Maximizing Tree Growth/Health through Root Zone Management

 Imagine a world in which at least the  drip zone  of Tree Root Zones were managed for health/longevity and vigor.

Imagine a world in which at least the drip zone of Tree Root Zones were managed for health/longevity and vigor.

This blog post will cover a few things you can do to maximize tree growth, survival rate, health,  production (fruit/nut), and longevity.  The following instructions should lead to the following benefits to your tree.

1. Reversing soil compaction around the tree, increasing percolation of water, porosity, bettering soil structure and water + air holding capacity which benefits ability to photosensitize and grow. 

2. Minimizing root competition from lawn which boosts growth, health, and longevity especially during the immature years of the tree. 

3. Localizing an abundant reservoir of bio-available (plant absorbable) minerals and nutrients, while creating a biological hot zone around the tree providing natural benefits to the soil. This includes the restoration of a very biologically active O layer.

 This is our current, most common state of root zone management, lawn up to the trunk...or perhaps a small mulch ring. Small in comparison to the canopy of the tree.

This is our current, most common state of root zone management, lawn up to the trunk...or perhaps a small mulch ring. Small in comparison to the canopy of the tree.

Negative effects of managing tree root zones with lawn or small mulch rings + lawn.

  1. Mowers + the weight of human traffic (we're big animals!) maintains a level of compaction one does not encounter on a forest floor. That is why you can "sink" an inch or two into the topsoil of a forest floor, but in a lawn, it is more sturdy, solid, compacted. Compaction means less pore space, less pore space means the soil has a lessened ability to hold air and water, both essential to plant photosynthesis. Compacted soil can be one of the most limiting growth factors that a plant faces. Newly constructed developments, especially within the past decade or so, are notoriously compacted, but we can reverse that. Compacted soil not only has poorer pore space, but directly related to that issue, water has a more difficult time percolating, so more water runs off the surface instead of seeping into the soil.

  2. Lawn gets an early start in up taking available nitrogen and other nutrients from the soil. Because most lawns in the midwest are composed of cool season grasses, they begin growth in late march/early April in many springs, just when many of our native trees are sending sap back above ground, but well before our native trees begin to leaf out. Turfgrass then continues rampant growth throughout May and June trying to reach flowering height so it can set seed by July, we interrupt that cycle through mowing causing the turf to perpetually attempt to reach flowering height absorbing significant amounts of nutrients as long as the soil is moist enough to promote new growth. One positive thing though is, since we mow lawn, it has very short root systems, and tree roots can often monopolize moisture in the subsoil. 

  3. When we're trying to establish saplings or even large balled and burlap trees, the trees have to send roots that fight through the tight sod of lawn, inching year by year to find underground niches of available water/nutrients that either the lawn isn't using or the tree outcompetes the lawn for. This competition that lawn provides to establishing trees, is one of the main retardants of tree growth while immature. Most trees if planted correctly and sited well, eventually over come the lawn and establish their dominance, but the lawn still played a retarding role in each of those tree's establishing growth, and possibly the tree's longevity. 

  4. Lack of O layer; the O layer (Organic matter layer) within the soil profile is different from ecosystem to ecosystem. A prairie O layer is very thick and well developed unless it's a glade like prairie. O Layers of temperate forest soils are often rich of partly decomposed leaves, twigs, branches, and logs, all the while relatively shallow compared to a Prairie O layer. The O layer in a wetland or boreal forest is often very deep, as organic matter has a hard time breaking down due to too much moisture (anerobic conditions) or not enough heat and unfrozen moisture (boreal forest). The O layer of a lawn (thatch) is typically plain pitiful in comparison to the O layer of a real ecosystem. So our trees are growing without the most biologically active, and nutrient rich layer of the soil profile. We'll talk about reviving the O layer later in the blog. 

The Short Version (Recap)

The Many Effects of Compaction

Mowers + human foot traffic maintain an unnatural level of compaction, reducing pore space in the soil which reduces available soil moisture, air holding capacity, and reducing percolation all of which are retardant factors affecting of growth, health, and longevity. 

Nutrient and Resource Competition

Cool season turfgrass gets an early jump on available nutrients, and spends a lot of energy spring and early summer trying to flower causing the grass to continue to compete for available nutrients. Turfgrass roots/sod must be conquered by every tree we're trying to establish in a lawn, traditionally, (we're going to discuss a new way) therefor in the establishment years of a tree, they're forced to fight inch by inch through the already established, perennial turfgrass to create their own root zone retarding growth and vigor. Imagine putting a Zinnia in a lawn, and a Zinnia in a container, which will row faster, mature larger, and possibly even live longer?

Absent O Layer

Outside of Deserts, nearly all ecosystems have significant O layers (Organic Matter Layer) which often hold the largest reservoir of bio-avaialble nutrients and biologically activity (soil life). The O layer of lawn is a very thin layer of thatch that cannot start to compare with the value of a forest, prairie, or wetland O layer. Our trees are essentially missing a very important layer of their original soil profile. Lack of O layer also creates highs and lows in soil temperatures and lessened ability to hold moisture in the A layer (topsoil), which is not good for anyone

So we need to flip all of these limiting factors, into reasons why our trees are thriving, live long, and grow vigorously. This requires biomimicry with some modification to speed up, maximize , and sustain nutrient availability + humus production. 


