One of the things that surprised us when we started farming our 30 acre farm 10 years ago was the absence of many common native trees on the property.
Looking around we wondered: 'where were the oaks, sycamore, maples, beech, elm, chestnut, and poplar?'
Even some trees that were commonly represented in our area and on neighboring properties were absent or nearly absent - cercis, birch, hickory to name a few.
One of my favorite local trees, the Shagbark Hickory, Carya ovata, very common in our area. We still have very few of these on our property :(
Now aside from the aesthetics of having beautiful trees on the property and our philosophical desire to improve the environment around us through our farming practices, trees are also functionally critical to our operation.
Shade. Currently, its hovering around 100 degrees for the 4th consecutive day here in Maryland. Shade is really critical to the well-being of our animals and the stress of unabated heat can literally decrease growth rate of young animals.
Ruminants like our sheep and goats, use fermentation to digest the coarse materials like cellulose in their diet. This is an exothermic reaction and consequently, keeping cool is a major hurdle for ruminants.
Mast. Many trees provide bonuses like fruit and nuts that can be highly nutritious to our livestock. Some impart special flavors or qualities that give food a sense of 'terroir'. Think vidalia onions as a for example.
Terroir is a French term that refers to the qualities (the air, soil, rainfall) of a specific place that impart unique flavors to an agricultural product. The classic example would be the pate negra (black foot) jamon of Spain, whereby these amazing Spanish pigs are finished on acorns which gives their meat and fat an amazing flavor and texture.
Leaves can also be considered part of the nutritional benefits of many trees. Our ruminants love the dried and fresh leaves of many trees - some of their favorites include black walnut, maple, and tulip poplar.
The image of potato chips comes to mind in the fall when watching the sheep and goats roam the farm munching on crispy leaves - they do love them!
Interestingly, some of these trees and their by-products are considered toxic or poisonous, primarily because of the presence of tannins in their make-up.
Some tannins are termed 'condensed' and are thought to be beneficial. These are compounds that have been found to scavenge free oxygen radicals and in the case of ruminants, have been shown to help lower parasite loads in the GI tract. Some of these parasites like the barber pole worm suck blood and are a major cause of morbidity and mortality in ruminants.
The toxic side of the tannin story is attributed to oxidized tannins, which have a low-grade degree of toxicity. Acorns for example and most oak by-products have high levels of oxidized tannins.
Some trees like black walnuts, produce unique compounds that have a low level of toxicity. In the case of black walnuts, that compound is juglone, which primarily affects other plants by inhibiting respiration.
Minerals and trace compounds. Trees are tap or deep-rooted (relative to grasses at least) and draw up minerals and other elements that may be depleted at the surface. Many like copper and selenium, can be critical to normal physiologic function in livestock, and might not be available otherwise in adequate amounts.
Nutrient management and erosion prevention.
I don't want to spend any time on this other than to mention how important trees are in erosion control, especially along waterways. Our property is bordered on two sides by Toms Creek, which is a tributary of the Monocacy River and part of the Chesapeake Watershed.
Our animals do love to scratch and I prefer it when they use trees rather than water hydrants and other infrastructure to scratch.
Cows and pigs in particular can take destroy equipment with great efficiency trying to 'get-that-one-spot-right-there'!
Trees help provide protection from strong winds that blow through. The animals have great cold tolerance but really hate strong winds. They enjoy hunkering down with their back to the wind alongside a hedgerow or tree.
Goats also HATE getting wet, and will run for cover when it rains.
So clearly, trees are an important part of the well-being of our farm 'ecosystem' and like most ecosystems, diversity and variety would be an important part of the health of the farm.
Now, being somewhat OCD, when I take an interest in something, it tends to be pretty intense and laser focused. In thinking about this post, I realized how my tree-planting has followed a similar pattern. One year it was all about oaks, then taxodium, then persimmon, and so on.
With our ever-expanding population of pigs, last year was all about the American chestnut.
Chestnuts were (are) magnificent trees that could reach massive size.
They were found extensively throughout the eastern United States and were common in our area. At one time, 40% of the trees in this area were chestnuts.
Chestnuts were an important free source of food for both people and livestock, and were important for fattening livestock up before winter.
Now for those of you not into trees, there was this small problem a century or so ago with a fungal disease known as chestnut blight, that essentially killed off 99% of the chestnuts in North America.
Since that time, both private nurserymen and the American Chestnut Foundation http://www.acf.org/ have been working on selecting for resistance and hybridizing the American Chestnut with the Chinese Chestnut, which has a lot more natural resistance to the fungus.
