bloom before its leaves grow, offering a showy spring display.
Blazing star has long spikes of dense, feathery white or purple flowers that bloom from the top down. Birds, bees and butterflies will be frequent visitors to your garden if you plant these beautiful native flowers.
Boneset’s tiny, white flowers are arranged in fuzzy clusters atop 3-6 foot stems. Early herb doctors thought this plant helped set broken bones. Its leaves were wrapped with bandages around splints.
New York ironweed is a tall perennial, growing 5-8 feet in height. Its clumps of striking, deep reddish-purple flowers attract butterflies.
This perennial grows 2-4 feet tall and has showy, red flowers. Although relatively common, cardinal flower is scarce in some areas due to over-picking. Because most insects have difficulty navigating the plant’s long, tubular flowers, cardinal flower depends on hummingbirds for pollination.
For more information about native plants in our area, check out the Lady Bird Johnson Wildflower Center’s special Plants of Chesapeake Bay collection. This database contains hundreds of native plants and a link to a BayScaping guide that will help you use native plants in a Bay-friendly garden.
Welcome to the latest installment of the BayBlog Question of the Week! Each week, we take a question submitted on the Chesapeake Bay Program website or a frequently asked question and answer it here for all to read.
This week’s question comes from Claudia: “This past winter, a tall Japanese pine on [our bay property] uprooted and fell over in one of the storms. I would like to plant some small trees and bushes [to replace it]. What are the best to plant in this area?”
It’s a great idea to learn about plants that are native to our area before taking on a new landscaping project. Native plants are acclimated to the climate, soil and pests in our area. This usually means they require little to no fertilizer and pesticides. Native species also provide better habitat for wildlife such as bees, birds and butterflies, encouraging a healthy ecosystem.
An excellent resource to learn about native plants in our area is the U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service’s guide to Native Plants for Wildlife Habitat and Conservation Landscaping in the Chesapeake Bay Watershed. This document includes a wealth of information about Chesapeake natives.
You can search by type of plant, including:
Once you choose a type of plant, you can select an individual plant by its scientific name for more information, including height, flowering months, fruiting months, soil and light requirements, what wildlife it attracts and other details. For example, switchgrass grows 3-6 feet in clay, loam or sand, and has flowers July through October. It provides food for sparrows and is effective at controlling erosion. All of this information is vital to successful planning and maintaining your native landscape.
You can also search plants that have special purposes, including plants that are good for:
This section is helpful if you are trying to reproduce the natural habitats that plants are used to and to prevent excessive runoff and erosion.
Once you have determined what plants you want to plant, check out one of the following websites to find nurseries that sell native plants:
Do you have a question about the Chesapeake Bay? Ask us and we might choose your question for the next Question of the Week! You can also ask us a question via Twitter by sending a reply to @chesbayprogram! Be sure to follow us there for all the latest in Bay news and events!