Got ash? Researchers sure hope you do.
Ever since the emerald ash borer arrived outside Detroit in 2002, the invasive pest has been spreading across the country, ravaging ash populations in its wake. The shiny green beetle had reached most of Michigan’s lower peninsula by the mid 2000s, and a decade later had reached nearly all of Ohio, Indiana, northern Illinois, southern Wisconsin and more. Researchers estimate that a mature ash tree can die from a borer attack in about six years, which means some areas in the Midwest have been missing their trees for a while, while others are just starting to watch their ash disappear.
Since the emerald ash borer arrived in the U.S., researchers have been working to understand the biology of the beetle and ways to stop its spread. Although certain pesticides seem to slow it down, tens of millions of ash have been lost and the end of the devastation is not yet in sight. Even where humans can easily adjust to the loss, wildlife that rely on the trees may not be so fortunate. That’s why forestry professionals are starting to consider other ways to prevent an ash-free future.
“We’re fighting back while planning ahead,” says Rachel Kappler, forest health coordinator for the Great Lakes Basin (GLB) Forest Health Collaborative. “We’re collecting seeds from ash trees that might be resistant to the beetles, relying on the help of private citizens to help locate the trees. Our hope is that a tree breeding program will allow restoration and reforestation efforts to save the species — and save our forests.”
Restoring Forests Lost
In January 2021, ecologists, foresters and other conservation professionals from across the Great Lakes Region launched a new collaborative effort to save the ash and other trees currently affected by invasive pests. The GLB Forest Health Collaborative’s goal is to unite efforts to breed ash, American beech and eastern hemlock trees that are pest-resistant and can be widely used to restore our forests.
As word has spread, some landowners have begun sending Kappler reports of their trees directly. But many more are using the popular citizen science app, TreeSnap, to submit their observations. By downloading the app onto their smartphones, any person can submit an observation of any tree they observe. TreeSnap data is used for a wide variety of research projects nationwide, while the GLB Forest Health Collaborative watches specifically for observations of native, naturally growing American beech, eastern hemlock and various ash species. When someone submits a healthy, mature tree in an otherwise pest-infested area — what they call a lingering tree — they take notice.
Once a healthy tree, like an ash, has been reported, the research team may plan a visit to confirm that it’s truly a lingering tree. If it is, they collect either seeds or a sample of the tree in the form of a cutting they can bring back to their base at the Holden Arboretum outside Cleveland, Ohio, for propagation of test trees. If the tree passes the test, and isn’t affected by emerald ash borers, it can be used for breeding pest-resistant trees.
Seeds Wanted from Local Counties
This fall, the GLB Forest Health Collaborative is expanding their seed collection efforts for ash trees. They’re targeting trees from places in which the emerald ash borer was detected in 2010 or earlier, since those areas should have already seen widespread tree death — significantly increasing the odds that any remaining large, healthy trees have resistance to the beetles.
Twenty-six counties are particularly important for ash seed collection this fall. Among the counties are LaSalle, Ogle, McHenry, Stephenson, Jo Daviess and Will in Illinois.
Ash seeds need to be collected while they’re mature, which happens in late summer and fall. The trees make winged helicopter seeds like maples, which are called samaras. Proper collection of ash seeds does require following a few guidelines, but it’s not difficult. Experts recommend:
For those wanting more information, ash seed collection guidelines from the U.S. Forest Service and ash seed collection resources are available online. And for anyone not comfortable or able to collect seeds themselves, help is available through the GLB Forest Health Collaborative, says Kappler. Their experts can walk you through the process or put you in touch with a county forester in your area who may be able to stop by to collect the seeds.
“We couldn’t do this work without the private landowners who let us know where potentially resistant trees might be,” says Kappler. “Without these trees, we wouldn’t have our breeding program.”
For more information or to report a tree or collect seeds, please contact Rachel Kappler at [email protected].