Instead of planting our new native tree in a lawn subjected to mowing, foot traffic and lacking an O Layer, we're going to give our newly planted tree a patch of Savanna-like soil conditions and add some deer protection, which is often lacking but completely essential in Midwestern metropolitan property open to deer browse and rubbing.

Root Zone Management Diagram.jpg

Have you ever "potted up" a young tree? This means to move it from a 1 gallon to a 5 gallon pot, or a 5 gallon to a 15 gallon pot. When this happens the tree has a chance to expand it's roots, which corresponds with an increased ability to grow above ground in stem/leaf form. When you plant a tree sapling, or 1 gallon or 5 gallon or whatever sized tree into a lawn, you're essentially potting it up, except the pot has no bottom.....or edges.....but this new pot (the lawn) has water and nutrient thirsty turfgrass.....and heavy animals called humans compacting the soil.....and the sometimes heavy machinery, mowing the thirsty grass.

So what can we do to give our new planting a easier time expanding it's root system?
Get rid of the grass. How? Smothering with cardboard if organic, herbicide by the label, if not. Organic method is better for soil biology in the short-term, at least. Tilling and Solarization with black or clear plastic damages soil biology in the short-term, at least. 

We've stopped mowing, and stopped walking around the tree. We've also gotten rid of the grass within the recommended diameter circle pictured above.
Ok easy enough, so what's next?

Next we work on restoring the O layer.


We're concerned with restoring a biologically active, moisture retentive, nutrient dense O layer which doesn't significantly form within a lawn, but was part of all of our major ecosystems soil profiles excluding deserts. If you used cardboard to kill of the grass in the rootzone, remove it before adding the below recommended materials. 

If you're installing the zone in the fall, get as diverse amount of tree leaves as possible. Some tree leaves aren't very carbon dense and break down quickly like Hackberry, Silver Maple, Black Cherry, Black Locust, Black Walnut, and Honeylocust. Sugar Maple, Black Maple, Oaks, Hickories, Beech Trees, and a few other trees produce leaves heavier in carbon, and longer lasting. Try to collect more of the latter than the carbon-lite leaves.

If you use a strong push behind or walk behind mower that can bag the shredded leaves or mulch them in place, go for a a <1" application of shredded leaves. This is a bit more than would naturally fall in one area, but since they're shredded, they shouldn't last more than 1 year which means the soil biology is releasing their nutrients through decomposition into the root zone of your new tree.

If you can't shred your leaves go for a 2-3" application of un-shredded leaves, but be sure to not pile the leaves directly around the trunk, as that can promote negative fungal activity on the bark of your tree and rot it to death. By the end of the winter the 2-3" application should look like a 1-2" matted application of tree leaves. Shredding the leaves is best for quicker release of nutrients aka decomposition. Though unshredded leaves may be better for attracting beneficial insects due to the micro-habitat created within layered leaves.

If you're installing the zone in the spring, utilize straw bales going for a 3" layer somewhat loosely laid, perhaps 2" if  straw is compacted well. Straw won't have the mineral quality of tree leaves, but will provide some trace minerals, nitrogen, and carbon for humus (o layer) formation. Alternatively apply 1-2 inches of leaf compost, or 3-4 inches of regular compost throughout the root zone with 2" of straw on top.

Pictures above Fill the Root zone with fall leaves from as many different species as possible. Then mow all of the leaves up in place or bag them with a mower and spread the shredded leaf matter throughout the zone. Your finished product should have turned the leaves into not much visually, rest assured, there is an abundance of nutrients ready to be released from those leaves.

Maximizing Available Nitrogen + Other Nutrients within the No Mow Zone

The tree leaves or straw will be providing a broad spectrum of minerals as they decompose over the course of 8-12 months after applying. Again, shredding is best, though it is more difficult to shred straw without an actual leaf shredder. These materials are high in carbon and many minerals, promoting the formation of the O Layer (partly decomposed organic matter). These materials are not very dense in nitrogen though, and to make sure your tree has an abundance of this key nutrient available, the rootzone will need some nitrogen rich materials added throughout the growing season (Late March-September)


After the first growing season

The rootzone of your tree should be developing humus (mostly decomposed organic matter). It should also be inhabited by beetles, ants, spiders, and many other insects moving throughout the O layer. You can add a log or two into the root zone which may attract beneficial insects. As long as it's not buried, it wont' significantly affect your Carbon : Nitrogen ratio balance, though it should be colonized by the fungal community over time which may be connected with your establishing tree exchanging nutrients and biochemicals. If you're limiting your walking in the zone, you should also feel the soil softening/aerating after the first growing season, perhaps you can push your finger into the soil a bit, or a lot, if you're so lucky to have a burrowing animal tunneling through your root zone! All of this soil life, burrowing/tunneling activity, and insect activity are positives for our key goals: nutrient availability, reversal of compaction, moisture retention ability of the soil profile, humus formation, and water percolation.

