To Avert Species’ Extinction, Western Mass. Researchers Plant Appalachian Trees in Franklin County

To Avert Species’ Extinction, Western Mass. Researchers Plant Appalachian Trees in Franklin County

There’s something truly remarkable about trees. They stand tall, providing shelter, shade, and beauty to our world. But did you know that about one in three tree species is at risk of extinction? According to a 2021 report from Botanic Gardens Conservation International, there are approximately 60,000 species of trees on Earth, and the Magnolia fraseri, also known as the mountain magnolia, is one of them. Native to southwestern Virginia, this magnificent tree is struggling to adapt to the ever-increasing loss of its natural habitat.

However, hope is not lost. In an effort to save the Appalachian tree, two dedicated researchers from western Massachusetts have taken matters into their own hands. Jesse Bellemare, a biology professor at Smith College, and John Berryhill from Smith’s Botanic Garden are spearheading a local initiative to preserve this endangered species.

“The mountain magnolia at lower elevations in their native range don’t seem to be reproducing and replacing themselves,” explains Professor Bellemare. “You have populations that are comprised just of older adult trees with no seedlings or saplings coming up through the forest to replace them.”

While the trees at higher elevations are still reproducing, their available habitat is shrinking. Bellemare expresses concern that this species is retreating up the mountains and may eventually lose most of its native habitat.

To combat this unfortunate trend, Bellemare and Berryhill are attempting to translocate the mountain magnolia to West Whately, Massachusetts. They have carefully selected a test plot at Smith College’s Ada and Archibald MacLeish Field Station, a secluded former farm pasture. Unlike many other trees and plants that can be saved through seed banking, the mountain magnolia seeds do not remain viable after the dehydration and freezing process. Therefore, the researchers are growing this precious species in their test plot, creating a living gene bank for the mountain magnolia.

“Our goal is to slowly build up a collection of genetically diverse mountain magnolia that would live here for decades, serving as a library of this species’ genetic diversity,” Bellemare explains.

Apart from the conservation aspect, the growth of mountain magnolia could also provide a source of food for New England’s wildlife, such as birds and squirrels. Every element of nature is interconnected, and the introduction of this tree could have a cascading effect throughout the ecosystem.

As Professor Bellemare and John Berryhill meticulously plant tiny saplings, they also hope to gain valuable insights into how the mountain magnolia will withstand New England conditions and harsh winters. This initial wave of seedlings will serve as an experiment, guiding future planting decisions and helping them understand the species’ survival rates.

This project not only represents a vital conservation effort but also provides hands-on experience for Smith undergraduate students. Many students are passionate about combating climate change and preserving biodiversity and do not want to remain passive observers.

“One student said that this work gave her a sense of pushing back against the climate crisis,” says Berryhill. “It’s heartening to see that we’re planting plants that students collected and helped us grow.”

This is a long-term endeavor that will span decades, and the researchers hope it will outlive them, leaving a lasting impact on the world. They are also sharing their findings with the Global Conservation Consortium for Magnolia, contributing to similar efforts worldwide.

If you would like to learn more about tree planting and conservation efforts, visit Tips Tree Planting. Together, we can make a difference and protect our planet’s precious flora for generations to come.

The future of the mountain magnolia species in western Massachusetts depends on the success of this ambitious project. In 50 years, when the trajectory set by Professor Bellemare’s lab becomes evident, we will know the true value and impact of their work.

Let’s join forces to preserve the beauty and majesty of our natural world, one tree at a time.

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