Keeping dying trees in the garden

Posted June 25, 2010, at 8:06 p.m.

If we let the porch light burn through a summer night, at sunrise there are hundreds of moths resting on the grey-shingled porch wall, wings held tent-like over their bodies or spread flat against the wood. Some leave early, mainly white or brightly colored species like the rosy maple moth with wings of pink and yellow. Some stay the day, the grey and brown species that become part of the wall in the bright light.

Where did they all come from?

I think I know. I go about my daily garden chores and never see them, these egg-layers, but I see holes in oak leaves left by their chewing larvae and the edges of birch and cherry leaves rolled tightly around their pupae. I see blackburnian warblers, black-and-white warblers, nuthatches, and chickadees feeding on insects high in the treetops.

There are five dominant deciduous tree species surrounding Marjorie’s garden: red oak, red maple, pin cherry, paperbark birch, and yellow birch. According to entomologist and author Douglas Tallamy (“Bringing Nature Home, How Native Plants Sustain Wildlife in our Gardens”), these five species, along with an understory of willow and lowbush blueberry, can support hundreds of lepidopteran species, mostly moths.

On the immediate edge of the garden are two of these trees, a red oak and a pin cherry. I can turn my head away from the computer screen and see them both, side-by-side, through the window. They are about the same age, perhaps three decades old, their limbs overlapping in their closeness. The red oak may outlive me by a century or more. The cherry is dying.

For more than 10 years, this cherry tree has graced our lives with the beauty of white flowers covering its branches in spring and with birds of all types feeding on insects and cherries in its summer canopy. But cherry trees lead short lives, more on the scale of human existence, and sooner than later succumb to diseases, branch die-back. This cherry, about forty feet high, bears foliage only on one low branch and in the top ten feet of its narrow canopy, the dead branches in the middle sporting tufts of grey-green foliose lichens.

The lichens are not a symptom of decline, but rather an indication of abundant sunlight reaching the trunks and branches of the narrow tree. Crusty lichens cover the cherry’s main trunk which rises only six feet before dividing into two co-dominant trunks, also covered with lichen growth.

Our garden discussions of late have focused on the fate of this tree. Marjorie presents the case for cutting it down, giving its space over to the oak. I plead for a continuance, although I have a hard time verbalizing my reasons. There are other pin cherries nearby; younger, fuller trees to carry on the ecosystem functions of Prunus pensylvanica, so why hang on to this one?

Marjorie is willing to compromise, remove only the dead branches. But I like the lichens hanging on the dead branches. I enjoy spotting new bird species in the old tree’s limited canopy. I imagine woodpeckers hunting for ants and beetles under its bark, excavating nests in its trunk much as a pileated woodpecker has done with an old birch snag in another part of the garden.

I imagine crows perched on the highest dead branches, discussing the thunderstorm on the horizon.

I imagine a hummingbird nest somewhere in the crown of brittle wood, a nest lined with spider silk and lichens.

The cherry tree is dying, and it is full of life.

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