Supplemental Watering

Throughout the summer months (May-August), if you're local area is falling behind on average rainfall, give the whole rootzone 1.5" of water, twice a month. You can measure that setting up a sprinkler, and placing an open evenly shaped container in the zone watching to see how quickly it is reaching 1.5" of water in the container. Tuna cans work great for that or just a rain gauge.  

By the end of your first summer, your root zone should not have an O layer thicker than 2". Also un-decomposed organic matter, again, should not be pilled up or in direct contact with the trunk. It would be best to add only shredded leaves each fall, this will ensure quicker breakdown of the leaves, preventing the O Layer from being "too thick" and carbon dense. How thick is too thick? I'm not sure. But the objective isn't to create a compost pile around your tree. Revisit the soil profile picture above. 2" is probably the thickest you want the O layer.

After 7-10 years (Growing seasons)

Keep the root zone protection in place to protect the drip line, and instead of adding tons of carbon and nitrogen rich organic matter, simply add enough tree leaves in the fall to maintain a 2” thick O layer. There's also no need to shred the leaves at this point unless they are being wind swept over the winter.

At this point you can also expand the root zone, to give you're maturing tree more biologically active, non-compacted soil, if you can afford to loose more lawn, the tree will be most appreciative. 

Ornamentalizing the Rootzone

Killing the turf grass within the No-Mow/Walk Zone is ideal. We recommend for it to be replaced with a simple short seed mix of Black Eye Susan (Rudbeckia hirta), Purple Coneflower, Wild Bergamot (Monarda fistulosa), Great Blue Lobelia, Foxglove beardtongue (Penstemon digitalis), Golden Alexander, Mistflower (Conoclinium coelestinum), and Virginia Wild Rye. This would be mowed down in the fall, or winter once a year over or under the tree leaves. Their mowed stems, if mowed high enough (3"-4" high), will also help the tree leaves stay in place. It is important the shred the leaves finely the first fall, so that this seed mix can make soil contact over the winter (Fall seeded). If this seed mix is applied overtop or underneath unshredded leaves, it will not germinate well.

Hickories of the Midwest

 Pignut Hickory (Carya glabra) in prime fall color.

Pignut Hickory (Carya glabra) in prime fall color.

Hickories are a common tree of Midwestern, Southern, and Eastern Forest types. These trees are known for producing edible kernels and economically valuable timber. They support the caterpillars over 200 butterflies/moths. Indigenous people pound the nuts and separate the shell to create different food products or process them with water to release the oils and flavors. Many people know of hickory through the flavor the wood’s smoke imparts onto grilled foods. Pecans are the most well known of the hickories, though this is written from primarily an Ohio, Kentucky, Indiana experience, and does not include pecans due to lack of encountered field samples in the natural environments of these states. Hickories have the highest calorie density and fat content of almost any food outside of whale lard which is nearly pure fat, making the small kernels worth processing from a sustenance perspective. There’s certainly a promising future for Hickories in Indigenous Agriculture.

In the OKI (Ohio, Kentucky, Indiana) region at least 1 hickory species finds a niche to sustain itself within all forest types outside of the most frequently flooded floodplains dominated by Sycamore, Cottonwood, Silver Maple and formerly Green Ash. The 6 hickories we’re describing here are all large shade trees, often 3/4th’s of the mass of Oaks in maturity though every bit as tall. So when using them in the metropolitan landscape, plan for them to reach heights of over 65 feet tall, and widths of over 45 feet. All hickory kernels are edible, but Bitternut Hickory is like an acorn in that it must be leached of tannins before it is palatable.

This blog post will provide the specific habitat niche of each hickory species, restoration implications, and defining I.D. characteristics.

 Each Hickory species has fairly variable nut expressions. This is 3 samples per species.

Each Hickory species has fairly variable nut expressions. This is 3 samples per species.

 Two Midwestern Hickories share this similar bark, but 1 has a leaflet of 7-9, and the other is of 5.

Two Midwestern Hickories share this similar bark, but 1 has a leaflet of 7-9, and the other is of 5.

Shellbark Hickory - Carya laciniosa - OKI Habitat/Niche

Shellbark Hickory occurs on neutral-alkaline alluvial terraces, occasionally flooded neutral-alkaline flood plains, neutral-alkaline glacial outwash, weakly acidic (6.5+PH) to alkaline glacial till or bedrock soils (residuum) of the same PH range. It is commonly associated with Blue Ash, White Ash, Chinquapin Oak, Shumard Oak, Bur Oak, Bitternut Hickory, Black Maple, and Sugar Maple.  This tree is a good indicator of a soil PH of at least 6.5 or higher. It reaches its greatest productivity on Wisconsin Glacial Till of variable drainage and glacial outwash. It is tolerant of seasonally high water tables (swampy), and has a similar flooding tolerance (river/stream flooding) as Black Walnut and Bur Oak whom are common associates with it on occasionally flooded flood plains and/or alluvial terraces.

