If you drive along Illinois Route 120 between Woodstock and McHenry, you have surely seen the Wolf Oak Woods property. This is the site where “that oak” lives. You know, the large bur oak whose branches touch the ground!
Governor Rauner officially declared October to be OAKtober this year to help raise awareness of Illinois’ oak legacy.
The white oak, Quercus alba, is the state tree because of the tree’s importance to the natural heritage and economy of Illinois. White oaks occur in every county in the state.
The wood from these tall, sturdy trees was used by early settlers for furniture, fence posts, barrels and flooring. Native Americans used white oak bark and roots to make medicines to treat a variety of ailments ranging from mouth sores to asthma.
With Earth Day on April 22 and Arbor Day on the last Friday in April, this month is all about life on our home planet. (Check out those salamanders in the photo! Nothing says spring like a handful of baby salamanders!)
Earth Day was the brainchild of US Senator Gaylord Nelson of Wisconsin. After seeing the destruction caused by an oil spill in California in 1969, Nelson recognized the need for a national, grassroots movement focused on the issues of air and water pollution. He built bi-partisan support for the effort, and recruited an organizer to pull Earth Day together for April 22, 1970.
“We are responsible for the third generation of oaks in McHenry County.” Mary Tree McClelland, horticulturist, Glacier Oaks Nursery in Harvard.
To Mary's way of thinking, the first generation of oaks was the one that was here when European-American settlers moved into the county in the mid-1830s. At that time, nearly 40% of McHenry County was covered in oak woodlands or savannas. The remainder of the landscape was prairie, wetland, and open water.
By 1872, settlers had cut half the original oak woods, whittling them down to just 18% of the county, or about 70,000 acres. The second generation of our oaks is the one that sprouted and grew since the 1830s, but they never regained the ground lost in those early years of settlement. In fact, during the second generation, oaks have steadily lost ground to farming and development, so that today, oak woods cover just 4% - 14,000 acres – of the landscape.
Of the remaining oak woodlands, very few, perhaps 25%, are healthy. The vast majority are dying off as oaks are choked by invasive shrubs like buckthorn and honeysuckle, and rapidly-growing trees like box elder. Acorns fall, young oaks sprout, but they never grow to adulthood because they are shaded out by the invaders.
As the second generation of local oaks nears the end of its natural life (200 years?), the county faces the prospect of the third generation being nothing more than a handful of remnants in public natural areas – just like zoo specimens.
There is a different way. The descendants of the early settlers and the new settlers who arrive by the thousands each year have a choice. The community can choose to plant oaks. Not just specimens in backyards, but actually recreating oak woodlands and savannas on the soils where these woodland communities once thrived.
And, our community can choose to take better care of the oak woodlands that remain by clearing invasive brush and giving the young oaks sprouting in the woods a chance to mature.
If local settlers – new and old – choose to help, the third generation of oaks can thrive!
Look for "Oak Rescues" that TLC holds throughout the winter months. These are days when volunteers gather on a privately-owned property for the purpose of helping the landowner clear invasive buckthorn and honeysuckle from around some ancient oaks. We get a good brush fire going, have something warm to drink and even cook some brats over the fire for lunch once the work is done. Contact Linda for more information.
The season known as fall started September 22nd in the Northern Hemisphere.
My first clue that autumn’s arrived is the transformation of green fields of soybeans into golden, then brown expanses as the plants die. A drive along just about any road north or west of Woodstock seems to transform overnight from green, rolling hills of corn and beans to a patchwork of greens, yellows, golds and browns, as crops reach maturity and die before harvest.
Other colorful fall crops include pumpkins and apples. Whether you choose to pick your own, or purchase apples, pumpkins and gourds from a farmstand, the brilliant golds, greens, reds and oranges of these fall fruits are sure to delight the senses!
Early autumn finds goldenrod in bloom, followed quickly by asters and their variety of hues ranging from white to pale lavender to deep purple. You can see these plants growing at the side of many roads or take a trip to a local natural area to see them up-close.
