Thursday, March 19, 2015

Trees! Yes, They Have a Great Deal of Value!

     In this period of renewal where trees are beginning to bud out and new leaves are imminent, I am once again stunned by the various attitudes that people have toward the large woody organisms around them.  The range of reaction goes from people to understand the importance of trees and staunchly defend them all the way to the opposite side of the fence - people who find them to be something to be feared loathed and removed.
     Two conversations in the past week have struck a chord.  Both concerned trees to be cut down on private property.  The conversations were polar opposites and as such were cause for a good deal of thinking.
     The first was with a client.  She has a historic home downtown and is in the process of developing part of her property for additional residential use.  Her home is a beautiful Victorian home several stories tall and contains several large oak trees in the front yard.  Most of the trees are in great shape, but one is in decline.  It has reached old age!  It is also a 'champion' tree as defined by Town Code.  As a result of aging, it is beginning to lose back and the smaller outer branching.  Her development and the proposed Town street improvements will further stress this tree and will most likely be the straw that breaks the camel's back.  She is now needing to decide whether it is important to her to attempt to save this tree, which does greatly define her front yard, or to remove it because it is rapidly becoming a potential hazard.  This is a difficult decision for her because she has fought for this tree for years.  Her husband felt that it was a hazard a number of years ago.
     The second conversation was a bit more stunning.  One of my neighbors waved me over and began talking about removing trees from their site.  They have a half acre of mature oak trees in great shape and are currently in the process of removing them one by one.  It has been sad and sickening and tragic to see them cut these trees down.  In this case, she was busy arguing that the trees were a nuisance and that she wished that they were all cut down.  "They're dangerous!", she exclaimed.  "We had thirty thousand dollars worth of damage from trees when Fran came through.  I don't want that to happen ever again."
     It is true that many people had roof and house damage when Fran, a Category 1 hurricane when it came through this area,  ploughed its way inland.  We also had damage to our house.  But Fran came through nineteen years ago.  Hurricanes pushing their way this far inland are extremely rare.  You cannot create a situation of absolute safety.  People live in areas that are completely devoid of trees and still lose homes to hurricanes and to tornadoes that either spin off from the hurricanes or are spawned by severe thunderstorms.  As I pointed out to her during that same conversation, I had ten thousand dollars of damage to my roof five years ago due to my next door neighbor's house fire.  That was actually worse than the Fran damage because the hurricane damage was covered by homeowners insurance.  The fire was caused by my neighbor who after nine months of argument had themselves declared 'not legally liable'.  Thus neither my insurance nor their insurance covered it.  I paid for my damage out of my pocket; she paid for her damage with an insurance check.
     What my neighbor is missing is that those trees that she is busily cutting down are more valuable to her than the potential damage that she is seemingly avoiding.  Each one of those mature oak trees is worth - in crass dollars and cents - $5000 to $10,000 in the overall value of the property.  They have already reduced her property value by $40,000 to $50,000 just by their actions this past year.  That will take twenty to thirty years to recover and only if they replant immediately.
     Those trees also provide a aesthetic that it is impossible to place a value on.  Trees are wonderful to look at and help to improve mood.  Scientific study has proven repeatedly that trees create a sense of well-being and calm that is not present in an open area, even one that is planted.  That is one of the reasons why the more recent push to plant trees in school and public spaces.  That calming effect lowers the crime rate and increases the ability of a person to concentrate.
     Those trees also greatly improve the micro climate of a site.  Trees provide much needed shade which is hugely helpful in a location like ours which gets extremely hot in the summer.  Those trees that they removed were likely lowering the temperature of their house by at least ten degrees in the six months of summer that we experience here in North Carolina.  They were also acting to remove water from the soil, they have repeatedly complained about the wet soil in their back yard which is actually riparian buffer around the creek braiding that runs there.  That water is put back into the air as a result of transpiration and further acts to cool the air in the summer months.  This year their back yard will be considerably hotter and the soil much more mucky.  This same process also acts to greatly improve air quality in the vicinity of the tree.  Trees take in air - including pollutants - and expel oxygen minus the pollutants which are then sequestered within the wood of the tree.
     Finally, this neighbor has been violating Town Code.  The trees that they cut down were 'champion' trees.  They should have been removed only after having obtained a permit from the Town.  The reason for this is that the Town has come to recognize the importance and value of trees.  This kind of code is rapidly showing up all over the country.  Trees are a natural resource that effect more than the immediate property owner.  These neighbors are placing their personal choice over that of the public and breaking the law in the process.
     Trees are more than just pieces of wood sticking out of the ground.  They are living breathing organisms that provide valuable improvements to a property and to the surrounding community.  Their removal needs to be considered carefully and their loss should never be taken lightly.