For restoration, while it can be established in acidic soils, it is most naturally competitive in the stated PH range of +6.5, and is best kept in that range for long-term success/unassisted reproduction. This is a good tree to plant, if human-planted trees on your site are showing signs of iron chlorosis or magnesium deficiency, typically seen in Acidic soil obligate species such as Red maple, Sweet Gum, Swamp White Oak, River Birch, and Pin Oak.

Key Defining Characteristics

Bark Leaflet of 7 typically, sometimes 9, but never 5

The shaggy light gray bark of the Shellbark shares similarity only with Shagbark (Carya ovata) locally. Use the leaflet of 7, and sometimes 9 with the shaggy bark to separate it from Shagbark as Shagbark nearly always has leaflets of 5 locally. In the winter time, if you don't have access to the leaflets, use the very large nuts + Bark to separate Shagbark and Shellbark. Shagbark nuts (not husks) should not be larger than the spread of a quarter, while Shellbark should have larger, more spherically or elongated golf ball sized nuts. See first diagram for reference.

 Shagbark Hickory is separated from Shellbark Hickory most easily by the leaflet of 5, not 7 or 9.

Shagbark Hickory is separated from Shellbark Hickory most easily by the leaflet of 5, not 7 or 9.

Shagbark Hickory - Carya ovata - OKI Habitat/Niche

Shagbark Hickory occurs as a common species in strongly acidic soils to near neutral PH (5-6.8PH). It is a consistent indicator of acidic soil where naturally occurring and associated with one or more these following species; Sweet Gum, Black Gum, Sassafras, Mockernut Hickory, Pignut Hickory, Pin Oak, Black Oak, Scarlet Oak, Red Maple, or Shingle Oak. It is an indicator of weakly acidic or neutral soil (6.5-7.0 PH) when associated with one or more of the following species Chinquapin Oak, Shumard Oak, Bur Oak, Kentucky Coffee Tree, or Blue Ash. Because of it's preference for acidic soil and adaptability to low or high moisture availability and poorly drained soils, it finds a place in many forest types. It’s co-dominant in Acidic Forested Wetlands featuring Pin Oak, Swamp White Oak, Beech, Green Ash, Red Maple, Sweet Gum canopies; it’s also very shade tolerant in these Acidic Forested Wetlands. It can also be found in very well drained acidic soils, the common denominator is acidity, not moisture level. In restoration it should only be planted in soils of a PH less than 7.0 to mimic or match it’s original niche.

Key Defining Characteristics

Bark-See above Picture Leaflet-of 5

What separates Shagbark from all other hickories except for Shellbark Hickory is the mature form of it's bark. In the growing season, use the leaflet of 5 paired with the bark to separate it from Shellbark. In the winter, use the nut size comparisons shown in the opening picture + bark, though nut comparison is less reliable to the inexperienced eye. 

 Mockernut Hickory is nearly always found in acidic soil naturally, like Shagbark and Pignut.

Mockernut Hickory is nearly always found in acidic soil naturally, like Shagbark and Pignut.

Mockernut Hickory - Carya tomentosa - OKI Habitat/Niche

Mockernut Hickory is overall less common than Shagbark Hickory, but occurs in very similar habitats. It is an occasional species in Acidic Wetland forests, though in my observation, its often directly associated with White Oak, Beech, and Sugar Maple which are less high water table tolerant as Swamp White Oak and Red Maple, indicating that it may be occurring in slightly better drained portions of Acidic Wetland Forests. It’s been observed increasing in dominance on slopes of over 3% on high water table acidic glacial till plains where drainage is better supporting acidic well drained soil associates such Black Oak and Pignut Hickory. Mockernut Hickory’s other niche is well drained acidic soil, whether from acidic bedrock (residuum) in unglaciated regions or acidic glacial till deposits in glaciated regions. Restoration is fairly straight forward, stick to acidic soils that are better drained than the most poorly drained high water tables, and it should be able to regenerate-long term. If drainage is questionable, but you know it’s acidic, use it on a slope of 3% of greater.

Key Defining Characteristics

Leaflet of 7 to 9 Nut (see original diagram) Bark (see picture above)

The leaflet of 7 to 9 narrows it down to being Shellbark, Mockernut, Sweet Pignut, or Bitternut Hickory. The nut clearly disqualifies sweet pignut, and bitternut. The Bark will clearly separate it from Shellbark Hickory as it doesn’t shag. The buds are also the largest of these 6 hickories, and they can be seen from the forest floor like the buds of a Buckeye. As you see more and more mockernut, you’ll also notice the twigs are less numerous and more proportionately thicker to support the heavy nuts, like walnuts, bur oaks, and buckeyes.

 Bitternut Hickory is the only PH generalist of these 6 described hickories.

Bitternut Hickory is the only PH generalist of these 6 described hickories.

