Wednesday, November 23, 2011

Why Your Trees Might Not Make It

Winter is coming. Usually by now, giant acorns from our neighbor's burr oak tree are hitting the driveway like golf balls. Usually, squirrels are madly filling their winter larders with acorns and other provisions. Usually, I'm not this worried.

I don't see acorns in the burr, post, and blackjack oaks this fall. None. A few are up there in the branches, but they're so small—stunted by a devastating summer of record-setting heat and drought—that I spot them only when they drop onto the driveway.

I wonder what all the wildlife that depends on acorns and other seeds for winter forage will do between now and spring. I wonder if even a majority of them will make it to spring.

And I wonder about the trees themselves.

For landscapes in much of the country, this has been one of the toughest years in memory. If trees and shrubs weren't being flooded, or ravaged by high winds, they were being subjected to record-setting droughts and heatwaves. And let's not forget the blizzards and ice storms of last winter, or the catastrophic early snow in the Northeast this fall that shattered and felled countless trees that hadn't yet dropped their foliage.

Most tree species are built to take a lot—at least, they are when grown in the kind of climate where they evolved. Even so, there's a limit to what even the toughest tree can withstand.

We've had life-saving rains this past month, though experience tells us that the tap could shut off at any moment, plunging us back into the summer's exceptional drought. I have hopes that our trees will have enough soil moisture to tide them over at least until hard winter sets in. But we have our hoses at the ready, prepared to soak the ground around critical root zones if and when the soil starts to dry out again.

Other than that, it's a waiting game. Did some of the trees lose too much of their root systems during the drought? After being largely defoliated by a late-spring hailstorm, did they have enough leaves left to photosynthesize sufficiently and store energy? Will disease or pests attack before they can regain their former vitality?

Spring will tell.

Courtesy Pablo Solomon
I do have hope. Especially after hearing from my friend, artist Pablo Solomon. Pablo lost a big oak to a tornado three years ago. The same twister practically wrung the life out of a nearby mesquite tree. But this year, life sprang eternal, as the saying goes.

"After three years and a drought," reports Pablo, "the mesquite has decided to renew itself. Tough stuff."

His photo shows a healthy sprig of new growth sprouted from the side of what otherwise appears to be a dead stump—with the toppled oak in the background.

Which goes to prove my long-held belief that plants want to live if given half a chance. So we'll be ready with supplemental water this winter. And we'll be there to welcome our hard-weathered trees next spring if they're able to show up.

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