Monday, May 12, 2014

Better Late than Never - Spring at Last!


     Every year I make note and mark the timing of certain landmark changes in the advance of spring. This year was an especially bad winter and as expected things were especially late in blooming and breaking their winter dormancy.  This is a somewhat unscientific averaging of observations of when I notice what I see to be landmark plant responses to the spring.  The observations have been taken over a period of twenty years and have shown an interesting trend.
Rose Cane and woods - Feb 13, 2014
     First of all, the landmark start times have varied wildly over the years with some years having very early starts and some being quite late.  This year was later than any that I have observed.  Yes, Virginia, it really was a very long and cold winter.  You were not dreaming that or exaggerating your suffering.
      The scientist in me is always fascinated to note that the dates always manage to converge to a common start time by May.  No matter how bad, or mild, the winter, at some point the plants begin their start at roughly the same date, and that point in the years seems to be early May.  That indicates that weather and temperature definitely impacts the breaking of early spring dormancy, but at some point in the year the diurnal period (the length of the day) takes over.  This year is no exception.
     The following is a listing of what I have noticed over the years:

          Red Maple - Average blooming start Jan. 20 - 2014 blooming start March 1
           - 1.5 months late
          Daffodils - Average blooming start Feb. 15 - 2014 blooming start March 15
           - 1 month late
          Oak / Pine - Average blooming start March 25 - 2014 blooming start April 7
           - 2 weeks late
          Azalea / wild iris -  Average blooming start April 20 - 2014 blooming start April 25
           - 1 week late
          Wild and hybrid rose - Average blooming start May 15 - 2014 blooming start May 12
           - on time

     It is interesting to notice this for more than just the fact that eventually the plants manage to right themselves and reach a predictable state.  It is also interesting because there is so very much debate concerning climate change.  I have listened to many poorly informed people this year claiming that this year was a perfect example of the fact that climate change is a hoax.  What they are ignoring is that one of the symptoms of climate change is just what happened this year - wildly variable and extreme temperatures.  This year Alaska had a number of days during the winter that were actually warmer than we were experiencing here in North Carolina.  We had a cold winter due to arctic air moving down into the middle of the country rather than remaining in the north where it is normally expected.  This is not a normal event.  I have noticed other things in the past twenty years.  We have greater extremes in rainfall.  We have had several years of drought and then followed them with excessively wet years.  I realize that twenty years of observations are a very short period of time in comparison to the life span of the earth and that one weird year does not indicate a trend.  However, I also am alarmed by the rapid change that I am seeing.  You cannot keep track of the advances of the year and not see an overall change.

Rose Canes and woods - May 12, 2014
    I am also impressed by the resiliency of nature to right itself.  Eventually the plants do bloom, leaves do come out and grow.  On years that the winters are especially cold and long, I have noticed that growth moves quickly to catch up.  Leaves that emerge early in mild springs seem to mature much more slowly than leaves that emerge later in the year due to a cold spring.  They seem to reach maturity at roughly the same time.  I have also noticed through the years that on years when spring came early, blooming was spread out over a longer period of time with less actually blooms at any particular point in time.  On cold years, blooming appears to be later but with more things blooming at one time.  Somehow, the passage of spring manages to even itself out.
     Let us all hope that nature can do what we as people cannot seem to be able to do.  We must work to stop the actions that we as humans have done to initiate climate change.  Maybe, if we can do that, nature can take over to right the wrong that we humans have caused.