Bitternut Hickory - Carya cordiformis - OKI Habitat/Niche

Bitternut Hickories are the most widely adapted of our hickory trees, more generalist; less specialized. It will occur in soils within a PH range of 5-7+, and is the most commonly regenerated hickory of neutral to alkaline soils. They can occur on occasionally flooded flood plains with Shellbark Hickory, Black Walnut, and Bur Oak, or they can occur on thin bedrock soils the same. The two niches they do not occur in often are frequently flooded flood plains and forested wetlands. The nuts are high in tannins, like acorns, and are left much of the winter by wildlife until needed, choosing to eat less tannic nuts first if they are available. Humans can leach the tannins from these just like acorns are leached by indigenous people, and the reward being a hickory kernel that has a much higher nut meat to wood/shell ratio than the other 5 mentioned hickories in this post. Through pressing, a high quality hickory nut oil can be obtained, that also lacks the bitter/tannic quality of the unpressed kernels. This is the fastest growing hickory out of these 6 mentioned, and is one of the more shade tolerant (in its youth) of the bunch.

Key Defining Characteristics

Leaflet of 7 to 9 Nuts Bark

The leaflet is most often 7-9, never 5, the wings on the husk of the nut are also a consistent, defining feature which separates it from all of the other 5 described. The terminal buds are yellowish, which is unique to Bitternut. The bark can sometimes look like Sweet Pignut bark at certain stages, it can also look like Mockernut bark in some expressions, the bark only easily separates it from Shellbark and Shagbark Hickories. You should be able to I.D. Bitternut with the leaflet of 7 to 9 plus terminal bud or the winged husk on the nut. With enough observation you’ll be able to recognize Bitternut based on the bark alone in most cases.

 Pignut Hickory is the most thin soil/drought tolerant of these 6 described, restricted to acidic soils naturally.

Pignut Hickory is the most thin soil/drought tolerant of these 6 described, restricted to acidic soils naturally.

Pignut Hickory - Carya glabra - OKI Habitat/Niche

Pignut Hickory is a less dominant hickory in our region compared to the other hickories. It’s restricted to acidic soils like Mockernut Hickory and Shagbark Hickory but it does not occur in seasonally high water tables, and tends to stick to rocky acidic residuum soils and acidic glacial till deposits on slopes greater than 5% (well drained). Where soils are acidic and drought prone due to lack of depth and/or steep sloped, it seems Pignut has an competitive advantage though it appears as a minority species in deep acidic, well drained soils too. For restoration, I strongly recommend excluding Pignut from neutral and/or alkaline soil plantings as in all of our field studies it is always absent from this PH range, while showing an increase in frequency the more well drained and acidic the soil becomes. I’d also avoid seasonally high water tables, as it’s also completely absent from our field observations in these winter/spring saturated soils. Side note, Pignut Hickory may have the most magnificent fall color of all of the hickories listed here, from bright gold to orangish gold. It’s also a myth that all pignut hickories taste bitter or bad. Every pignut I’ve consumed had no bitterness and is on the same Pecan flavor spectrum that all hickories on, bitter or not.

Key Defining Characteristics

Leaflet of 5 Bark (bark is quite variable from smooth to deeply furrowed)

Nuts (Essential to I.D.)

The leaflet of 5 will narrow it down to Shagbark Hickory, Sweet Pignut Hickory, or Pignut Hickory. The bark will separate it from Shagbark Hickory. Sweet Pignut Hickory most commonly has leaflets of 7, but sometimes has populations that have leaflets of 5, where as Pignut is nearly always leaflets of 5….but sometimes 7. The only way to definitively separate Pignut Hickory (Carya glabra) from Sweet Pignut Hickory (Carya ovalis) is the husk of the nut. If you look at the link we attached, Pignut Hickory husks do not dissect from the top to bottom on all sides, so the husk remains on the nut throughout the winter and rots away. Sweet Pignut husks, like Shagbark, Shellbark, and Mockernut, do have these creases/dissection lines that run from the top of the nuts to the bottom which causes them to release the nut fully as they dry out and mature. This is the most reliably defining characteristic, though as stated before, commonly, Sweet Pignuts have leaflets of 7 and Pignuts have leaflets of 5.

 Sweet Pignut aka Red Hickory (Carya ovalis) shows a niche difference compared to Pignut (Carya glabra).

Sweet Pignut aka Red Hickory (Carya ovalis) shows a niche difference compared to Pignut (Carya glabra).

Sweet Pignut Hickory - Carya Ovalis - OKI Habitat/Niche

Sweet Pignut aka Red Hickory is about as common as Pignut Hickory, but has a wider range of adaptability. While Pignut hickory is completely restricted to acidic soils, Sweet Pignut has been found numerous times regenerating on Ordovician Limestone/Shale residuum soils of +6.8PH. Sweet Pignut also appears to be more common in the 6 PH range than Pignut Hickory, especially when studying forest regeneration on the Wisconsin Glacial Till Plains of SW Ohio and SE Indiana. However I don’t consider Sweet Pignut a PH generalist like Bitternut Hickory as it disappears in the higher alkalinity soils such as of Glacial Outwash parent materials; where only Shellbark (alkaline adapted) and Bitternut (True Generalist) have proven adapted. Glacial Outwash soils are generally more alkaline than Ordovician Limestone/Shale soils where Sweet Pignut has proven adaptation. The fall color ranges from yellow to plain brown, where as locally observed Carya glabra ranges from golds to orangish golds. Sweet Pignut, like Pignut, has not expressed itself in wetland forests of any PH range. For restoration, Sweet Pignut should regenerate long-term in moderately well drained soils in the PH range of upper 4 to 7.2 or 7.3. It is likely more adapted to acidic soils than neutral soils, it’s the most dominant hickory in the canopy of Lake Hope State Park in Ohio, where the residuum bedrock produces acidic enough soil to support Sourwood, in the 4 to 5 PH range.

