Straining to See the Appalachian Forest for the Trees

The journey to create more wild beauty on our property and help conserve Appalachia is full of twists and turns: learning the Latin names, absorbing the The Nature Conservancy's evaluation of Appalachia, “alongside the Amazon Rainforest and the Kenyan grasslands as one of the most globally important landscapes for tackling climate change and conserving biodiversity,” remembering the abundant landscape enjoyed by First Nations peoples, working with the NRCS to try to understand the ecology on our property, the Natural Communities Classification of Ecological Groups and Community Types, The Nature Conservancy's resilient landscapes mapping tool, removing invasives (including Asian bittersweet, stiltgrass, and fescue grass), planting wildflower meadows, the monarch butterfly's addition to the Endangered Species List, planning a native pollinator garden, and the dedication to keep looking out at the long view while I dig in the soil at my feet.

As I run toward my twin passions of creating more wild beauty on our property and helping to conserve Appalachia, I keep getting bogged down or turning aside to follow side paths. I suppose I shouldn’t be surprised. Mapping one of the most diverse ecosystems in the world is, after all, a tall order. The sheer volume and complexity of information would be enough to daunt anyone not trained to it, even if the information I can access weren’t so full of holes, contradictions, and misinformation. All of it–out there in the literature and in my head–is also so clouded by the European and modern consumer mindsets that got us here in the first place.

By “here,” I mean to the brink of catastrophic climate change, biodiversity loss, mass extinctions. By “here,” I also mean Appalachia where I live, and where European colonization and modern American life have destroyed more biodiversity than we have ever catalogued. And yet also, here in Appalachia, we sit on a goldmine of biodiversity that The Nature Conservancy has identified as one of the richest and most important in the world! In fact, they have identified Appalachia, “alongside the Amazon Rainforest and the Kenyan grasslands as one of the most globally important landscapes for tackling climate change and conserving biodiversity.”[ref] And most of us don’t even know it. I certainly didn’t know it, and no one I’ve talked to about it knew it either. Figuring out what I can do to protect what we have and restore what we’ve damaged has me leaping forward only to stumble into thickets or brambles and having to circle back around to find my way.

The cardinal guards the entrance to our woods.

The Latin Names

As I’ve worked to try to understand and develop a plan, my lack of a formal education in any of the related fields keeps tripping me up. The Latin names alone have been enough to make me curse and want to turn back! But as you begin to discover when you get into native plants and ecology, everyone uses them, and for good reason. The Latin names avoid confusion between native and cultivar and non-native, sometimes invasive, members of the same genus (close relatives). For example, honeysuckle: Lonicera japonica, common name Japanese honeysuckle or gold-and-silver honeysuckle is the common honeysuckle I grew up with, and has been classified as a noxious weed in Virginia. Boo! How fondly I remember plucking and sipping the nectar from honeysuckle of a summer day. How much do I love the fragrance! Whereas Lonicera sempervirens, common name coral honeysuckle or trumpet honeysuckle is native to the Eastern U. S. and not nearly as vigorous. That’s the thing about natives: they usually play well with others and don’t dominate in their native ranges. North American natives have definitely been introduced around the world and become very invasive there! So everyone has suffered the law of unintended consequences, which is why we see Lonicera japonica everywhere and I don’t remember the last time I saw Lonicera sempervirens growing outside of a greenhouse. Hopefully, this is because this native honeysuckle is simply less common in the mountains and common enough in the lower lying areas of the state that its conservation status is secure, as the Virginia Native Plant Society says in its article announcing it as the 2014 Wildflower of the Year.

Lonicera japonica, Eastern Asian native, common name: Japanese honeysuckle, gold-and-silver honeysuckle. Photo by AftabbanooriCC BY-SA 3.0, via Wikimedia Commons.
Lonicera sempervirens, Eastern North American native, common name: Trumpet Honeysuckle, Coral honeysuckle. Photographed at Middle Fork Barrens Natural Area, Saline County, Arkansas by Eric HuntCC BY-SA 4.0, via Wikimedia Commons

I guess the other difference between the two is that Japanese honeysuckle only feeds a few animals like deer and rabbits, whereas this native honeysuckle feeds scores of hummingbirds, pollinators, quail and other birds, as well as being a larval host (caterpillar food) for the snowberry clearwing moth, a type of “hummingbird moth” that looks so much like a hummingbird it’s crazy! I took video and photos of a closely related hummingbird moth at Spikenard Honeybee Sanctuary the other day. You can see more on my Instagram post below, and read more here and here about Lonicera sempervirens or browse the Virginia Native Plant Society’s list of Native Plant Nurseries where you might purchase this delicate trailing native vine.