Thursday, December 26, 2013

Poke Salad Annie Had Good Reason to be Mean

     I was out for a run one nice morning this past fall - going my usual slow pace.  Two much younger and fitter women passed me and kept on going.  They were carrying water bottles and they stopped ahead of me and nipped into some green, healthy vegetation; popping out minus the water bottles.  I know the greenway that we were running on well and the plants that grow along side of virtually every inch of it.  So, I called out to them to stop and wait for me.  When I got to them I explained to them that they needed to retrieve those bottles and then run straight to the nearest public bathroom, about a quarter of a mile and wash the bottles and themselves well with soap and water.
     Without realizing it, those two had walked into a vary healthy patch of pokeweed and used it as a place to store their water bottles.  That's right poke weed as in poke sallet, and famed in the song 'Poke Salad Annie'.  Why, you might ask, would that be a problem.  After all, don't people eat it?  While it is true that people do eat it, touching it can be a real problem.
     Pokeweed is a common native plant found throughout much of the United States and eastern Canada.  Only a handful of western states and western Canada do not support this plant.  It is a large perennial herb that can reach eight to twelve feet tall in a single growing season.  It is commonly found growing in open woods, roadsides, damp thickets and clearings.  The plant itself dies down to the ground with a hard freeze, but the root remains viable and regenerates in the spring.
     The plant can be easily identified by its large smooth-edged leaves that can reach up to a foot in length and its thick fleshy stems that range in color from green to red.  Flowers are found in long clusters.  They are small white five-sepal flowers without petals.  The fruit emerges as long clusters of green berries that eventually ripen to a dark purple.
     The entire plant (flowers, berries, roots, stems and leaves) is poisonous.  Among the chemicals that the plant contains are water-soluble triterpene saponins including phytolaccigenin.  The plant also contains phytolaccin and phytolaccatoxin.  These can be broken down by cooking - thus the making of poke sallet.  Cooking requires boiling and multiple water changes.  However, if not properly cooked, they can cause abdominal cramps, vomiting, diarrhea and in sever cases convulsions and death.  Toxin amounts are greater in the berries and roots.  Thorough cooking breaks down these toxins, and that along with the plant's ready availability explain why it was a favorite food source among especially the poor in the eastern part of the country. 
     Most country people know that the plant can be eaten if cooked, but few people know is that it is not safe to collect.  Besides the toxins listed, the plant also contains a type of protein lectin that can cause serious blood cell abnormalities and an alkaloid, phytolaccin.  Serious cases of poisoning can cause anemia, heart rate and respiration changes, convulsions and death from respiratory failure.  The juice of the plant can be absorbed through the skin making it a serious dermal toxin.  It is more dangerous if the handler has any cuts or breaks in their skin.  Because of this, it should never be handled with bare hands.  Ironically, the heart and respiratory symptoms from poisoning can cause brain damage and subsequent mood changes.  Thus, Poke Salad Annie might really have been a mean enough to make 'the alligators look tame' because of eating poke weed.


Thursday, August 15, 2013

Get Your Tasks in the Right Order

I was recently approached by a couple of parents who are part of the group of officers of a 'parent owned' sports club. This club has been offering programs to area kids and adults for decades. They had been renting facility space for their club and had what seemed like an iron-clad lease. Recently, they were informed that they would no longer be allowed to use that space and were actually given a very short period of time to leave and to find a new 'home'. They found a property with some infrastructure already in place. This site would need additional work to bring it up to a point where it will provide for their needs.

What they did not really know is that it also would need work to bring it up to code. It seemed to be a logical approach to the problem at hand. They needed a new space and no longer wanted to be in the situation of being at the mercy of some other entity who could simply throw them out with very little lead time. Their next step most likely also seemed logical to them but might have created huge problems for them in their future endeavors. They interviewed and then hired a contractor, reasoning that the work that needed to be done, including the addition of a structural roof over a part of the facility, was the sole realm of a contractor. The contractor in-turn told them that the structural part needed to be designed by an architect and recommended one. So, they then hired the contractor-recommended architect.

