I'm not what one would call a tree hugger, though I've had close relationships with many trees whose paths I've crossed over the years. It could be that I grew up in the Appalachian mountains and hid behind, hung upside down from and carved my initials into the bark of many of them. Or it could be that I know in my heart it's those trees that hold my mountains together and provide the oxygen I breathe and the soil that grows my food. I'm skipping the part about wood for building, I think you already know about that.
I'm not a statistician either, but I'm going to give you some base numbers to play with. I think at this time in our lives they could be very important.
Statistics tell us there are fewer than 200 countries in our world. The United States government recognizes 194 of them. Of those countries, fewer than 30 list trees (forests or timber) as a natural resource. There are more than 7 billion of us on this planet and that number is climbing more rapidly than you can read. Though trees are predictably uncountable, it's estimated that there are around 400 billion trees living among us. That number is not climbing very rapidly, in fact it isn't climbing at all because it takes trees 15 to 40 years to mature, and their numbers aren't counted until they reach maturity.
How many trees were cut down in your neighborhood in the past 5 years? How many were lost to the drought last summer? How many seedlings did you pull up and toss last fall? And how many mountains are slowly eroding because those 15 to 40+ year old trees are being harvested by the thousands? These are some of the reasons the number of trees is not growing.
And why does it matter?
It really doesn't matter if you think their purpose is only to provide beauty or shade. Those qualities are fine, there's not a thing wrong with planting for either or both of them. We are comfortable where trees grow; they give us a sense of serenity, tranquillity and peace when we wander beneath them. We look at them and see their stature. We watch them survive horrendous storms and we admire their strength and endurance. We respect their majesty.
They also provide shade in hot summer and they provide windbreaks during the storms of winter, an economical bonus since it affects our heating and cooling costs. So there is that.
Statistics tell us that worldwide for every tree that's planted, about 10 trees are cut down.
But in the end does it really matter?
It really does. During elementary school we all learned that trees produce oxygen through photosynthesis.
A mature forest, for example, takes in carbon dioxide from the atmosphere during photosynthesis and converts it to oxygen to support new growth. About half of the earth's oxygen is produced via photosynthesis on land by trees and other plants; the other half is produced via phytoplankton photosynthesis in the ocean. We must have the oxygen to survive; that's what we learned in elementary school.
So what happens if we lose groups of our trees?
In Brazil 80% of logging is done illegally. Brazil holds about one third of the world's remaining rainforests, including a majority of the Amazon rainforest. Deforestation in Brazil is one of the most important global environmental issues today. Trees absorb water, thousands of gallons of water, distill it and then redistribute it into the atmosphere and we have rain. I don't need to remind you of the importance of rain.
While we are talking about water, let's move northward from the Amazon rainforest and take a look at Haiti. Haiti has been deforested for a while. In the fall of 2008 Haiti was hit by 4 hurricanes; there have been more disasters in the following years. Destruction and loss were compounded because of the absence of trees.
Large amounts of soil were displaced into the sea. It takes soil hundreds of years to settle into an area, longer for it to build up to fertility. Fertile soil can't be replaced overnight, but trees would have held on to Haiti's fertile soil. And all that soil that washed into the sea? It killed many fish as it saturated the water and settled to the bottom. Those who live there are having a difficult time finding enough fish for food. There is no forest now to house wildlife, so there are no animals to give them food for their tables. And how can they plant in soil that won't be fertile for hundreds of years? No vegetables nor fruit. Nothing to export, no cash for import. Think about it.
Trees provide shelter, they provide food, they create microclimates, they self replicate, they produce oxygen, they rid the air of carbon dioxide, and they prevent erosion. Once they are gone, it takes more than a lifetime to bring them back.
In 2009 we had a massively destructive ice storm in western Kentucky. It destroyed many trees and harmed many more. I watched too many men coming into my town in too many pickups and heard the racket of too many chain saws for months afterward. I watched dollar signs light up their eyes as they told homeowners the trees needed to be cut down even if they only had a broken limb or two. I had a neighbor who spent hundreds having a 30 year old oak tree removed. It only had a few broken branches. I heard him grumble and groan the following hot summer when the heat of the sun entered the windows that the oak had previously shaded.
Sometimes we lose trees for valid reasons, but it breaks my heart to lose one for no reason.
What really breaks my heart is the logging that goes on in my area of the Appalachian mountains. It took centuries for the mountains to become majestic and strong and beautiful, as they are. It's taking only a few months for erosion to destroy those mountaintops, not to mention the devastating landslides that are destroying homes and the amount of pure oxygen we lost when the trees were destroyed.
Trees matter, they really do. And what can we do? Well, we can be careful what we plant, where we plant, and when we plant. The ideal tree is in the eye of the beholder, but it also needs to be adaptable to the location in which it is planted. I can only speak for those that grow well here in my zone 7a, but I can tell you the best time to plant them. Right now in winter is the perfect time.
Plant in late winter or at the latest, early spring before buds are open. Evergreen trees can be planted as soon as the weather is cool in fall, but deciduous trees should not be planted until after their leaves fall and they become dormant. Even though you are planting in winter, they still need to be watered so their roots will settle into the fertile soil.
And we can be very careful what we deliberately destroy.
I'm not a tree hugger, but I do have a great deal of respect for all that trees provide for us. At the top of the list is the air that I breathe, the oxygen that we all need for survival.
It takes 17.5 to 22 trees to sustain one person during a lifetime, depending on the type of tree, its size, its health, its oxygen production and its CO2 intake. And we are losing 10 for every one we plant.
Just a few good trees.
Think about it.
For some suggestions for a few of the best yard trees, click here.