The beautiful hummingbird moth (I think this is Hemaris thysbe) at Spikenard Honeybee Sanctuary, July 2022.

There are some exceptions when it comes to native plants and their vigor. Tulip poplar comes readily to mind. Another native flowering vine, Campsis radicans, common name Trumpet Vine or Trumpet Creeper, not to be confused with Lonicera sempervirens Trumpet Honeysuckle (I begin to see the value in using the scientific names) is right now in July covered in gorgeous deep red flowers. It is such a vigorous grower that my local native plant nursery won’t sell it. Which is a bummer. I’m debating taking cuttings from a neighbor and starting it along our fence. What the hell? If it’s native, how far wrong can I go? I’ve already got ridiculous amounts of invasive Asian bittersweet vine. Maybe a little native competition would help matters. What if I planted it in Vine Central once I get the Asian bittersweet under control? ***Update: Ian at Wood Thrush Natives said that was a terrible idea, and people tell horror stories about it taking over their yard.

Campsis radicans, common name: Trumpet Creeper or Trumpet Vine, growing wild along the Potomac Heritage Trail, in Arlington county Virginia, USA Photo by FritzflohrreynoldsCC BY-SA 3.0, via Wikimedia Commons.

And once again, I stop in the tangle of vines, looking up and straining to see the horizon, trying to catch a glimpse of the siren calling me onward: a vision of Appalachian biodiversity.

A Vision of Appalachian Biodiversity

The view from a ridgetop in Copper Hill, VA.

First Nations peoples enjoyed a landscape teaming with life, a landscape full of old growth forests, fire-maintained wildflower meadows, fruiting shrub-lined waterways and travelways, abundant salmon runs, elk herds and their hunters–the wolves and mountain lions–eagles and otters, rare moths we almost never see anymore because they depend on now-rare species of plants, and even wood bison! Did you know that many human travelways through the landscape were bison trails and that these became many of the roads and railways of today? You can read more about our East Coast wood bison from the National Park Service: Bison Bellows: Bison East of The Mississippi. The Wikipedia article on wood bison makes no mention of their presence in Appalachia, and in fact states that “Its original range included much of the boreal forest regions of Alaska, Yukon, western Northwest Territories, northeastern British Columbia, northern Alberta, and northwestern Saskatchewan.”[ref] If I hadn’t heard it from the NRCS agent who was out earlier this month to look at our property, I might have convinced myself that the dimly recalled stories of wood bison were just a fantasy. Which only underscores how hard it is to get a grip on the broad picture of the Appalachian ecosystem.

What the NRCS Agent Said

Earlier this month, I had the Private Lands Biologist for our local office of the Natural Resources Conservation Service, a division of USDA, out for a site visit. I could tell right away we didn’t have what he wanted–people in ecology get obsessed with their own pet species, and his specialty is the grouse. We actually used to have grouse and bobwhite quail all over in Floyd, but Michael says it’s been some years since they disappeared. In this case, not because of any aggression against them, but because the forest has simply matured past the thicket stage that supported the ground laying birds. When I told the agent I was open to the idea of creating grouse habitat, he told me we’d need at least forty acres. Oh well. Even though I think he was disappointed, and maybe I had called him out on a wild goose chase, he told me that even if NRCS doesn’t have a program that can pay for any kind of conservation on our land, that they’re here to educate. So he looked at our woods and clearing a bit, and gave me some good information.

Native spicebush (Lindera benzoin) growing beside a walnut tree near the bottom of our driveway.

It’s Native!