This may not seem to be a poor choice in approach to the uninitiated. However, anyone who has dealt with projects within a city or county jurisdiction could probably tell you that this is really not a good way to go if you plan to have a successful project. First of all, you have no way to compare costs and no idea going into the project what you will ultimately be required to spend in order to obtain your final needs. I met with them and tried to let them know this, but ultimately this was most probably too late to help them. They had signed contracts with two service providers - the contractor and the architect - which they did in hast because they feared being without facilities and the damage that that situation might cause to their club.

A better way to approach this kind of problem is to first realize that projects involving land and structures cannot be expected to be completed quickly. These parents should have found temporary rental space to buy them time. The first step that I would have recommend they take is to hire a landscape architect or civil engineer to provide them with a due diligence study. This would give them some idea of potential pitfalls, legal and code requirements, time to completion and costs. I have often been able to determine, after doing a due diligence, that a site is not fit for the proposed use or that a critical utility such as electricity, water or sanitary sewer is not available and extending them is more expensive than the use can sustain. Sometimes the steps required to complete a project, such as re-zoning or a petitioned change in the land use plan, are just too time consuming and the project would take longer than the client can feasibly wait. It is better to find that out before the project is initiated or the property is actually purchased.

After the due diligence, the client can make an informed decision as to whether to procede with the project on that site or to walk away. If they choose to procede, the next step is to build the design team. You can do this by hiring one of the team and letting them put together the rest or by hiring the individuals separately. This team will most likely have a surveyor (to provide the boundary, topography and tree survey), a landscape architect (to provide the site layout and design and to provide site plan submissions), a civil engineer (to work with the utilities, stormwater and other aspects of the site development) and an architect (to provide the design of the structure). The architect will often then add a structural engineer and a mechanical engineer to their individual team.

Once a team is organized, the client will need to meet with them and they will need to produce a set of plans. These plans will have to be submitted to the local planning department for site plan review. This review will cover the site design and layout, proposed grading of the site, planting, tree protection, erosion control and stormwater design. It will also have elevations and proposed floor plans for whatever structures that might be proposed. Once site plans have been reviewed and approved, construction plans will need to be produced. These will also be reviewed and approved. These will provide the information that a contractor will need in order to build the site and the structures, including the architectural plans. With the approved construction plans, the client can then go to a number of contractors and have them bid on the the construction. By doing this, they get an opportunity to compare quotes and an opportunity to keep the cost of the project within a budget. They can also then have the opportunity to filter out contractors who simply cannot meet their time budget.

Obviously, my parent group will not have that opportunity. They are now at the mercy of the contractor who is free to continue to pile on costs. It is vitally important to a project to get the tasks required and the people who will perform them put together in the correct order. Otherwise, you risk a project that is either never completed or is completed over budget and hugely late.

Saturday, July 27, 2013

Are You Effected by a Land Development Plan?