Trees are the last addition to autumn’s color palette, with oak groves the dominant woodlands in this area. White oak leaves turn a lovely reddish-brown when conditions are right, while red oak leaves turn a dark red. Bur oaks offer some contrast, turning a yellow or pale brown before losing their leaves for the winter.
So, why do we have all of this color in the fall? The fall-blooming flowers have colorful flowers for the same reason summer-blooming plants do – to attract pollinators. Bees, butterflies and even some birds like hummingbirds are able to feed on these flowers before traveling south or going into hibernation for the winter.
Trees and crops change colors through a chemical reaction that occurs as the days grow shorter and temperatures drop.
Plants are green because of the chlorophyll they produce during the growing season. The chlorophyll absorbs light to create the energy that plants need to turn carbon dioxide and water into oxygen and carbohydrates which the plants use to grow and flower. While growing, plants must continuously produce chlorophyll since it is an unstable compound that breaks down rapidly.
As temperatures drop and the days become shorter, plants stop producing chlorophyll, and the leaves lose their green hue. Other chemicals in the leaves, specifically carotene and anthocyanins, are more stable than the chlorophyll, and so their presence determines the color that leaves become once the chlorophyll is gone. Some leaves turn yellow because they contain high amounts of carotene, while others turn red in response to the high amounts of anthocyanins in their leaves.
Dry, sunny days followed by cool, dry nights produce the best show of fall tree color. This promises to be a beautiful fall.
Oaks are tough. But they aren’t invincible.
On my daily commute between Harvard and Woodstock, there are several majestic oaks I’ve admired over the years that are showing signs of decline, and even a few that have been removed in recent months.
The declining trees tend to be close to Route 14, and signs of stress can be seen as upper branches die off, or perhaps the leaves turn brown and fall earlier than other trees.
These veteran trees are 200 or more years old, but if given proper care, one would expect them to live at least another 100 years.
So, why are they dying?
It is rarely one thing that kills an oak. Rather, these distinctive trees often succumb after a combination of stresses wear them out. The usual suspects include:
- Age. Let’s face it, as any of us age, little things that may have been “no big deal” when we were young can be harder to recover from as we age. The same is true for trees.
- Changed hydrology. Hydrology is the surface and below-ground flow of water in an area. As roads are built, rebuilt and widened, the flow of water changes, and this affects the trees near to the road. Another way that hydrology is changed is through tiling of farm fields to change the water table levels.
- Invasive plants. Buckthorn, honeysuckle, maples and other fast-growing trees shade out the lower branches of oaks, causing those branches to die. Groundcover plants like garlic mustard change the soil chemistry, which is believed to affect the fungus and microbe populations in the soil.
- Damage. Digging a foundation near an oak, building a road, compacting or adding soil underneath or pruning branches during the growing season will damage oaks. The root system of oaks is near to the surface, so compaction will crush roots and adding soil can smother them. Also, an oak’s root system extends at least twice as far from the tree as the canopy, and when the roots are severed, it may not kill the tree, but it is another stress.
- Disease. Oak wilt has been around for many years, and while it is almost always fatal for red oaks, it rarely kills the white or bur oaks, as they have a natural resistance. The beetles that spread the disease gain entry to the trees when they are damaged – or pruned – during the growing season.
What can be done to help these trees live out their natural lives?
- Avoid damaging roots through compaction, mounding soil or excavation around oaks.
- Remove invasive plants by cutting brush and painting the stumps with herbicide to ensure they will not regrow. Pull garlic mustard in the early spring and add seed from native grasses and flowers to help keep it from dominating the understory.
- Prune oaks between October 15 and March 15 when the trees are dormant. Ideally, hire a certified arborist to remove dead branches every 4-5 years to keep the trees healthy.
By taking care of the oaks, they will provide beauty and enjoyment for many generations.
TLC holds a fall oak sale each year. All trees are grown at a local nursery from locally collected acorns. Thirty percent of proceeds support efforts to plant more oaks throughout McHenry County, and the remainder supports the growing and care of trees that are sold and planted. Click here to place an order by Monday, October 7th, or call the office at 815-337-9502. Trees can be picked up at TLC’s office, 4622 Dean Street, Woodstock on October 11 and 12.