Key Defining Characteristics

Terminal Bud (not yellow like Bitternut, not large like Mockernut) Bark (never as shaggy as Shagbark or Shellbark) Leaflet of 7 (commonly 7, but some populations have leaflet of 5) Nuts (Full dissection lines from top to bottom on all sides unlike Pignut)

Most Sweet Pignuts have leaflets of 7, but some populations consistently have leaflets of 5. If your hickory has a leaflet of 7, the bark will definitively I.D. it as Shellbark or Sweet Pignut based on the provided bark picture links. But Mockernut also commonly has leaflets of 7, compare the difference in nut size and the difference in terminal bud size to separate these two. Mockernut has large enough terminal buds to be seen from the forest floor like you can see Buckeye buds, where as sweet pignut buds are comparatively small. If it has a leaflet of 5, but lacks the shaggy bark of Shagbark hickory, it could be Pignut or Sweet Pignut. To repeat, sometimes Sweet Pignut has leaflets of 5 like Pignuts, so in this case in comes down to the husks of the nuts. Copied from the Pignut (Carya glabra) section; The only way to definitively separate Pignut Hickory (Carya glabra) from Sweet Pignut Hickory (Carya ovalis) is the husk of the nut. If you look at the link we attached, Pignut Hickory husks do not dissect from the top to bottom on all sides, so the husk remains on the husk throughout the winter and must rot away. Sweet Pignut husks, like Shagbark, Shellbark, and Mockernut, do have these creases/dissection lines that run from the top of the nuts to the bottom which causes them to release the nut fully as they dry out and mature.

In exchange for this information, we ask that you share this post within your network to support our environmental education mission. Solomon Gamboa - Indigenous Landscapes.

Do you care about Bees or other Pollinators? Please Read This.....

This is the short version of an article written by Solomon Gamboa of Indigenous Landscapes. To see the full-length article written by Andrew Goebel of Indigenous Landscapes click here. The full-length offers more information on each topic written about in the short-version, as well as containing citations for quoted research. 


In recent years we've become aware that Honeybees and Monarch Butterflies have suffered population declines due to various human activities. In response some organizations or individuals have tried to create habitat for pollinators within their properties. The chemicals that effect honeybees negatively have also been put under the microscope of the public's eye. The short version of this article is written to quickly broaden our perceptions and, perhaps, direct us in a productive path towards pollinator conservation.

Why do we care about pollinators?

If you care specifically about the production of honey, a product only attainable from the non-native Honeybee (Apis mellifera), there's no need to worry. As of this time, honeybee populations are stable, though colonies suffer from higher failure/death rates than in the past due to pathogens and parasitic insects. Our monoculture, weedless agricultural landscape of almond, apple, and cherry orchards can't support bees year-round, so these orchards are honeybee dependent by design not by necessity. This is to say, if we create habitat for our 4,000 species of Native Bees within our agricultural landscape, the honeybee is no longer necessary for it's pollination services. The convenience of being able to truck-transport honeybees from orchard to orchard enables these environments to be complete free of native plants that would support native bees and other pollinators on site for pollination. See the almond orchard picture below to see the system that creates portable honeybee hive dependency. Honeybees couldn't survive here either if they weren't trucked away afterwards, because there's nothing else to forage for after the Almond bloom peaks. They'd have to be fed corn syrup and sugar water to get by.

 We don't need honeybees for the pollination of our crops. Native pollinators can take over their duties if native vegetation is incorporated into our agricultural system to support them year-round. Even Honeybees cannot survive this landscape if not taken away after the almond bloom ends.

We don't need honeybees for the pollination of our crops. Native pollinators can take over their duties if native vegetation is incorporated into our agricultural system to support them year-round. Even Honeybees cannot survive this landscape if not taken away after the almond bloom ends.

Why Should We Care About Native Pollinators?

Native bees account for over 50% of the insect pollination in our ecosystems. The plant diversity within our Desert, Grassland/Prairie, Savannas, Forests, and Wetland ecosystems is largely dependent on native pollinators which also includes flies, beetles, moths, butterflies and other species of insects. The remainder of the pollination is taken care of by the wind, which pollinates certain trees, shrubs, and grasses primarily. Since honeybees are non-native they are in no way necessary to the function of these ecosystems. While their negative effects haven't been thoroughly studied, resource competition and pathogen spreading from honeybees have indicated potential negative effects on native bee populations. See our extended version of this article for more details on negative impacts of honey bees on native bees. Without native plant diversity, we will see a further decline in biodiversity. Native pollinators help to ensure plant diversity through the pollination of plants that compete with wind-pollinated plants. To put it simply, loosing native pollinators would destroy the fabric of our ecosystems, which currently are the only terrestrial carbon sink mitigating climate change, improving water quality, improving air quality, and supporting the thousands of species that we exclude from our agricultural system.