     Is your land a part of a land development plan?  If it is, do you know what the projected use of your land might be for the current and near future?  What about for the more distant future like ten or even twenty years?  If your answer to any of these questions is that you do not know, it might be in your best interest to find out.  City and County planning jurisdictions often develop long range plans for the development of the property within their actual limits and often within their extraterritorial jurisdiction, land beyond their boundaries for which they have development control.  Their long range plans for your land and the the properties surrounding your land could greatly effect your ability to use your land now and in the future.
     I recently attended a pre-submittal meeting concerning a piece of land.  The owner was hoping to sell this property and the potential buyer was hoping to develop it for high -density residential housing.  The property was in a seemingly agricultural area but backed up to a new residential development.  There was another new development just down the street.  Unfortunately for my client, this piece of land was in a low density residential area on the land use plan.  The Town agreed that the area was most likely to become high density residential and even commercial in the future, but that is not the case now.  To develop this property for high density residential as my client wanted, the land use plan for the Town would have to be changed to reflect high density residential.  The property would then need to be re-zoned to high density residential and then a site plan provided, reviewed and approved.
     To develop this property as low density residential would cost my client more than leaving it vacant because he would have to provide water, sewer and roads within the site.  To apply for the change in the land development plan would also be costly and would take a minimum of half a year to accomplish.  It would also mean that he would be taking the risk that the Town's decision might be to not allow the requested change.  In the end, my client chose to walk away from the property and the owner placed it back on the market.
     Land development plans can be a very powerful tool for a municipality to use to control and direct growth.  Obviously, uncontrolled growth does not really benefit anyone.  It  can cause real problems for innocent property owners who simply want to use their land the way that they were permitted to utilize it when they first purchased it.  Consider for instance a property owner who bought land in the country and built a home expecting to be able to live out their life in a rural country setting.  Without a land development plan and zoning regulations, this property owner could very easily find themselves living on their land surrounded by high density housing, like apartments, and commercial development, like a shopping center.  This could seriously effect their quality of life and their property value.  They might find that they cannot even sell their land and are stuck with having to remain in a now undesirable spot because of finances that were totally controlled by someone else.
     With a land development plan in place, existing property owners are at least given a chance to speak out when a change in the plan is requested.  Without one, they basically have no rights or voice in how surrounding properties are utilized.  It is important to know if there is a plan in place that effects your land.  This might determine how you develop that land, but it might also greatly protect it from surrounding development.
    

Tuesday, July 16, 2013

Fireworks in the Tree Tops


     I love to watch fireworks on the Fourth of July. It is the epitome of summer to me to walk out on a hot July evening among throngs of people, find a place in the grass near the lake where the Town shoots off the fireworks and then wait and watch. You get to spend a pleasant evening among friends and to enjoy a lovely show.   The walk home on a greenway through the woods with flashlights to light the way is pretty special too.

Lovely bursts of 'fireworks' crown a sourwood tree on the edge of the woods.

     One tree that always reminds me of the Fourth fireworks is the Sourwood. First of all, it tends to be in bloom around this time of year - beginning in mid June and often lasting until the end of July. Plus, to me the flowers themselves look like fireworks. The trees have long white strings of bell-shaped flowers coming out in a grouping like fingers on your hand. Each clump of flower strings resemble the pretty white clusters of shooting stars that we see on the night of the Fourth. With time they gradually turn from a snow white to a gray as the flowers complete their blooming and the seed is formed, but the firework groupings remain on the tree well into fall.
     The tree itself is a lovely small tree that is native to much of the Eastern and Southeastern United States. It is named Sourwood because of the oxalic acid that is formed in its leaves. This causes the leaves to have a bitter taste. The leaves may be sour tasting, but they are a favorite of a number of the moth species normally known as orange fall webworms. These moths will often seek out a sourwood to lay their eggs and the tents can begin appearing with tiny worms as early as mid summer.
     The flowers have a lovely scent and are attractive to bees. In a good year with plenty of rain and therefore plenty of flowering, bees seek out the trees. Sourwood honey is considered to be one of the best honeys in the world and is much prized. It is a very light colored honey with a heady scent. In addition, the juice from the flowers can be used to make jelly.


