Don Cipollini, a plant physiology professor at Wright State University, happened to be on a bike path in Yellow Springs, Ohio, last August when he noticed something peculiar about some ornamental trees along the way.
He stopped and had a closer look. What he discovered could have a dramatic and, some might say, heartbreaking effect on the heritage landscape of Grey-Bruce and southern Ontario, much of Canada, and the rest of North America.
Cipollini and other researchers at the university did follow-up work and discovered the emerald ash borer had infested white fringetrees across Ohio. White fringetrees, an increasingly popular ornamental tree across North America, are the closest relative of ash trees. The bad news was published in the Journal of Economic Entomology and widely reported in the news media this week.
“Things aren’t looking good for ashes in North America and now other species,” said Cipollini. He said other trees and shrubs in the ash family now need to be watched for ash borer infestations, including lilacs, forsythia, and privet.
Ash was previously seen as the only tree being attacked and killed by the invasive emerald ash borer. It has rapidly spread across North America since first being encountered more than a decade ago on the west coast. It’s deadly presence in the Grey-Bruce area was confirmed last summer.
Ash is one of the most prolific trees in this area. Here in Hope Ness the woods have countless ash trees growing among the maple and beech in the older hardwood bush. They’re also among the first hardwood trees to appear among the wild apples and “thorny trees” characteristic of the first stage of reforestation.
Ash grows fast, but in my humble opinion, is no weed tree. Aside, from its natural value in its own right, ash is the driest of the hardwoods, which helps it make better firewood that some people may think – besides, it splits easy. It’s also quite commonly used for axe handles, picks, and other tools that need a strong and durable wood handle. And, of course, it’s long been the most commonly used wood for making baseball bats.
So, the fatal impact of the emerald ash borer is a very big deal indeed. But what caught my eye right away was the presence of Lilacs among the new list of trees and shrubs likely vulnerable to this invasive species of pest.
I suppose one might say there’s a certain irony there, in that Lilacs are not native to North America. Settlers, especially from the British Isles, brought a few precious cuttings with them to plant by their new homesteads to remind them of home, a thing of beauty to help keep their spirits up.
And there they remain, near the front door of numerous homes in rural, small-town Ontario, and in city gardens as well.
As a little boy I often used to visit the west Toronto home where my mother was raised, where her grandfather had planted a splendid garden. Lilac bushes that bloomed beautifully and fragrantly in late spring had pride of place among the many flowers and ornamental trees. Long gone now, they nevertheless helped nourish the spirits of family members through difficult times.
Thus, Lilacs became an important part of my personal heritage, as they were and remain an important part of Canada’s pioneer-cultural tradition. To think that is now at risk because of the emerald ash borer is truly sad. Hopefully it can be avoided, one way or another.
I am reminded of Elm trees, and how in their stately thousands, perhaps millions, they fell victim to Dutch elm disease years ago, There was one especially wonderful elm on the farm near Streetsville where I lived for a few years as a boy. It was the majestic monarch, spreading out in all its classic glory, in the center of the grain field closest to the house.
A few elm still grow up from time to time here and there – there’s one on the north side of Hopeness Road, as a matter of fact, that’s never quite reached maturity and now appears to be struggling. There’s another one beside the highway near Clavering that always catches my eye. It’s bigger, and apparently quite a survivor. But I read something recently that said Dutch elm disease is still active, and no elm tree alive can survive it.
It’s a small world we live in, now more than ever, what with the global economy and all. Invasive species are bound to spread from one place to another, with various levels of ill effects.
The good news is the Ohio researches found no sign the emerald ash borer threatens trees not related to ash, such as maples.
That’s a relief. You can’t be much more a part of Canadian culture and heritage than Maple. That would be pretty close to “the end of the world” for a country with a maple leaf on its national flag.
.Originally published in The Sun Times in 2015