The Tree That Could Help Stop the Pandemic

October 28, 2020 · 1 minute read
The Tree That Could Help Stop the Pandemic

In early april, Paul Hiley was kicking back in the executive suite at Desert King International LLC, gazing out the window at the San Diego sunshine and daydreaming about his golf game. California had issued its initial stay-at-home order for COVID-19, but apart from the hand sanitizer around the office, life was more or less normal. Retirement was on the horizon for Hiley. Maybe he’d sell the business. Maybe his son, Damian, would take over.

For more than 42 years, Hiley has been a leading purveyor of certain plant-based food additives such as saponins, foaming agents used in root beer and Slurpees. Most of us never think about these compounds, and Hiley has always liked it that way. “My theory of business is the only two people who need to know my name are my wife and my banker,” he told me recently.

Then, one day—April 14th, to be exact—his son told him that they had a call with Stanley Erck. Erck is the CEO of Novavax, a Maryland-based maker of vaccines. Not a seller of vaccines, mind you: The company had yet to bring one of its candidates to market. But like other companies around the world, Novavax had thrown its hat into the coronavirus-vaccine race. And its success, Erck believed, depended on that odd ingredient in Slurpees.

The inner bark of the Chilean soapbark tree, Quillaja saponaria, is the source material for some of these saponins. Pulverized and soaked in water at the Desert King factory in Chile, the bark is transformed into a brown, bitter, bubbly fluid. This precious goo does many things well, and it happens to be the raw material for one of the world’s most coveted vaccine adjuvants: QS-21. Adjuvants are compounds that boost the body’s immune reaction to a vaccine. Owing to their potential risks to human health, however, only a handful of adjuvants have been approved by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration, and QS-21 is one of the newest.

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Chestnut That Survived Two World Wars Wins Belgium’s Tree of the Year

October 19, 2020 · 0 minute read
Chestnut That Survived Two World Wars Wins Belgium’s Tree of the Year

A chestnut tree that miraculously survived the shelling of Ypres and the combined horrors of two world wars has been named the winner of Belgium’s Tree of the Year competition and celebrated as an enduring symbol of survival in the face of adversity.

The tree, which British Tommies marched past on their way to the front, was badly damaged during the First World War in bombardments that razed the Belgian city to the ground. 

Incredibly the tree survived the shelling, which lasted from October 1914 to September 1918, as it was protected by the city walls.

The tree was planted in 1860 on the eastern rampart of the medieval Flemish city’s fortifications, and its root structure was strong enough to help the tree recover.

It grew back with four separate trunks as Ypres was painstakingly rebuilt after being obliterated by German bombardments, and the base trunk now has a 9.2m circumference. 

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Forgotten Richmond Forest ‘Is Being Unleashed To Be Itself’

October 13, 2020 · 0 minute read
Forgotten Richmond Forest ‘Is Being Unleashed To Be Itself’

We met on a recent morning for a walk in the woods.

“This has always been one of my favorite places,” said McChesney “Ches” Goodall III as we set off.

Goodall knows a good forest when he sees one: He’s a forester by training and co-founder of Virginia Forestry and Wildlife Group, a natural resource consulting firm.

He and his son began exploring these woods — behind the Carillon and Dogwood Dell amphitheater in Byrd Park — years ago.

“It was amazing,” he recalled. “There were hardly any trails. It was this kind of forgotten block of mature woods that no one seemed to visit … an old-growth forest with a beautiful creek. A peaceful place in the middle of the city.”

There was also something else about this part of the park, officially known as Dogwood Dell, though Goodall likes to refer to it as Carillon Woods: It was suffocatingly overgrown with ivy, kudzu and all sorts of other invasive species. The trees, some dating to the 1800s and many covered with vines reaching up into their tops, were choking to death.

Click here to read the rest of Bill Lohmann’s article in the Times-Dispatch.

The Ancient Trade Holding Back the Sahara Desert

October 13, 2020 · 1 minute read
The Ancient Trade Holding Back the Sahara Desert

In the Malian bush, a scattering of acacia trees grow through the wild grass and shrubs that spread for miles across the semi-arid scrub. Herders graze cattle nearby and local people fetch firewood. The acacias are among the taller and faster-growing trees of this habitat, with old individuals reaching high above the surrounding scrub.