We worked with a group of 9 volunteers the other day to plant 120 oak trees. While taking a mid-morning donut break, folks were talking about whether or not we should be planting species other than native oaks because of climate change. The concern was that as the climate warms, the more northern species will not fare as well as species that are found further south.
I explained that the species of oak most commonly found in McHenry County – white, bur, red, black and scarlet (or Hill’s) – occur throughout the State of Illinois. That’s right, one can find these same species of trees in the southernmost part of the state with a climate more similar to southern Missouri than northern Illinois.
A couple of folks also mentioned the summer drought, wondering how we could possibly water the 2-4 year-old seedlings enough if there is a drought next year.
Frankly, we couldn’t, and we won’t. The oaks are on their own, as trees have been for millennia. I pointed to ten young oaks that were planted just two years ago, noting that they were all doing fine despite no additional water during the recent drought.
Just imagine, oaks were thriving on every continent except Antarctica long before humans were much more than food for larger animals. I’m guessing they have a few tricks up their genetic sleeves.
As we resumed digging and planting, I looked over at a nearby bur oak that was close to 300 years old. It grows on the fence line between the planting site and the adjoining farm field. That tree was growing in that same location before the Declaration of Independence was signed. That oak survived a series of droughts in the 1930s (known as the Dust Bowl years) and a severe drought from 1954-56.
We’ll keep planting oaks.
“Green infrastructure" - as opposed to traditional built infrastucture like roads - includes the living systems like wetlands and woodlands that provide essential support to our communities in the form of reduced flooding, improved air quality and enhanced water quality.
The illustration shows a classic green infrastructure network of core areas linked by corridors.
The recently unveiled McHenry County Green Infrastructure Plan identifies a network of undeveloped lands that will help ensure the county’s human and natural communities can support one another in perpetuity. The plan includes recommendations for preservation of the existing wetlands, oak woodlands, prairies and streams, use of built green infrastructure like raingardens and green roofs, and the needs of green infrastructure to supports the county’s full diversity of plants and animals. A copy of the plan and maps can be found at www.co.mchenry.il.us/departments/planninganddevelopment/.
A green infrastructure vision for McHenry County is also included in the Chicago Wilderness Green Infrastructure Vision (CW-GIV), due for release later this month. Chicago Wilderness covers an area that extends from southeast Wisconsin all the way around the southern end of Lake Michigan and into southwestern Michigan. The CW-GIV will be a guide to “creating a region where healthy ecosystems contribute to economic vitality and a high quality of life for all residents” (www.chicagowilderness.org). Additionally, the vision will provide a blueprint for preservation of the region’s biodiversity by focusing conservation efforts on preservation and restoration of the lands and waters necessary for the full diversity of native plants and animals found in the region to thrive.
Back in 1999, Chicago Wilderness, a regional alliance of more than 200 conservation organizations, published a Biodiversity Recovery Plan for the region. It may come as a surprise, but the Chicago Wilderness geographic area is home to an amazing diversity of globally rare plants, animals and natural communities.That’s right, despite a human population of more than 8 million people, plants like the prairie white-fringed orchid, animals such as the Blanding’s turtle, and natural communities that include fens, bogs and oak savannas all survive on the planet due – at least in part – to conservation efforts in the greater Chicago region.
Part of the ecological success is due to more than 370,000 acres of land that has been preserved by local, state and federal government agencies. However, the vast majority of land in the region is owned by individuals – it always has been and always will be – and the decisions those landowners make to preserve, restore or develop their land will determine the character and environmental health of the region.
When one looks at the portion of Chicago Wilderness that is in Illinois, there is one county that stands out for the remnant natural communities that exist – and natural areas that could be restored: McHenry County.