Although the ACF is close to releasing some chestnuts for planting, I am not famous for my patience. Trees take TIME and when you're over 50, you never know for sure how much time you really have. I needed something now....
Luckily, I found the Dunstan Chestnut, a hybridized chestnut developed by Dr. Robert Dunstan in the late 50's through the present and available through:
So, 2012 was the Year of the Chestnut and over 12 Dunstan chestnut trees were planted on the farm.
I love the serrated edge of the American chestnut - it lends almost a tropical feel to the landscape.
Other years have featured:
1. American persimmon and hazelnut (corylus), both producing mast for the animals. 2011.
Okay, how cool is that!
Beautiful and delicious!
These trees are tough as nails!
Small trees, the pigs go NUTS for these!
2. Ilex opaca, the American Holly, once ubiquitous in this area in the wild and now rare. 2010.
Such a beautiful native tree that provides food and shelter for wild and domesticated animals alike. The sheep and goats love the leaves of the this evergreen.
Oaks are traditionally considered mildly toxic to livestock because of their high levels of oxidized tannins, but they have been used to finish pigs (acorns) in Spain for centuries.
These are the acorns of the overcup oak. Very interesting look to them and tolerant of wet soils. We are at the northern end of their range but they perform well for us here in Maryland.
Did you know that birch trees can be tapped like a sugar maple to make birch syrup? This is commonly done in climates too cold for maple trees.
5. Taxodium and metasequoia - similar deciduous 'evergreens'. 2007.
While most commonly associated with swampland of the American South, Taxodium trees are actually quite hardy and do well in our area.
Taxodium have a wonderful feathery appearance and if grown in very wet conditions, they will develop the 'knees' they are so famous for for aerating their root systems.
6. Beech. 2006. The words 'stately' and elegant usually come to mind in regards to beech trees, but how 'bout psychedelic?!
This is the tricolor beech. Give it some shade in more southern climes to avoid leaf burn.
A real show stopper!
7. Elm - Once the favorite street tree across America, the landscape of our cities and towns was literally changed when Dutch Elm disease devastated these trees.
We've planted several Princeton Elms across our property, derived from a healthy, disease-free American Elm tree found growing in Princeton, N.J.
Several trees that I've already planted and have been coaxing along but that are struggling to get established include:
1. The Cucumber magnolia, Magnolia accuminata. A deciduous magnolia native to wet portions of our area and named for its fruit set after flowering that resembles a cucumber. This is a massive tree that can reach 100 feet under ideal conditions:
How cool is that fruit! Unfortunately, the sheep and goat love it as much as I do :(
2. The Osage Orange, Maclura pomifera.
Okay, in case its not obvious, I kind of have a thing for crazy fruit and the Osage Orange does NOT disappoint. Native to the plains of the United States, it was commonly used to create natural hedgerows, hence its other common name, hedgeapple.
This is a pretty common sight in our area. Osage oranges look awesome in a bowl and are thought to be natural insect repellants.
3. The Sassafras Tree
|I love the leaf-shape of this tree, which does well as an understory and edge of the forest tree.|
Makes a lovely tea and was originally the source of your classic 'root' beer, as in sassafras roots!
Our very own temperate papaya, this North American native produces fruit whose flavor has been compared to custard.
The fruit does not pack or store well and has therefore, never caught on as a commercial fruit.
Future trees I'm interested in introducing to our farm include:
1. Sycamore (we have three but I'd like about 10 times that)
4. Ginkho (I know not native but the female trees produce a really amazing fruit that is edible and good for you, although it smells like dog shit).
5. Kentucky Coffee Tree.
9. American dogwood.
11. Magnolia grandiflora
12. Large-leaved magnolia, Magnolia macrophylla. Leaves bigger than your head!
13. Larch. Don't think this one will work here - too hot in the summer.
14. Franklinia alatamaha. This is a tough one to grow. Really inbred and now extinct in the wild.
It has a very fragile root system and doesn't transplant well. Susceptible to fungus. Needs rich, well-drained soil, and some coddling.
The Gordonia is a related southern cousin and there have been some talk of crossing the two to create better vigor in the Franklinia. These don't seem to be reliably hardy for us here in northern Frederick County.
So clearly, I spend a lot of time thinking about trees, and this year, my thoughts go to English Walnuts, which is a bit of a misnomer.
These trees originate in Eastern Europe and the Middle East and are also known as the Carpathian Walnut.
I look forward to a long and prosperous relationship with my new friends and hope to be around some day to see pigs sucking up the fallen nuts of these beautiful trees!