This is the Sahel, a savannah that stretches across six countries in mainland West Africa. This dry strip of land between the tropical rainforests to the south, and the Sahara to the north, sees just three months of rain a year. It’s a region that is changing quickly. Climate change has seen the Sahara Desert grow around 100km (62 miles) southward since 1950, and is expected to continue the same trend in the coming decades.

But the Sahel’s acacia trees, growing close to the boundary of the desert, are at the heart of a reviving ancient trade with the potential to stem the advance of the Sahara.

To see what is special about these trees, you have to tear off a strip of bark or make a small incision into the tree. The sap that exudes from the wound is a pinkish substance that dries into a round springy ball. This is gum arabic, and it comes from two species of tree found in the Sahel: Acacia senegal and Acacia seyal.

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An acacia tree on the Sahel.

Fires Scorch a Way of Life that Still Grows from the Trees

October 7, 2020 · 0 minute read
Fires Scorch a Way of Life that Still Grows from the Trees

The fire that galloped down the canyon along the North Santiam River last week charred tall firs to matchsticks and coated the survivors’ needles in dull, sepia-gray ash.

The blaze claimed some of the Douglas firs that Fred Girod and his father planted in 1968, along with the old family house that overlooked the river. It claimed the maples and oak where bald eagles and osprey would settle, visible from Mr. Girod’s bedroom window.

“I can rebuild the home,” Mr. Girod, a Republican state senator who represents this area, said this past week, as smoke rose from a hole where his back door had been. “I can’t rebuild the setting.”

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Boston Still an Urban Orchard 400 Years After First Apple Farm

September 30, 2020 · 1 minute read
Boston Still an Urban Orchard 400 Years After First Apple Farm

John Bunker normally searches for heirloom apple trees in the fields and forests of rural Maine, but on a trip to Boston, he stumbled upon one in an unexpected place: an ice-cream-parlor parking lot. An expert on American heirloom apples, particularly those of Maine, Bunker has been investigating, preserving, and growing nearly forgotten apple cultivars since he graduated college and immediately bought a parcel of Maine farmland in the 1970s.

“I could spend the rest of my life studying, tracking down, learning to identify, and preserving historic apples from Maine, and I’d never run out of something to do,” says Bunker, who grows the rare apple trees at his family-run Super Chilly Farm, and sells them through Fedco Seed Cooperative.

The parking-lot apple tree was a rare find for Bunker, who mostly searches the woods and fields of sleepy New England towns. Apple trees can stand watch in quiet forest hollows for two centuries, remembered only by neighborhood elders. But these days, Bunker says, old urban apple trees “are mostly gone.” So Bunker got into the habit of visiting the ice-cream-parlor tree. “One year, when I stopped by—oops, it had been cut down,” he says.

The parable of the parking-lot apple tree, which survived decades of urban development before finally succumbing to the saw, embodies the trajectory of New England’s heirloom fruits as a whole.

Boston’s reputation as an epicenter for heirloom fruit dates back to 1623. That was the year European settlers planted their first apple orchard on the land of the Massachusett tribe, in what is now Boston’s posh Beacon Hill neighborhood. There were apple relatives in the New World before European colonization, but the ancestors of the fruits we eat today originated in Central Asia, entered Europe through the Silk Road, and were brought to North America by Europeans. Settlers developed dozens of new fruit cultivars, but apples were the most important, offering colonists cider and sustenance through the brutal New England winters.

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Recent Findings on Carbon Storage in Old-Growth Forests

September 23, 2020 · 0 minute read
Recent Findings on Carbon Storage in Old-Growth Forests

Have you ever heard of the Old Grown Forest Network? Their mission is to create a network of forests across the U.S., with one in each county where forests can grow, open for visitors and never logged, and a network of people inspired to protect them.

A long-standing debate over the value of old forests in capturing and storing carbon has prompted a surge of studies published in top science journals during the last decade. Here are seven emerging points that are supported by solid evidence.

