Embracing America’s love affair with trees

I arrived in the United States at a perfect time of year to see, celebrate and promote the conservation of threatened trees.

Spring had sprung, and Washington DC’s cherry trees had decorated the capital with candyfloss pink blossom. My drive out of DC with Fauna & Flora International’s (FFI) Executive Director, Katie Frohardt, took us through beech and hickory forests and onto Delaware’s rolling hills, where white ash, red oak and tulip trees form a formidable canopy.

Our destination, the Mt. Cuba Center, is a botanic garden with a history of local conservation success, having protected and grown a variety of native trees and wildflowers. These wildflowers had also timed their arrival perfectly, with warmer weather and longer days providing a window of opportunity for trilliums, bloodrots and bluebells to set out their stalls.

Lessons learned from ancient trees

Time was also a key theme for the main event at Mt. Cuba: a guest lecture from Dean Peter Crane of Yale School of Forestry and Environmental Studies. The star of his lecture, the gingko tree, has been around for 200 million years and has remained remarkably unchanged over a period during which dinosaurs have come and gone.

A true survivor, gingko trees first appeared around 200 million years. Credit: Westonbirt Arboretum.

A true survivor, gingko trees first appeared around 200 million years ago. Credit: Westonbirt Arboretum.

We were treated to the inside story of the gingko tree: how it came to be, how it nearly disappeared, and how humans – who grew to value the tree for its beautiful leaves, timber and medicine – found a way to save it.

The talk also touched on the status of the gingko’s fellow tree species across the world. Like the gingko, these trees too trace remarkable histories. However, with more than 9,000 species across the world threatened with extinction, our own window of opportunity to secure their future is closing sharply.

The actions of the conservation community over the next few decades – a mere heartbeat in time from the gingko’s point of view – will be crucial for the survival of the world’s threatened tree species.

Aligning local and global conservation efforts

The gathering at Mt. Cuba was brought together by FFI’s longstanding Vice President and US Board Member, Blaine T. Phillips. As a long-term supporter of local and global conservation efforts, Mr Phillips is helping to build new alliances for threatened tree conservation.

Mt. Cuba and the Global Trees Campaign (GTC) – a joint initiative between FFI and Botanic Gardens Conservation International – are using complementary approaches for plant conservation. As Mt. Cuba applies its expertise in horticulture, public engagement and conservation to increase its impact across the wider landscape in Delaware, GTC is using similar skill-sets in a different context to scale up actions to conserve some of our planet’s most threatened trees.

Forming new partnerships for threatened tree species

From Delaware to Chicago, I visited the Morton Arboretum – a partner of GTC and a leader in tree conservation, research and education in the United States.

One particular interest for both Morton and GTC are oaks – a group of around 500 species of immense cultural, economic and ecological value. Oaks define landscapes, produce cork, timber and medicine, and supply ample acorns for hungry wildlife.

The Georgia oak is one at least 40 oak species threatened with extinction. Credit: Ryan Russell.

The Georgia oak is one of at least 40 oak species threatened with extinction. Credit: Ryan Russell.

They have also long been a symbol of the Morton Arboretum and feature prominently in their garden, their research and as part of their education programmes.

Oaks are also in dire need of help, with many species (such as the Georgia oak) and oak ecosystems losing ground to exploitation, habitat loss and climate change.

A lack of information about their status in the wild and the need to build the technical capacity of partners working in situ are key barriers to protecting and recovering oak species in the wild.

By working together, Morton and GTC aim to save the world’s most threatened oak species from extinction, building on the strengths of each partner to deploy the full range of in situ and ex situ actions required.

Morton’s expertise in oak science is already being used to chart a Red List for the world’s oak species, and – in so doing – identify the immediate priorities for conservation action.

A holiday just for trees

My last day in the United States coincided with Arbor Day – a holiday in the US dedicated to tree planting. I spent the morning in downtown Chicago immersing myself in tree-themed events organised by Morton Arboretum and reflecting on the incredible level of enthusiasm, expertise and effort within the USA for tree conservation.

Promoting tree conservation with the Morton Arboretum. Credit: Morton Arboretum.

Promoting tree conservation with the Morton Arboretum. Credit: Murphy Westwood/Morton Arboretum.

Alliances with organisations such as Mt. Cuba, Yale and Morton are essential to strengthen the links between the US and global tree conservation communities, and ultimately enable us to take strong action on the ground for the tree species most likely to disappear.

As the clock counts down for the world’s threatened trees, there has never been a better time for us to join forces, to pool our skills and resources, and save these remarkable species from extinction in the wild.

This is an edited version of an article originally published on the Global Trees Campaign website.