‘The Hidden Life of Trees’

Magnificent Chilmark pasture oaks on South Road enter their season of hibernation. —Susan Safford

Even if you are not a lover of trees — I am, yes — you may be fascinated to learn more about what is going on with them. Peter Wohlleben shares the story of forests’ unseen activities with readers in “The Hidden Life of Trees” (Greystone Books, 2016). The book’s subtitle is “What They Feel, How They Communicate.”

We need an interpreter such as Wohlleben to help us comprehend these beings whose lives take place in a time frame slower and vaster than our human one. His is an engrossing saga in the nonfiction category of popularized science.

The book is based on Wohlleben’s observations as the forester in charge of a community forest in Hümmel, Germany, along with those in the worldwide scientific community who study trees and forests around the globe. Wohlleben, using accessible, anthropomorphizing language, helps us to learn about the survival systems that trees possess, and what they do for themselves and their ecosystems.

As we go into early Island winter, our deciduous trees are going into dormancy, or as Wohlleben puts it, hibernation: Shedding their leaves, returning their energies to the root zone below ground, storing sugars and chlorophyll. Why go to all this bother when a deciduous tree could be a conifer?

“Does it really make sense to grow millions of new leaves per tree,” writes Wohlleben, “use them for a few months, and then go to the trouble of discarding them again? But when you take a closer look, their behavior in fall actually makes a lot of sense. By discarding their leaves, they avoid a critical force — winter storms … and we get soil.”

Wohlleben offers his take on pests of trees, each of which is struggling to “take from the others what it needs.” Chapter 19, “Yours or Mine,” describes this ebb and flow, and how trees have been equipped to protect themselves within it. It is one among 36 fascinating chapters stuffed with arboreal physiology.

Winter moths

As in the case of locally familiar winter moths and their caterpillars, something may have triggered a species to go into “outbreak mode.” Trees normally have the means to withstand the assault, but not always, and sometimes an entire woodland may collapse. This occurred at the Woods Preserve, which is why it is so important for that dead forest to be observed and studied over time.

Outcomes depend upon a multitude of interacting and intersecting local factors, including weather — the term for which is ecology. The oak forests of Martha’s Vineyard are host to many species of the food chain; in fact, oaks are a champion genus when it comes to the support of hundreds of life forms, including winter moths. It is unwise to attempt to eliminate just one of them; there are always unintended consequences. Everything eats something; everything is eaten by something.

Winter moths are making their December appearance. Was it always so? We only took notice of these insignificant, drab insects once they went into overdrive: outbreak mode. When they were innocuous (the winter moth, and similar species fall cankerworm and spring cankerworm), maybe only entomologists took note of them, although they may have been here all along. So it is with many small, unseen cogs of ecosystems, and the entire natural world. Wholesale spraying of landscape trees wreaks unseen, unutterable harm, despite the protective goal of the project.

Grasses in winter

For properties in open locations, ornamental grasses feature prominently in the landscaping that is becoming prevalent here. They perform well and are often the dominant design element. The look, especially now, as seasonal flowers and color drain away, is tawny, wild, and graceful.

By the same token, this look as implemented is verging upon becoming cliché. The array and palette of ornamental grasses is phenomenal, as even a casual perusal of an illustrated encyclopedia of grasses, such as “Grasses for Livable Landscapes,” by Rick Darke (Timber Press), shows. The ones that grow well here are varied and numerous. Therefore, it is disappointing to see the same few species, principally miscanthus and pennisetum, with noticeable invasive tendencies, installed in such numbers around Martha’s Vineyard.

Once snow and ice arrive here, in my opinion it is best to cut grasses back, as they are shattered and splayed in those conditions. The graceful effect disappears, but not the debris scattered across the garden. Rodents may also move in for the winter, leaving the crowns mere husks come spring.

If you are interested in choosing an ornamental grass for your garden, yet feel daunted by the multitude of grasses in the encyclopedia, choose Panicum virgatum, switchgrass. It is native here, and always looks good. Switchgrass even stands up well to snow and ice.

Bird life

Despite the mild weather, birds are voracious now; they must be fattening themselves as best they can for coming cold weather. It is challenging to keep the feeders stocked against the rate of consumption, but it is incumbent to continue with feeding once you start.

The importance of evergreen cover in the garden cannot be overstated for overwintering birdlife. Heated birdbaths are the icing on the cake, and if you want to attract lots of birds to your garden, this is the way to go. Protected siting becomes important, however, as predatory hawks will quickly notice the activity and begin to prey on “your” birds, if birdbaths or feeders are out in the open.

Seed catalogues

The 2017 growing season seems so far away, especially since we are just finishing with the present one, but seed catalogues are arriving. As if the holiday season were not already busy and full of pressures enough, there is the feeling that one must order early or perhaps forfeit the first choice of desired varieties.