  1. Trees accumulate carbon as long
    as they live
  2. Old-growth forests accumulate and store vast quantities of carbon
  3. Old forests accumulate carbon in soils

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Richmond Planning Five New Green Spaces In Southside

September 16, 2020 · 1 minute read
Richmond Planning Five New Green Spaces In Southside

Richmond officials announced plans this past Monday to create five new green spaces south of the James River.

The proposed green spaces will be created using 36 acres of city-owned land. Mayor Levar Stoney made the announcement alongside 8th District Councilwoman Reva Trammell. Along with Councilman Mike Jones, the three plan to introduce an ordinance making the green space designations official later this month. 

Brianne Mullin, who heads Richmond’s Office of Sustainability, said the city chose the locations in Southside using data on heat islands and park access.

“We used these tools to identify where [there are] those who are more at risk due to climate change, who live in areas of the city that experience more extreme heat and those without access to a vehicle who may not have the ability to get to a cooler green space to seek relief,” Mullin said. 

The city’s next steps after approval from Richmond City Council will be to hold community meetings to see if they want the green spaces turned into parks, trails or community centers. Until that’s done, it’s unclear how much the proposal will cost.

The Trust for Public Land identified several areas in Richmond where park access is limited. According to city officials, Richmond currently uses only six percent of its land for parks and recreation, compared to the nationwide median of 15 percent.

Some Trees May ‘Social Distance’ to Avoid Disease

September 16, 2020 · 1 minute read
Some Trees May ‘Social Distance’ to Avoid Disease

On a warm day in March 1982, biologist Francis “Jack” Putz strayed into a knot of black mangrove trees seeking relief from the afternoon heat. Drowsy from his midday meal and hours of fieldwork in Costa Rica’s Guanacaste National Park, Putz decided to lie down for a short siesta.

As he gazed skyward, the wind stirred the tops of the mangroves above him, causing the limbs of neighboring trees to claw at each other and snap off some of their outermost leaves and branches. Putz noticed that this reciprocal pruning had left tracks of empty space running through the canopy.

This network of treetop chasms, called crown shyness, has been documented in forests around the world. From the mangroves of Costa Rica to the towering Borneo camphor trees of Malaysia, gaps in the greenery abound. But scientists still don’t fully understand why the tops of trees so often refuse to touch.

Beneath the mangroves 40 years ago, teetering on the verge of a post-lunch snooze, Putz reasoned that trees need personal space, too—a critical step toward unraveling the roots of the branches’ bashful behavior.

“I often make great discoveries at naptime,” he says.

Today, a growing body of work continues to support the early observations of Putz and his colleagues. Wind, it seems, plays a crucial role in helping many trees maintain their distance. The boundaries carved by bouts between branches may improve the plants’ access to resources, such as light. Gaps in the treetops might even curb the spread of leaf-munching insects, parasitic vines, or infectious disease.

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When Planting Trees Threatens the Forest

September 9, 2020 · 1 minute read
When Planting Trees Threatens the Forest

Campaigns to plant huge numbers of trees could backfire, according to a new study that is the first to rigorously analyze the potential effects of subsidies in such schemes.

The analysis, published on June 22 in Nature Sustainability, reveals how efforts such as the global Trillion Trees campaign and a related initiative (H. R. 5859) under consideration by the U.S. Congress could lead to more biodiversity loss and little, if any, climate change upside. The researchers emphasize, however, that these efforts could have significant benefits if they include strong subsidy restrictions, such as prohibitions against replacing native forests with tree plantations.

“If policies to incentivize tree plantations are poorly designed or poorly enforced, there is a high risk of not only wasting public money but also releasing more carbon and losing biodiversity,” said study co-author Eric Lambin, the George and Setsuko Ishiyama Provostial Professor in Stanford’s School of Earth, Energy & Environmental Sciences. “That’s the exact opposite of what these policies are aiming for.”

There is no question that forests have an outsized role to play in efforts to slow global biodiversity loss and combat climate change by sequestering carbon as biomass. So it makes sense that tree-planting as a solution has gained traction in recent years with ambitious commitments, such as the Bonn Challenge, which seeks to restore an area of forest more than eight times the size of California by 2030, and Trillion Trees, which seeks to plant as many trees as its name implies.

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