First off, our woods weren’t nearly as bad as I thought. That understory shrub I was worried was an invasive non-native? It’s spicebush (Lindera benzoin), 100% native and totally belongs here. He liked the structure of our woods: there were understory bushes, there were tall trees, there was variety in tree species. The lack of any of those cool forest floor plants I was missing, the spring ephemerals and such, is due to the relatively young age of the woods. We don’t have many nut bearing trees which means few squirrels, but he didn’t seem too concerned about that. As I’ve studied successional growth in our regional forests, I’ve learned that this too is a characteristic of young woods. Poplars and maples start the process of growing into a hardwood forest because they’re fast-growing. Then as they begin to die (of natural causes) and make space, little hickory and oak saplings that have been biding their time will make a bid for the light. Over time, it gradually converts to an oak-hickory forest in many areas in Appalachia and the East Coast.

What Is Our Forest Supposed to Look Like?

When I asked the NRCS agent what our forest is supposed to look like, what it would have been without generations of intensive pasture grazing before growing up, he shrugged and scanned the treeline and said, “It’s probably an oak-hickory forest.” We were both referring to the Natural Communities Classification of Ecological Groups and Community Types, though he in only the most general terms. The system is a way that ecologists and conservationists categorize types of plant communities that tend to grow together in certain kinds of temperature ranges, soil types, elevation, exposure, and so on. The system is based on observations of, in the case of the East Coast, characteristic forest types–because in other parts of the world there are also deserts and wetlands, and all kinds of ecosystem types–where typical tree species, understory trees and shrubs, and ground layer plants grow together. These can be thought of as large-scale volunteer self-organized guilds or companion plant groups! The system has a hierarchical structure with types and subtypes of subtypes. I have spent hours and hours trying to find our woods in there. But the agent shrugged these nuances off, adding that everything that’s here is supposed to be here. He dismissed the notion of an ideal forest as a model for land management. Of course, then, in obvious contradiction to this philosophical and pragmatic perspective, he pointed out the invasive non-native Japanese stiltgrass and fescue grass growing all over our clearing and yard, and gave me tips for removing it, which I’ll share below. I’m sure he wouldn’t have minded creating grouse habitat if we’d had the land for it! Then it would have been a matter of removing all of these plants that were “supposed to be here.”

Our lower clearing and woods at sunset.

While the idea that everything that’s here is supposed to be here gives me a fallback position and some comfort, I also feel stubbornly unwilling to yield in my quest. Almost every time I’ve planted something in the ground here, it has felt “wrong” to me. The plant has stuck out like a sore thumb and both Michael and I have felt like it doesn’t belong. Most of them have died in the second year after I stopped watering, and a few I had to dig up because they came with invasive groundcovers from my mom’s yard and I just didn’t want to go there. Although I planted some miscanthus grasses from her yard and now the total bottom of our property is invaded by creeping charlie, which is terrible! The horses don’t eat it, the deer don’t eat it, and I don’t know how you would get it out. Anyway, finding our woods in the Natural Communities Classification system would give me a whole a list of plants to choose from for beautifying and for restoring a sense of wholeness that whatever anyone says, I feel is missing. There is so much we don’t understand about ecology, but these communities of trees and plants have co-evolved to live together over and over again for a reason. If we have a remnant of one of those communities (I think we do in our woods) then we can figure out what is missing and re-introduce it. Then we might help the complex processes that we don’t understand. The result is a woods that is both stronger and more vital, more beautiful and peaceful, and resilient! I love our place in the woods, but I have sensed its need for help for years now. And of course, part of that has been dealing with the Asian bittersweet vine, which I’ll share an update on in a little bit. I’m feeling hopeful!

Resilient Landscapes

Lower portion of the Rock Castle Creek Trail, near Woolwine, VA. TNC designates this area as more resilient but not most resilient, having recognized biodiversity value, and having concentrated climate flow.

The Nature Conservancy has been my major inspiration for thinking about resilient landscapes as an answer to climate change. They’re working to create Natural Highways and Neighborhoods, stitching together a network of climate-resilient and connected lands. I do understand that we won’t prevent ecological collapse by tinkering on our nine little acres of land, but what will it cost me to do nothing? If I do nothing, I subscribe to my own helplessness. If I throw up my hands and watch Netflix instead, I miss an opportunity to learn and maybe add to the collective knowledge base. If I focus on doing what everyone else is doing, I miss the chance to raise awareness and to strengthen biodiversity right here in this tiny corner of the world. If I do nothing, I reject my joy! Who knows what kind of ripple effect such small efforts can have? As I continue to blog, learn, experiment, and document, who knows what where it will go? I must try.

