Deciduous trees are self-contained, mini ecosystems that provide crucial habitat for wildlife and insects. The crown of the tree is covered with leaves and branches; this canopy becomes nesting areas for birds and some mammals. Far below the canopy, on the forest floor, is a world teeming with life from the microscopic to insects, birds, reptiles, and mammals. Leaves are the food factory of the tree as they contain green chlorophyll, used in the process of photosynthesis. The green leaves of plants collect the sun’s energy to convert carbon dioxide from the atmosphere, to take water from the soil, and to produce sugar which is used as tree food. This sugar is stored in the branches, the trunk, and even the roots of the tree. Oxygen is released into the atmosphere as the byproduct of photosynthesis which purifies and replenishes the air we breathe.
Each tree serves a purpose that is worthy of investigation—prior to planting seedlings or before removing a full-grown tree. Each species grows leaves and bark that feed a wide variety of insects, pollinators, and each of these has an impact the entire chain of local wildlife. It is important to get acquainted with each tree by name, know its purpose, whether it is invasive in certain areas, and be aware which insects the tree serves as a host food.
This lovely grove of trees was planted between late 1800 and early 1900. Tall clumps of Dame’s Rocket, growing around the trees, become a complementary relationship with pollinators by growing wild in the fields and around the tree trunks. Introduced by early settlers, the intensely violet, Hesperis matronalis is a familiar sight across the Eastern Kansas landscape. These early-blooming and prolific re-seeders appear as vibrant clusters of flowers and source of pollen and nectar to feed newly emerging pollinators after the cold winter.
This one-half mile tangle of various trees reaches towards the sky and marks the E property line. This deciduous woodland includes many Hackberry, Elm, Osage Orange Hedge, Birch, Mulberry, Oak, Honey Locust, Persimmon, Walnut, Pine, Redbud, and Pecan. The forest and fields are also sprinkled with Kansas native evergreen tree, the Eastern Red Cedar trees. Old growth woodlands nourish the wildlife and pollinators as ever-encroaching development destroys wide swaths of precious habitat. At the turn of the 20th century, in order to provide the wood to build growing towns and homes, set property lines with fence posts, provide fuel for heat and cooking, settlers to the Kansas Territory planted fast-growing, hardwood trees that also provided vital protection from the weather extremes in this prairie climate.
Each tree provides leaves that serve as host food to insects and pollinators. Dead trees and branches drop to the forest floor and create habitat to many smaller mammals and reptiles. These smaller creatures sustain life for the larger wildlife such as the cougar, coyote, bobcat, fox, and birds-of-prey.
This brilliant blue, Eastern Bluebird eyeballs a lone berry hanging from a Hackberry tree. With snow on the ground, the fruit of this tree helps to feed migrating birds that often overwinter in our area and the local birds. With each season, this big Hackberry tree is a valuable food source for many species, from caterpillars to birds and squirrels. The Nuthatch birds provide endless entertainment by stuffing seeds and suet cakes into the bark for future meals only to have the Flicker and various woodpeckers arrive to eat the Nuthatch’s winter stash.
The kitchen window view is this big Hackberry tree, busy year-round with splashing and flapping wings, each taking turns in the bird baths. In the spring, thousands of newly-emerged insect larvae noshing on the leaves of the Hackberry also become the worms adult birds feed to their hungry baby birds. Hackberry tree is the host food for butterflies such as Question Mark, Mourning Cloak, Hackberry Emperor, Tawny Emperor, and American Snout.
The clusters of black berries hanging from the branch tips of the Hackberry tree feed many species of birds through the fall and cold winter months.
One May morning, we stepped out the door into a fluttering, gray cloud of Hackberry Butterflies. Friendly little things, these butterflies clung to our arms and clothing, traveling around the yard with us. As I stared face-to-face with this particular Hackberry butterfly firmly affixed to the skin, I suddenly understood the Hackberry tree is the host food for the Hackberry butterfly larvae. Duh! Inspired with this new awareness and understanding, we ran around our property using our excited call-to-action, “LOOKIT!!,” and quickly counted twelve Hackberry trees! It was a defining moment to realize I have lived my life with trees and know very few by name. Now awake to the greater picture of trees on this planet, it suddenly became all-important to learn the names and qualities of our various land-mates. Most of these statuesque sentinels of the prairie were here long before me, and some of them knew my great-grandparents!
Now well over 100 years old, each fall this Honey Locust tree produces a prolific crop of black bean pods that fall to the ground. This is a precious winter food source for many animals, including deer, cattle, squirrels, rabbits and birds.
Many common trees are host food for the ethereal Luna Moth. This Luna Caterpillar chomps upon the leafy greens from a host tree. Did you know that mowing around host food tree trunks kills many pollinator larvae, including the beautiful Luna moth, because the caterpillars often pupate inside leaves on the ground. Host tree food for the Luna caterpillar are white birch, persimmon, sweet gum, hickories, walnut, and sumac.
This Luna Moth appeared on the ground, in the shade of the Elm tree, one of its primary host food plants. At the end of its short life cycle, with no mouth to eat, the Luna Moth lives only seven days. The sole purpose of the adult moth is to mate. This lime-green member of the family Saturniidae has an impressive wingspan of 3 to 4.5 inches—one of the largest Lepidoptera in North America. The eye spots on the hind wings are used to fool predators. This nocturnal moth can deflect geolocating predators, such as bats, by swishing their long, hind wing tails to confuse the predator as to the moth’s true location.
As a young girl, it was pure delight to ride my emerald-green bike under these magnificent trees along our country lane. Riding under the shade of the trees on a hot summer day, the branches arching over the road offered cool relief from the blazing Kansas sun. Some sixty-plus years have passed since those carefree days. On our daily walks along this gravel road, I hear the sounds of my childhood as the songbirds sing across the fields and can still feel the bicycle tires crunching over the beautiful shadow designs created by dappled sunlight filtering through the leaves of the canopy. This small stretch of country lane was here long before I was born. Each shady area offers passers-by a spot of welcome relief from the heat. This stretch of the road provides us with year-round photo ops along our daily walks.
Mother Nature’s tree drawings cast lace designs onto the gravel road. A wealth of wildlife live here. As a child, I believed fairies lived in this woodland forest. Today, the magic remains as we watch through our child-like eyes while the Great Blue Heron spears a fish in our neighbor’s pond, and see newly eclosed Zebra Swallowtails from the Paw Paw tree patch growing along the creek, gather along the road to puddle in the mud while listening to the finest orchestral mix of bird songs.