August leaves with seed pods still in place
     Sourwood likes full sun to partial shade and in the wild is usually found either as an understory tree in open hardwood stands or as an edge tree - such as the edge of a woodland, along a road or near a stream in a bottomland.  It is the edge location that is usually the most noteworthy.  The tree becomes a mass of brilliant red in the fall but will often begin turning color as early as August and will retain its red leaves for several months.  Along bottomland areas, the tree is always found above the high water level and is therefore a great natural indicator of potential flood levels and also of soils that are well drained.  Sourwood will not tolerate saturated soils.
     The tree reaches fifty feet in height and twenty feet in crown diameter in good conditions.  When found in the open, it has a pyramidal shape, but in a wooded setting, the shape tends to be more open and irrigular.  Often the trunk is crocked and leaning and the foliage is fairly dense on the main crown of the tree.
     Sourwood makes a wonderful specimen tree, especially when it is placed on the edge of a grouping of trees.  It does not tolerate a great deal of foot traffic and is not a 'lawn tree', but it does provide a good deal of interest and color when used on the edge of a bedded and thus protected area.  In these areas, the tree will be hardier if not fertilized with a chemical fertilizer.  Use organic materials such as compost instead.  It is a somewhat more temperamental tree to transplant and therefore is not always easy to find in a nursery, but it is well worth the search.  The other option is to protect what might come up at the edge of any wooded stands that you have.  You might be pleasantly surprised to find a sourwood growing amid the other edge trees.
     Look to sourwood to help set the mood for summer and the Fourth of July with its lovely flowers, and then look for the added bonus of long and brilliant late summer and fall color.  In the winter, enjoy its interesting and twisted shape and gray bark, and then in the spring watch for the red tinted leaves to come out.  It is a lovely understory and edge tree for all seasons of the year.

Sunday, July 7, 2013

Passion Flower - A Great Vine and Groundcover

     Mid summer is a wonderful time to enjoy picnics and fireworks as well as to enjoy the 'fireworks' of flowers both in your yard and in the wild.  One lovely native flower that celebrates the season is the Passion flower, Passiflora incarnata.  Also known as the Maypop, the Passion flower is a perennial vine with herbaceous shoots that grow out from a lengthy woody stem.
     This vine can cover a sizable area over time for an interesting ground cover.  When it reaches something it can climb, it will use axillary tendrils, a modified stem that grows out and coils around objects to allow the vine to climb and not fall.  As a ground cover, it reaches a couple of feet in height and over time will cover an area of about ten feet in diameter.  As a vine, it can climb to a height of as much as twenty five feet.  Leaves have three lobes and are a lovely shade of dark but bright green.  They are an average of three to six inches across and provide for a lovely texture addition to your garden.
     The plant is herbaceous but perennial.  Thus it will disappear in the winter, but return and increase, beginning to send out new shoots, in the early spring.  By mid June, it will be covered with exotic flowers that appear to be a fringe of purple hair surrounding and under a very unusual and somewhat raised combination of pistil and stamens.  Under this fringe of hair are ten purple to light pink 'petals' that are actually sepals.  Flowers close overnight and open by early afternoon.  This flower is the reason for the name.  The pistil and stamens together are said to represent the crucifixion of Christ otherwise known as the Passion.  The ten
sepals are said to represent the ten disciples, excluding Peter and Judas.  The five stamens represent the five wounds placed into Christ's body, and the knob shaped stigmas are said to resemble the nails.  The fringe of 'hair' is seen as the crown of thorns.
     Flowers produce a three to five inch egg shaped, green fruit.  Over time this will become more yellow and the outer skin will become dry and paper-like.  Inside are groupings of seeds surrounded by globs of sweet, sticky flesh.  These gooey morsels are edible and were used by native Americans for food.  They also used the flowers, leaves and stems as infusions and teas; they found them useful for their medicinal properties.  Passion flower is believed to provide relief from anxiety and sleep disorders, especially when combined with valerian and lemon balm.  The name Maypop comes from the popping sound that the fruit make when it is ripe and squeezed in order to open it.
     The Passion flower is native to most of the southeastern United States - ranging from Pennsylvania to Florida.  In the wild, it can be found in meadows and pastures and along the edges of woodlands and streams.  The plant prefers sun to partial shade and will tolerate almost any kind of soil from loams to sands and from moist to dry.  It will not tolerate saline conditions though.  The fruit is highly favored by a variety of birds and the plant attracts a number of butterfly species.
     If Passion flower should happen to favor you with its presence, you might consider finding a home for it.  I like to see it mixed with other native vines to create areas of bedded ground cover in place of massive areas of grass.  A good companion is the Virginia creeper.  No matter how you proposed to use it, Passion flower can be a welcome addition to your site.