For those who live here, that fact is no surprise. Local rivers and streams, including the Nippersink and Kishwaukee, are among the highest quality in the entire state. The local oak woods – while greatly diminished from the 1830’s – are the most substantial remaining oak woods in northeastern Illinois. A great diversity of wetlands from sedge meadows to fens and seeps are still found here. Plus, more than half of the land in the county is farmed, so many of the wetland areas that were drained for farming 80 or more years ago are still farmed today, meaning that there is an opportunity to restore those areas someday.
Private landowners have left an amazing legacy in McHenry County – in some cases by accident, in others, by design. The green infrastructure plans articulate a clear vision that all landowners, conservationists, local governments and developers can follow to ensure that the future balance between people and natural resources in McHenry County is not left to chance, but is preserved by design.
It seems that local trees have been in the news a lot this year. And it looks like the trees are often losing to "progress" or "infrastructure."
Here are just a few of the items I've heard about recently:
Utilities wanting greater power to remove trees if they think they are a potential problem.
Illinois' State Rep from Marengo introduced legislation last fall that proposed giving electric utilities the ability to remove any tree that they deemed a potential problem if it were within 20 feet of one of their power lines. If the bill had passed, utilities would have been able to remove trees on private property, and it would have been a crime for the homeowner to interfere.
My response: Okay, the whole proposal was an enormous give away to the power companies. In communities where power lines run through back yards, it could have resulted in the removal of thousands of trees, forever changing the character of communities, in addition to increasing stormwater run off and reducing property values. The reason for the legislation was to reduce prolonged power outages due to downed power lines following storms. If the utilities really wanted to reduce power outages, they would bury the lines instead of removing the trees.
IDOT taking down "hazardous" trees along their routes.
You may have noticed that quite a few trees came down this spring along Route 120 between Woodstock and McHenry, and Route 23 between Marengo and Harvard. This work was commissioned by the Illinois Department of Transportation as part of their regular maintenance. Trees in the right-of-way that were dead or leaning over the road were marked and then removed to prevent them from one-day falling on someone.
My response: IDOT is well within their rights to do this, and their intentions are good. I just wish they didn't view the trees that are located in the right of way as "their" trees, and I wish there were some requirement that the public be notified when a project like that is proposed. The trees do not belong to the state, they belong to the residents of Illinois, and it seems the public should receive some notice before our trees are removed.
Municipalities proposing to remove many large, old trees to rebuild roads, put in sidewalks and/or install stormsewers.
Recent proposals in Algonquin, along Fleming Road, and Alden Road between rural Woodstock and the Wisconsin state line, all gained public notice in large part because so many large, old trees were proposed to be removed. To some people, if a tree is located in the public right of way, and the road authority wants to widen or "improve" the road with curbs and stormsewers, those trees are just in the way.
My response: There seems to be a general lack of understanding that trees are an important part of a community's infrastructure. They reduce stormwater run-off, clean the air, enhance property values, reduce the "heat island" effect in urban and suburban areas, provide habitat for birds and insects, and are generally good for our mental and physical health and well-being. Yet, rather than factoring tree preservation in to built infrastructure plans from the beginning, it seems that road authorities and local communities view even historic trees as just something to be removed if they are in the way. While sometimes there are provisions made to plant replacement trees, a 2" diameter tree is going to take a generation or more before it provides the benefits to the community that a 150 year-old bur oak provides.
Farmers removing fence row trees and tearing off tree branches that overhang their fields, all to get a few more rows of corn.
With corn and soybean prices at record high levels, we have been seeing some really aggressive tree removal by farmers who have a strong financial incentive to plant a few more rows of corn (or beans). In several cases, entire fence rows have been removed and burned. 150+ year old oak groves have been cut down and the stumps grubbed out to open up less than an additional acre of farmland. Some farmers have even used equipment to rip the branches off of neighbors trees if those branches overhang the farm field - otherwise the ginormous equipment used these days won't fit.