The Nature Conservancy has a mapping tool where you can look at their evaluation of the resilience of the entire United States here https://maps.tnc.org/resilientland/ (the password is the greyed out text in the box: “Indegenous Land Password.” You’ll notice how green the Southern Blueridge is, though Floyd is at the upper edge of that ecoregion and has lots of brown areas. You’ll also notice that towns and cities are completely grayed out and called Developed. But if you live in one of those areas, don’t despair, and remember that this speaks to the opportunity to save native habitats in urban and suburban spaces! Our property is an island of light green (slightly more resilient) surrounded by brown (slightly less resilient), which feels about right. As you look at the map, you can toggle on and off several options in the control panel at the right: Basemap gives you county boundaries and topography, and there are various categories like Resilient land, Connectivity and climate flow, and Recognized biodiversity value that give you different views. 

Removing Invasives

Removing invasive species is one part of restoring ecological resilience and biodiversity. We obviously can’t ever fully achieved it. But to give up without even trying feels sad, and iconic of the lowered vitality we seem to be suffering as a culture. I can’t erradicate the Asian bittersweet on our property, but I can make a dent and I can keep it in check. I’ve been out into Vine Central twice with my clippers since last I shared photos of that problem area we made by dragging a big brush pile to the sunny edge of our woods a few years ago. By the way, even if you don’t have Asian bittersweet, do yourself a favor and drag your brush piles into the shade because you could get poison ivy climbing all over it, which would not be fun. Here’s a photo of my progress.

You can see all the dead vines going up into the canopy. I did my best to keep the native greenbrier and fox grape, so the green vines you see in the picture are those. I think all the Asian bittersweet up in the canopy is now dead, though I have orange berries hanging and I just hope they hadn’t matured enough! I have no illusions about having erradicated it, but I set it back quite a bit and it only took a few hours because, and this is my tip: I focused on the big vines, the thick as my arm or finger trunks. The many tendrils you’ll see growing all over in a sunny area tend to merge together, braiding together and becoming a single big one climbing high into the canopy.

Asian bittersweet vines growing together into a single larger vine.

It’s so satisfying to cut those off at the ground, and so much more efficient than trying to pull up every tendril in the woods. For me, going after the little ones as well as the big ones left me feeling defeated and despairing in years past. I think that, as with so many aspects of forest management, patience in focusing on the mature vines yields more satisfying results.

How to Remove Japanese Stiltgrass

Japanese stiltgrass crowds out so much that grows at the ground level and changes the soil chemistry in the process, further inhibiting native plants, according to the ecological restoration experts I’ve been listening to. The NRCS agent recommended hand-pulling or spraying a very low-concentration Round-Up before the stiltgrass goes to seed. At 0.5% rather than the typical 3-7% recommended on the bottle, this is very effective against stiltgrass and doesn’t hurt most other plants. Michael was skeptical, so we haven’t decided yet. It hasn’t gone to seed yet, but I’ll probably be scrambling around last-minute to get it sprayed before it goes to seed!

Stiltgrass is an annual that grows in shade.

How to Remove Fescue Grass

One or some combination of three basic strategies were recommended to me. Bear in mind, it’s a mowed area surrounded on three sides by 60 year old woods and on the fourth side by our house and driveway uphill from the clearing:

  1. Let it grow up. “You’d be surprised at what you’ll get,” the NRCS agent said. If you let it grow, the native plants will eventually shade out the fescue and you’ll create a lively native meadow. Ian at Wood Thrush Natives recommended this as well, as an easy way. He suggested planting potted native wildflowers (rather than seeds) suited to the soil and water conditions inside of that meadow. Of course, you have to be willing for it to look “weedy” to the conventionally-trained eye.
  2. Let it grow up and then burn it down. This is in line with traditional Native American practices and would give you a chance to plant a really special kind of wildflower meadow. There are some meadow flowers that depend on regular fire to germinate and those are some of the ones connected with those rare moths we hardly ever see anymore. The Virginia Department of Forestry Certified Prescribed Burn Manager Program offers even someone like me or you the training and certification to conduct a controlled burn! Michael doesn’t like the idea. Which is why we don’t have those rare meadow species and the rare moths that come along with them.
  3. Spray Round-Up in October at regular strength after all the native plants have gone dormant (which protects them from the Round-Up) and only the fescue is still green. Do this for 2 years before trying to plant a wildflower meadow mix.
A month into the “let it grow” program in our lower clearing.