What should I do, what should we do?

First, don't become a honeybee keeper, your passion and energy would be more productive doing some of the things we're about to recommend. Keeping honeybees cannot solve and in some ways may worsen the major issues with pollinator conservation. The decline of native bees and pollinators is primarily due to the destruction of our ecosystems (habitat loss), owed mostly to hundreds of millions of acres of agriculturally managed land. It isn't a farmer's fault entirely, our agricultural land is decided by what people demand/consume through diet choices and energy use but we'll save that for our next article. Further decline has happened as our rural and agricultural landscapes have become more intensively applied with herbicides that eliminate the wild plants our pollinator populations relied on. While invasive plants are now destroying the edge habitats which used to hold a high diversity of flowering plants where native pollinators could set up shop. Honeybees have actually been shown to increase the success of non-native invasive plants due to their willingness to pollinate them.

So what to do, what to do? Find ways to promote and support Indigenous Agroforestry.

Currently our agricultural system is based on annuals; corn, wheat, soybeans, and a few other crops which are all seed crops. Agroforestry replaces the annual seed crop system with perennial seed crops mostly in the form of tree nuts such as Pecans, Oaks, Chestnuts, Hickories, an Hazelnuts. These woody plants can be spaced out so their canopies don't touch allowing for smaller trees, shrubs, and herbaceous crops to be grown in between diversifying the agricultural landscape. Indigenous examples of the lower level plants would be Blackberries, Raspberries, Wild Plums, Serviceberry, Passionflower, Stinging Nettle, Groundnut, Grapes, Cut-leaf Coneflower, Jerusualem Artichoke, Evening Primrose, PawPaw, American Persimmon and many more. When agriculture shifts to an indigenous perennial system, soil is conserved, more carbon is sequestered in the soil and above ground, irrigation needs decrease, fertilizer needs decrease and biodiversity increases in response to the native plants. Since the plants are indigenous, it becomes "eco-inclusive", allowing all types of insects including pollinators, and higher life forms to co-exist. Compare this with our current agricultural system which is "eco-exclusive" primarily supporting one single species (humans). In fact, any food system that isn't based in indigenous plants is much more so eco-exclusive, as non-native plants lack the co-evolution with native insects and wildlife to support them.

When our agricultural system incorporates indigenous plants as the foundation, we no longer have to look at the hundreds of millions of acres of agricultural land as habitat loss in the way that we do today. This would also in part, mitigate what is called habitat fragmentation, by connecting perennial indigenous agroforestry land to existing undeveloped habitat. We would not need to talk about Monarch butterfly decline or pollinator decline if our Agricultural system would include them, instead of exclude them. Though this requires a shift in awareness of indigenous foods and diet choice by the people to support such a major transition.

Our Upcoming Workshops as Fundraisers for Indigenous Farm

Indigenous Landscapes is preparing to purchase a 12-15 acre piece of arable land locally, in the Cincinnati Region. This land will grow over 65 native species of food crops, over 30 native culinary and medicinal herb crops, while housing over 40 more native species of plants within a prairie for pollinator support on site. This amount of land will not produce a significant amount of food for the metropolitan, but it will instead serve as the source of indigenous foods for annual indigenous food festivals. These food festivals will be the way we promote indigenous Agroforestry to the public.

If you would like to support us in this conservation venture, please attend one or all of our upcoming workshops which have a $20.00 fundraising fee. Keep in contact with our Facebook Page or watch our Workshops page on our website to be sure you're registered once registration opens. The first workshop will be this March, focused on pollinator conservation. Your attendance will not only deliver you a high quality workshop, but 100% of the proceeds will go to funding the land purchase for this local indigenous plant farm, to be.

To see the full length version of this article with more statistics, insights, and research citations written by Andrew Goebel, follow this link.



 Wild plums, and indigenous plum tree capable of producing heavy yields with a wide variety of flavor profiles. The rush of white blooms in the spring are pollinated by native bees and other native pollinators.

Wild plums, and indigenous plum tree capable of producing heavy yields with a wide variety of flavor profiles. The rush of white blooms in the spring are pollinated by native bees and other native pollinators.

Extended Article Version, Bee and Pollinator Conservation Insights


This is the extended version of our article "Do you care about Bees or other Pollinators, Please read this..." This version, written by Andrew Goebel of Indigenous Landscapes, has more detailed insight into to the current state of native bees and honey bees with research sited in the end of the article.

The problem with pollinators

Much attention has been given to the decline of honey bee (Apis mellifera) populations and the potential consequences of their demise.  Recent years have seen a rise in awareness of the importance of pollinators in general with much money and effort going towards creating “pollinator gardens” and “habitats” in cities, along highways, and our backyards. The majority of this attention has been on populations of honey bees and Monarch butterflies.  When thinking of a pollinator, these are likely the two examples people have in mind.  Although well intended, this narrow focus limits consideration of the bigger picture and the potential negative impacts of honey bees themselves. 