My response: Back in the day, farmers wanted to have diversified operations and land holdings that typically included a wood lot to provide fire wood, timber, grazing for the cattle in summer, etc. They also left large trees in the middle of fields to provide shady spots where they could stop and have lunch during the middle of a hot summer day. Now, many farmers don't even own the land they farm, and their only goal is getting as much income off the land as possible. Besides that, the combines and planting equipment have enclosed cabs with airconditioning these days, so there is no need to sit in the shade for lunch! A family's farm was their home back in the day, so most families tried to be good stewards of the land resources to be sure the next generation would be able to make a living there too. Today, land is seen as a commodity - something to be bought and sold. Something to wring the most money from today without a thought given to the next generation.
Some highway officials believe that shade from trees damages road asphalt.
There is a rumor that has been passed along for a few years now that says tree shade damages asphalt roads because it prevents them from drying following a rain storm. So, some road departments are getting rid of the road-shading trees. In the most obnoxious cases, road agencies have removed every tree branch that is overhanging a road, severing the branches in the middle rather than pruning them back to the trunk.
My response: This is a rumor based on partial information. This is one of the most dangerous kinds of rumors, because once acted upon, it is impossible to undo the damage done. Namely, once a tree has been damaged through irresponsible cutting of limbs, or removed entirely, it is ruined or gone forever. There is a kernel of truth in the rumor, as is often the case, but it isn't the whole story. Water on asphalt does damage the road surface, so the thinking is that anything that prevents the water from leaving quickly is bad. Thus, shade from trees becomes bad since it prevents the water on roads from evaporating as quickly as it would in direct sun. What this story omits, however is that branches overhanging roads actually reduce the amount of rainfall that strikes the road. That's right, the tree leaves catch a good amount of the water, especially during a light rain, so the road actually may stay dry under the tree. The tree leaves also catch and slow the rainfall, which further reduces the direct impact of rain on asphalt. Plus, shade is only a factor on a sunny day after a rainfall. What happens when it rains at night? Trees or not, there is no sunlight hitting the road during the night. Additionally, trees only generate meaningful shade during the growing season - typically May-October in our area. That means for half of the year, shade from trees is a non-issue.
All this is a long way of saying that I wish more people would view trees as important cultural, historic, infrastructure, aesthetic and community resources, and do more to think about the ways trees contribute to our health and general well-being as a society, and stop viewing them as obstacles to be removed. In some cases they were here long before we were - and if we take care of them, they could be here long after we are gone.
Since 2008, a small miracle has happened in Johnsburg. Through the efforts of one person, a landscape has been transformed. That person is Robert Roe.
He was featured in the recent "Everyday Heroes" section of the NW Herald - deservedly so. I know he doesn't do any of his volunteer work for attention, and I guess that's what makes him an everyday hero -- he does his thing whether anyone notices or not.
Robert's "thing" is restoring the land along Dutch Creek that runs through the Dutch Creek Estates Subdivision where he lives. And he has inspired a dedicated cadre of volunteers to work along-side him at the monthly restoration work days that he has organized for four years. He just put together a nice Progress Report through the end of 2011.
Nearly 3,000 volunteer hours have been donated to restoration of the site during that time! Conservatively speaking , the value of those donated hours is nearly $60,000. TLC could not afford to hire workers to do that amount of restoration at the site. We offer the use of some equipment and contribute herbicide to the project, but the heavy lifting (literally) is done by Roe & the other volunteers.
The natural area being restored is over 150 acres in size, and includes springs, seeps, oak savannas and one of the highest quality headwater creeks in the area. Roe points to three primary benefits of the project: aesthetic (restored natural areas do look better), ecological (the restoration is improving habitat for a wider diversity of species than would be found there otherwise) and economic.
When he talks of economic benefits, Roe refers primarily to the sense of community that projects like this provide. Over 200 individuals have contributed sweat equity to the project so far -- 98 individuals helped out in 2011 alone! Many of those people had never participated in an ecological restoration project before, and many of them had not previously worked together on a volunteer project.
This intangible but very real sense of camaraderie - of community pride & shared commitment to a place and a purpose - is an important part of what enriches our lives and our communities.
And that, as they say, is priceless.