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Plant a Native Tree this Winter to Provide Biodiversity in Your Yard

Beech Tree

I live in a grove of large stately live oaks. Only one is technically on our property; the grove continues across the road and in adjacent yards, even down the road a piece. We are also blessed with some large pines, though we have lost a few to lightning strikes.

We are on a slope that runs down towards a drainage way that used to be a creek. I imagine this was originally a mature mixed pine/hardwood forest and eventually pasture with well distributed live oaks and pines until time of development in the 1960s.

We are not trying to restore what used to be here, but our goal has been to diversify the native tree species in our yard for the benefit of wildlife. When the rose-of-Sharon tree planted by previous owners was declining due to old age, we replaced it with a blue beech, a native tree with pretty fall color, gorgeous muscle-like bark, and unique seed structures. In addition, native caterpillars utilize its leaves which are then eaten by birds, lizards, spiders, and others.

At the edge of the patriarch live oak in our front yard, we planted red buckeye, a small tree with red tubular flowers in mid-March timed perfectly for the return of migrating ruby-throated hummingbirds. We also planted a sassafras tree that is a larval food plant for the spicebush swallowtail.

We utilize every space available. Between our driveway and our neighbor to the west we placed a Chickasaw plum and some blueberry bushes and allowed American beautyberry and elderberry to sprout up on their own (free plants ‘planted’ by the birds).

One year for Christmas, I asked for an American beech tree, which we planted in our back ‘woods’ along with a spruce pine to replace a large loblolly pine that had died. We selected spruce pine because of its shade tolerance.

Another year I collected bags of leaves from a neighbor down the road. The bags were filled with golden beech leaves which I used as mulch in a bed adjacent to our road. It unexpectedly contained seeds and the following year an American beech sprouted. This is one of the hardwoods that probably graced this slope before agriculture. It is a beauty every fall with its golden leaves which persist into winter. When mature, both American beech trees will sport beech nuts and birds will have a feast on these seeds. Another free plant!

This American beech tree sprouted from a beech nut within in a bag of leaves used as mulch in Legare’s yard.

One side of our front yard is a pollinator garden which requires good sun, so we have selected smaller trees in its vicinity – sparkleberry, rusty blackhaw, flatwoods plum, parsley hawthorn, hoptree, and fringe tree. A red cedar was selected to screen a telephone pole and streetlight from our front porch view.

Another freebie is a native persimmon that popped up on the east side of our house in the border between us and neighbors. It is now a good 15 feet tall.

By now you are getting the point that if you have beds with leaves in them around existing trees and shrubs, the seeds of native plants will germinate, many of which may be quite valuable to wildlife. The trick is to learn what these plants look like when they are seedlings. Invasive plants such as tree Ligustrum and Chinese tallow will also sprout and will need to be pulled up. This is easy to do when they are but seedlings. Likewise, some native plants will need to be pulled. We have a black cherry seedling flagged under our live oak tree. It was most likely planted by a bird who sat on a limb of the live oak after it had eaten and digested a wild cherry. Out popped the seed, conveniently fertilized with bird poop. However, it is far too shady for this cherry to thrive here. We will move it this winter to a sunnier spot in the back yard.

Our New Year’s resolution every year is to increase the percentage of native plants in our yard. You would think we would be running out of room after nearly 30 years. At first, we made room for native trees and shrubs by removing invasive plants like Nandina, Ligustrum and female Podocarpus and replacing aging but desirable non-native trees with young natives. Then we started squeezing trees into existing beds, finding space here and there, creating layers of native plants – overstory trees like the American beech, understory trees like blue beech and silverbell, large native shrubs like arrowwood viburnum and spicebush, then wildflowers and native grasses. All of these are worked in and around some beautiful old camellias, sasanquas, and azaleas, planted by the original owners of the property.

We are senior citizens now, but we keep on planting. We prefer to plant trees in 3-gallon pots. For one thing it is easier on the person doing the planting (smaller hole to dig), but mainly we find that the less time trees have spent in pots, the healthier they are and the faster they take off if planted in the correct conditions and planted properly. Bareroot trees planted in winter are particularly robust.

This winter, we are replacing another aging non-native tree with two natives in our backyard ‘woods’, the black cherry mentioned above and a white oak. I have always wanted a white oak and wish I had planted one 30 years ago! It will have pretty fall color, eventual acorns and will provide insects, primarily caterpillars, for nesting birds. Over 300 caterpillar species are known to utilize oak trees in the Tallahassee area.