Planting a Wildflower Meadow

More and more people want to help pollinators. To do this, they often imagine planting a wildflower meadow, and so did I! However, everyone I’ve listened to or talked to agrees on one thing: establishing a wildflower meadow is very tricky, and may require a different approach for each location. Small lawn areas can be handled by smothering the grass with cardboard and tarps for a season or a year, and you can Google ways to speed up the process. Larger areas might require some combination of the above listed methods. You might go many rounds. The NRCS agent discouraged disc plowing and planting a cover crop because you kill a lot of the beneficial soil organisms when you do that. There’s no easy answer. For seeds, he recommended going with a high quality supplier like ErnstSeed.com or Roundstoneseed.com. Ian over at Wood Thrush Natives has since added PrairieMoon.com to that list. All three seem highly regarded by the native plant podcasters I’m following.

At the end of his visit, the NRCS agent said to me, “At least you have stickweed.” I had to laugh. I’ve been badmouthing this tall stinky ubiquitous weed–despite the fact that it has been beaming at me from our roadside! It turns out that stickweed, also called wingstem or yellow ironweed, is an excellent pollinator flower! It blooms yellow in September when there isn’t much else blooming around here, and many native pollinators depend upon it! It also shows up on pollinator wildflower lists for the monarch butterfly like this from the Xerces Society: Monarch Butterfly Nectar Plant Lists for Conservation Plantings. I barely remember the flowers, likely a testament to the fact that we mow it or weed eat it before it gets the chance.

Stickweed or wingstem (Verbesina alternifolia) in bloom in the end of July in Virginia, and covered in tiny native bees and flies.

Monarch Emergency

In the middle of writing this post, the New York Times published a story about the addition of the monarch butterfly to the endangered species list. Despite all the education, despite campaigns to promote and plant milkweed, this oh so common butterfly is now endangered, and I had to take another wide detour to learn what I can do to support it. The big culprit appears to be glyphosate spraying in the Midwest now with the advent of GMO glyphosate-ready corn and soybeans. They sell that stuff here in Floyd and farmers who grow animal feed do buy and plant it, according to Michael! Monarchs take several generations to make their way north, and many of them pass through the corn and soy fields of the the midwest which are now trapped in a cycle of spraying everything so they don’t lose their crops–because plowing and monoculture have destroyed nature’s natural remedies for these problems. I shudder to imagine the longterm health consequences to humans as well as the entire ecosystem of North America. That detail about the sudden drop in monarch populations being tied to the beginnings of widespread glyphosate spraying in the midwest was reported in the New York Times article. Other coverage left out this detail, and you wonder: Did those other articles just not have time to research that factor? Or were they under pressure by Monsanto and the corn and soy lobby. Corn and soy are important to national security and an industrial crop, but they just keep going down a slippery slope through unsustainable practices.

The other thing among gardeners trying to support the monarch butterfly I’ve noticed is a tendency to overlook the nectar flowers the adult butterfly needs to feed on once the milkweed flowers finish blooming, as I mentioned before. Its diet is more diverse than its larval host plant, but it still dependent on native wildflowers. Finding good lists was part of my research.

In light of all this, I decided to park my other plans and plant a native pollinator garden down by the road as a way to raise awareness, beautify our property, and hopefully help some local pollinators. Although our forest community wouldn’t have had all of the flowers I’m planning to plant, Floyd is very sparse on flowers, so I’ll be compensating for that general ecosystem deficiency. I am, however, feeling daunted by the prospect of digging up the sod, protecting my wildflowers from deer and goats, and AEP spraying their power line easements which run right through there! Maybe I’ll start with some flowering trees and shrubs, and a few vigorous wildflowers that will survive some browsing, like milkweed and monarda (M. fistulosa). I will share the fruits of my research in the next Bonus Episode: Native Pollinator Trees, Shrubs, and Flowers for Virginia and Appalachia.

