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article imageOp-Ed: Trees as a local environmental health service for cities? It’s possible

By Paul Wallis     Aug 14, 2008 in Environment
The chemical processes of trees affect everything around them. A Canadian scientist, Diana Beresford-Kroeger, proposes reforesting the cities as environmental controllers. There’s a lot of long proven science to support her ideas.
Trees, as a structural mechanism, and their various properties aren’t news to permaculturists and environmentalists. Beresford-Kroeger is suggesting for urban environments much the same roles as they have in permaculture.
The New York Times:
Ms. Beresford-Kroeger, 63, is a native of Ireland who has bachelor’s degrees in medical biochemistry and botany, and has worked as a Ph.D.-level researcher at the University of Ottawa school of medicine, where she published several papers on the chemistry of artificial blood. She calls herself a renegade scientist, however, because she tries to bring together aboriginal healing, Western medicine and botany to advocate an unusual role for trees.
She favors what she terms a bioplan, reforesting cities and rural areas with trees according to the medicinal, environmental, nutritional, pesticidal and herbicidal properties she claims for them, which she calls ecofunctions.
Wafer ash, for example, could be used in organic farming, she said, planted in hedgerows to attract butterflies away from crops. Black walnut and honey locusts could be planted along roads to absorb pollutants, she said.
The science isn’t in doubt. The roles of the trees she mentions are well known, and their ecological roles are well proven. This isn't guesswork. Ecologically and chemically, trees are major drivers of any terrestrial ecology, and have been since life emerged on land.
The scale of the idea is the important point here. This is designer ecology on the grand scale. It’s also economically viable. Compared to chemical treatment plants and environmental laws that aren’t enforced, this is a potential solution to some very expensive problems.
Other ideas aren’t being so well received. Beresford-Kroeger has made some claims like the anti carcinogenic capabilities of trees, which aren’t proven, and some concepts which don’t quite fit the scientific menu:
David Lemkay, the general manager of the Canadian Forestry Association, a nonprofit group that promotes the sustainable use of Canada’s forests, is familiar with her work. “She holds fast to the notion that if you are in the aura of a black walnut tree there’s a healing effect,” Mr. Lemkay said. “It needs more science to be able to say that.”
The “aura” idea will be familiar to those of us who’ve studied trees in human culture. It’s an ancient idea, dating back to prehistory. Unfortunately, as a method of arguing for planting more trees to urban planners, it leaves a few things to be desired.
Despite which, much of her work is scientifically strong. Her view of the importance and chemical complexity of the old growth forests, for example, is very much on the money.
She also has support from Edward O. Wilson, the very highly respected Harvard biologist:
Dr. Wilson, at Harvard, said that more research into the role of trees in the ecosystem was imperative and that it was alarming how little was known. “We need more research of this kind to use the things we have, such as trees, to their fullest,” he said.
Both Dr. Wilson and Ms. Beresford-Kroeger proposed using stock from old-growth forests for planting new forest in the hopes of taking advantage of good genetics. “There’s an enormous difference between old-growth forests and tree plantations,” Dr. Wilson said.
There’s an easier way to do that, and it’s extremely cost effective. In Australia, we’ve cloned an almost extinct Jurassic pine into commercially viable numbers. Restocking by conventional replanting can be painfully slow, and the gene pools of the old forests are rare enough in situ, where they need every tree they have. Cloning could improve the odds considerably, and increase second generation cross-pollination.
Like all good revolutionaries, Beresford-Kroeger and her husband are gardeners:
Ms. Beresford-Kroeger is famous in Canadian horticulture circles for her sprawling gardens, which she maintains with her husband, Christian Kroeger, and are often open to the public.
She has 60,000 daffodils, more than 100 rare hellebores from Turkey and Iran and extremely rare peonies from China that are dark brown with red leaves and smell like chocolate.
And she grows more than 100 types of trees, including rare fir trees and Siberian cherry trees, and disease-resistant chestnuts, elms and butternut.
As a horticulturalist, I can tell you that’s more than a bit of work. The peonies alone would be a labor of love.
It’d be nice if some others put a bit more thought into their gardening, on whatever scale:
Ms. Beresford-Kroeger recently completed the book “Arboretum Borealis” about the boreal forest in Canada, which cuts across the northern half of the country. Canadian officials have recently announced plans to preserve 55 million acres — roughly half.
Look, O noble Canadian moose-growers, you can have all of that forest, if you just restock using modern methods. I’m not kidding about that Jurassic pine. From a few plants to a viable commercial stock, in a few years. Imagine if you did that with your forests. It’d be worth billions, and you could have your priceless, beautiful natural forests as well.
Ms. Beresford-Kroeger knows her stuff.
I think her ideas will grow, too.
This opinion article was written by an independent writer. The opinions and views expressed herein are those of the author and are not necessarily intended to reflect those of
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