The early morning air was cool and refreshing, especially following a few days of hot and humid days. A backdrop of lingering ground fog formed layers of fog shrouding the tree lined road with varying degrees of intensity.
Ghostly in appearance, the larger trees stand out, giving a sense of size, while the smaller varieties melt into the haze of moisture that masks the details of their limbs. This obscure woods road will end at the edge of an open field. The area is familiar to me. A special place for a number or reasons.
The field is less than ten acres in size, small be some standards. Yet, decades ago it was home for someone, possibly a family. Today all that remains are stones used to support a foundation of a house, a few old apple trees, and an open field.
It is easy to speculate the type of crops that might have been planted in the field. Now the apparent crop being produced are the few apples produced by several old apple trees. The field stands tall with weeds. It is a wasteland when viewed by some. Yet there is more here than what meets the eye.
The overlooked jewels of this small field are the abundance of native plants. Plants that were readily found across PA prior to the settling of Penn’s Woods.
Back then there were a combination of native trees, shrubs, vines, and plants, 2,100 in all. Today those numbers have been drastically reduced. Estimates provided by iconserve Pennsylvania is that as of the year 2000 five percent of the state’s native plant species were eliminated and another 25 percent were in danger of becoming extinct.
Contributing factors to the loss of native species vary. Recently tree species have come under attack from insect pests and disease. But with less fan fair and at the same time, plants have been losing ground at an alarming rate.
PA’s Department of Conservation & Natural Resources defines invasive plants as species that are not native to the state, grow aggressively, and spread and displace native vegetation. Recently a pair of invasive plants making news has been mile-a-minute and Japanese knotweed.
Between a broad range of insects and diseases attacking trees and the spread of non-native plant species, these have and continue to be a problem.
In the case of mast producing trees that include beech, cherry, oak, along with hemlock, and many others, the value these trees provide to wildlife is obvious. But where do the native plants fit into the equation?
Right now a number of plants are working hard to provide a surprising amount of food and cover for wildlife.
The Common Ragweed is a high value plant providing food and cover for wildlife. The seeds of this plant are rich in oil and its seeds provide a source of winter feed for a number of game and non-game birds.
Goldenrod is another overlooked friend that provides dense cover favorable to cottontail rabbits, small mammals, and deer.
Ironweeds, generally found growing in old fields, wet locations, and meadows, produce seeds sought out by songbirds, game birds, and small mammals.
Asters & Fleabanes. Asters bloom in late August and into October. Fleabanes bloom in early June through September. Both plants benefit grouse, turkey, cottontail rabbits, along with deer.
Staghorn, or Smooth Sumac, is another high value plant that provides food and cover. The sumac benefits grouse along with an impressive number of songbirds. The plant also provides food for cottontail rabbits and small mammals. Deer will also feed on the bark and twigs of this plant.
Blackberries and Raspberries are all-purpose plants. This native plant provides cover. In the summer the plant’s berries are one of the most preferred summer foods of wildlife, from grouse to song birds, not to mention fox, raccoons, squirrels, and black bears. The leaves and stems of the plant are consumed by rabbits and deer. If there is one plant that is a year-round provider, this has to be it.
Often overlooked are native plants that provide a service.
The Common Milkweed is considered an important plant. Milkweed attracts pollinators along with other insects. The plant is critical to the lifecycle of the monarch butterfly and provides food to the caterpillar stage. But why consider pollinators?
Agricultural products and mast producing trees and shrubs that benefit wildlife need to be pollinated in order to produce.
Estimates indicate that within the U.S. alone there are 4,000 species of bees. Then there are butterflies. This insect community numbers about 700 species spanning North America. Moths, beetles, flies, hummingbirds, and even bats are pollinators.
Additional native plants that benefit pollinators include: Goldenrod, Ironweeds, Aster & Fleabanes, and Joe-Pye Weed, just to name a few.
The field where I spend time is dynamic and benefits wildlife, and yes, insects more than most would realize.
On the boundary of three sides of the field, two types of timbering has taken place over the past three years.
Along one boundary a clear cut took place. Into its second growing season since the timber was removed, already regeneration has started. Last year Blackberries began growing, and in the fall the growth provided an amazing amount of food for deer.
Along another side of the field a select cut of timbering took place.
The different timbering treatments will provide varying degrees to forest regeneration. Diversity is the important thing here.
Effective farming requires rotating crops in order to maintain healthy, productive fields. When it comes to cutting timber in a given area, trees are removed in “blocks” to provide varying age classes of regeneration.
This diversity coupled with careful attention to land use is already benefiting a greater number and wider variety of wildlife species.
In the future when visiting here, no doubt elderberry and Hercules Club will spring up within the new clear cut. Witch hazel will re-appear, and additional native plant species as well.
Over time I watched an area previously considered to be a mature forest transformed into what is labeled as successional habitat. The change will begin to offer much more as the area begins to blossom and provide new life.
As Pennsylvania’s vast acreage of forested land is maturing, trees will be harvested. However unlike the over harvesting of PA’s forested lands that took place during the late 1800s and into the early 1900s, things have changed.
Today’s forest management treatments are planned and designed for the immediate needs, also for sustainability.
And yes, even weeds have become an important component of today’s forest planning. Open area management and what will be established there is important. After all, forest management is not just about the immediate harvest of trees, it’s about what has been left behind, right down to the weeds.
q q q
Charlie Burchfield is an active member and past president of the Pennsylvania Outdoor Writers Association, an active member of the Professional Outdoor Media Association, Outdoor Writers Assoc. of America and the Mason-Dixon Outdoor Writers. Gateway Outdoors e-mail is GWOutdoors@comcast.net