I really hope to help monarch butterflies, but larger forces may be at play in their survival, because they are migratory. But there are so many bees, wasps, butterflies and moths that do not migrate and who can be helped a lot by a little micro climate like a roadside garden. The monarch takes in the big picture, but the little picture matters too. This same tension keeps tripping me up as I strain to see the forest for the trees. Should I be focusing on Appalachian ecology writ large or my own little plot of land? I have decided that they’re both important. I’ll just keep looking out at the long view while I dig in the soil at my feet.

One lonely monarch butterfly was all I saw at Spikenard Honeybee Sanctuary in July 2022, where they have lots of milkweed and high quality nectar flowers, and where they usually have a good population of monarch butterflies.

References

The Nature Conservancy. (n.d.). “Priority Landscapes: Conserving the Appalachians.” Retrieved July 29, 2022 https://www.nature.org/en-us/about-us/where-we-work/priority-landscapes/appalachians/.

Lonicera japonica. In Wikipedia, The Free Encyclopedia. Retrieved 17:38, July 29, 2022, from https://en.wikipedia.org/w/index.php?title=Lonicera_japonica&oldid=1090100331

“Wildflower of the Year 2014 Coral honeysuckle (Lonicera sempervirens).” Virginia Native Plant Society. Retrieved July 29, 2022 https://vnps.org/wildflower-year-2014-coral-honeysuckle-lonicera-sempervirens/

“Lonicera sempirivens.” Retrieved from the Lady Bird Johnson Wildflower Center website July 29, 2022 https://www.wildflower.org/plants/result.php?id_plant=lose

Virginia Native Plant Society’s list of Native Plant Nurseries: https://vnps.org/native-plant-nursery-list/.

“Bison Bellows: Bison East of The Mississippi.” Extracted with permission from: Bailey, J. A. 2014. American Plains Bison: Rewilding an Icon. Farcountry Press, Montana. Bailey relied largely on Belue, T. F. 1996. The Long Hunt: Death of the Buffalo East of the Mississippi, Stackpole Books, Pennsylvania. Retrieved from the National Park Service website July 29, 2022 https://www.nps.gov/articles/bison-bellows-9-16-16.htm.

Wood bison. In Wikipedia, The Free Encyclopedia. Retrieved 17:45, July 29, 2022, from https://en.wikipedia.org/w/index.php?title=Wood_bison&oldid=1097256221

“Lindera benzoin.” Retrieved from the Lady Bird Johnson Wildflower Center website July 29, 2022 https://www.wildflower.org/plants/result.php?id_plant=libe3

The Natural Communities of Virginia Classification of Ecological Groups and Community Types retrieved from the Virginia Department of Conservation and Recreation July 29, 2022 https://www.dcr.virginia.gov/natural-heritage/natural-communities/.

The Nature Conservancy. (n.d.). “Natural Highways and Neighborhoods: Conserving a Network of Climate-Resilient Lands.” Retrieved July 29, 2022 https://www.nature.org/en-us/what-we-do/our-priorities/protect-water-and-land/land-and-water-stories/climate-resilient-network/.

The Nature Conservancy Resilient Lands Mapping Tool: https://maps.tnc.org/resilientland/.

Virginia Department of Forestry Certified Prescribed Burn Manager Program: https://dof.virginia.gov/wildland-prescribed-fire/prescribed-burning/certified-burn-managers-program/

Quality native seeds: ErnstSeed.com, Roundstoneseed.com, PrairieMoon.com.

Einhorn, C. (2022, July 21). “Monarch Butterflies Are Endangered, Leading Wildlife Monitor Says.” New York Times. https://www.nytimes.com/2022/07/21/climate/monarch-butterflies-endangered-iucn.html

Renault, M. (2022, July 21). “The Most Fascinating Birds Will Be the First to Go Extinct.” New York Times. https://www.nytimes.com/2022/07/21/science/birds-extinction-diversity.html.

Xerces Society. (2018). Monarch Butterfly Nectar Plant Lists for Conservation Plantings https://xerces.org/sites/default/files/publications/18-003_02_Monarch-Nectar-Plant-Lists-FS_web%20-%20Jessa%20Kay%20Cruz.pdf.

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