Missing from popular discussion is the less well known fact that native bee species have been declining in recent decades.  Since most of the 4000 species of native bees lead a solitary existence (they are not social and don’t live in hives) they are difficult to study.  Therefore the majority of native bee research has examined bumble bees (Bombus spp.) since they live in small colonies.  The findings highlight the need to implement conservation measures sooner rather than later.  One quarter of our bumble bee species have experienced significant declines, including some of the most common species (1). 

Why do we need native bees?

Not only can native bees pollinate the majority of world crops they are essential components of native ecosystems.  Honey bees do not have the ability to “buzz pollinate” which is a requirement for 15,000-20,000 species of flowering plants (1).  Decreased numbers of native bees contributes to decreased seed set from plants that they pollinate.  In fact, pollination limitation is one of the most commonly found causes of reduced reproduction in wild plants (2).  This results in decreased future forage opportunities, which further pressures native bees (1).

What is driving the decline in native bees?

It is widely assumed that habitat loss and fragmentation are some of the leading causes of native bee decline. While urbanization certainly contributes to these conditions, it is agriculture that accounts for the majority of land use. In the United States over 60% of the land has been converted to different forms of agriculture representing an enormous loss of habitat and degradation of forage for numerous organisms including native bees. Some mid western states have undergone dramatic conversions.  Illinois, for example, has lost its most of its prairies, wetlands, and forests to agriculture amounting to 95% of the land area in the northern two thirds of the state. Half of the bumble bee species found historically in Illinois have been either locally extirpated or showed declines in distribution (3).

Most species of bumble bees are ground nesting.  They build their homes in abandoned rodent burrows or other cavities within the soil.  Prairie habitats that include sufficient areas of clumping grasses provide the necessary conditions for rodents to dig burrows.  When farms in Illinois switched from having permanent and temporary pastures with wildflowers and multiple crops to primarily corn and soybean, the steepest declines in bumble bees occurred (3). 

Fragmentation can be understood as a problem of ecosystem simplification.  Despite mounds of research many ecosystem dynamics are still poorly understood.  One theme that has emerged is that more complex environments support more species and are more resilient to change.  The current agricultural system in the US is based on only a few crops which are often planted in large monocultures.  These may be interspersed with patches of semi natural areas creating islands of habitat within a sea of agriculture.  Areas that were once covered in any number of our thousands of native plants have become solid stands of only a few non native crops.  This simplification of the environment has consequences. 

Bumble bees require a variety of plants that flower at different times to provide food throughout the season.  They are further specialized in their own emergence times and by length of their tongues which impacts what flowers they will visit.  Agricultural conversion to only a few species of plants reduces the foraging window for all pollinators.

Issues with honey bees and domestication of other bees

Introduced from Europe, honey bees did not co-evolve with native bees or the ecosystems in which they have been placed.  Like many other introduced organisms, their presence can have unintended and negative impacts on native flora and fauna.  In fact there is ample evidence that honey bees can contribute to the decline of native bees and flora.

Honey bees compete for forage with native bees.  Bumble bees have been shown to have reduced amounts of foraging in proximity to honey bee colonies - sometimes avoiding entire areas.  The closer the nest sites the less that native bees were able to compete (4).  Further, since honey bees focus on nectar collection instead of pollen they are less effective than native bees and other non bees (flies, beetles, etc) at pollinating and may be linked to the spread of invasive plants as well (1).

When honey bees encounter native bees on the same flower there is potential to spread parasites and disease.  This is also true of domesticated native bumble bees.  The system of apiculture and native bee domestication creates populations that can harbor much higher pathogen loads than wild or native bees, increasing their chances of exposure.  It may be possible for honey bees to spread deformed wing virus to bumble bees which has been implicated in the colony collapse disorder phenomenon (1).  Honey bees are shipped around the country to match various bloom times, mingling sick and healthy colonies.

Furthermore, pesticides that have been deemed “bee friendly” are only legally required to be tested on honey bees not native ones (4).  Bumble bees are often active during pesticide application in the morning or evening that is timed to avoid mid day honey bee foraging (4).

What can be done?

Changing current agricultural practices is a clear way to mitigate the decline of native pollinators.  Farmland designed to include sufficient habitat could support native bumble bees which have been to shown to effectively pollinate most crops without human intervention.  A shift away from intense use of non native honey bees and other domesticated bees would lower competition with native pollinators and reduce the potential of debilitating pathogen outbreaks. 

Transitioning to a food system based on native food plants could address multiple problems at once.  In such a setup, crop land itself could actually act as habitat and begin to reconnect our fragmented landscape.

(1) Xerces Society for Invertebrate Conservation. (2016). An overview of the potential impacts of honey bees to native bees, plant communities, and ecosystems in wild landscapes:  Recommendations for land managers.

(2) Potts, S. G., et al. (2010). Global pollinator declines: trends, impacts and drivers. Trends in Ecology and Evolution, 25(6), 345-348.

(3) Grixtia, J. C., Wonga, L. T. (2009). Decline of bumble bees (Bombus) in the North American Midwest. Biological Conservation, 142(1), 75-84

(4) Goulson, D., Lye, G.C. (2008). The decline and conservation of bumblebees.  Annual Review of Entomology, 53, 191-208