poisonous native trees and wildlife

Michael Young

I'm hoping someone here can help me. I have a piece of land in Muskoka, north of Toronto, Ontario. I've been underplanting native species (mostly trees) into the forest there (part hobby / part experiment) and I'm concerned I could potentially poison local wildlife.
Some of the species I've introduced are native to the province, but not to the region. Two examples are Kentucky Coffee Tree and Ohio Buckeye. My concern here is that both of these species are poisonous to animals if ingested.
My question is: would fauna local to Muskoka, whom haven't recently (genetically speaking) been exposed to these tree species know to steer clear of them? Would they have that instinct or would they, live livestock, eat the seeds / leaves and be poisoned?
I know squirrels are just about the only animal the can eat buckeyes without being poisoned but I'm wondering if that's a localized adaption or if all squirrels, including those in Muskoka who haven't met a Buckeye in thousands of years (if ever), would also be genetically immune.
Any insight?

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wisconsitom(Zone 4/5)

Mike, seeds of KCT are said to be poisonous to sheep and cattle. While not your concern exactly, that may lend guidance. Interestingly, this species is considered an ecological toilet bowl-swirler because all the mega-fauna thought to have once dispersed its rather large seeds are themselves extinct; Think such critters as woolly mammoths and so on! Strange situation.

Now I'm no purist in my forest plantings myself. I have actually purposely made careful introductions of exotic tree species to my plantation and adjacent woods. So I'll skip the polemics, but I would be interested in hearing more about the existing forest stand, its composition, general condition, what, if any, advance regeneration may be going on. What I'm getting at here-and this relates to my opinions, not yours, so may be irrelevant-if there were say, lots of hemlock, white pine, cedar, any of several high-quality northern hardwoods, etc....I may ask myself why I'm trying to alter what's there. Just saying......but again, I myself am somewhat doing the same, although tending to move in the opposite direction. I'm not trying to bring more southerly species into my NE WI setting. That may make sense from the climate-change standpoint, but I bought the land I did because of the very mix of species present there-and because there was open land upon which I could do afforestation. That latter point was very important to me-I had to have open land to plant trees on, and this land directly abuts the forested part of the property. So I too risk altering the overall site. I like to think my ideas are good, and I'm sure you feel the same way about yours! For what it's worth, the Menominee Indian Reservation, which lies just a few miles west of our land, and which is often said to be the finest, most well-managed forestland east of the Mississippi, is now experimenting with, among other species, sycamore. So there's an idea more akin to your own.....the purposeful introduction of a more southerly species into the woods. I can't outright say that, or what you propose, is wrong. ;^)

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Michael Young

Hi Wisconsitom,

Thanks for your insight. I suppose what I'm trying to determine is whether or not local wildlife could be negatively effected by my plantings—say, a deer browsing the leaves of Ohio Buckeye, which leafs out early in the season. I figure that livestock are so domesticated (and mostly foreign) that they have little in the way of instinct for what's safe to eat. But I wonder if a deer or raccoon would know better, despite not being exposed to these plants before. How does instinct work? Is it localized to regions or across an entire species (i.e. would a deer living in northern Ontario know not to eat buckeye leaves the way a deer living in Ohio would)?

Interesting about the reserve that's planting Sycamore! The woods where I'm planting are probably tertiary growth (having been clearcut at least twice) but are healthily dominated by Northern Red Oak, Red Maple, White Pine and Red Pine. They also have a wide mix of other lesser dominant species (Basswood, Birch, Sugar Maple, Beech, Butternut, Hemlock, Black Cherry, Ash, Elm...).

My reasons for planting more southerly species are the climate change ones (assisted migration). I'm quite concerned about the fragility of our forests. While the forest I'm in is doing well at the moment, we have all kinds of pests and pathogens heading our way as the climes warm (we're currently losing our American beech). So, my gently adding a number of species, is my way of offering new possibilities to the plot of land—sort of adding to the genetic lottery with species more adapted to hot, dry summers, for example. I'm also adding a lot of fruiting species that I can eventually benefit from. Ultimately, though, it's a hobby.

Anyway, thanks again for your insight. Would be fascinated to chat more, if you see this.

Mike

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wisconsitom(Zone 4/5)

I am akin to you in that I don't believe "preservation" of existing plant communities is going to be completely possible going forward, and that further, some purposeful human experimentation is not only OK, it is desirable. As such, we may well be in the minority in places like native plant forums! In any case, where I'm at, I am using hybrid larch as one of my main timber species, and they are, of course, completely exotic, as are the neighboring Norway spruce we've planted en masse. But there's a fully intact native swamp conifer forest right nearby, also on the property, and in my head, those exotic elements I've brought in add to the tableau, not detract from it. And this is, of course, in at least one sense, more extreme than what you propose, which is to introduce an element which is at least already present on the continent. So you are talking to no purist here. That said, I'm in a very "northerly" feeling zone with my woods and property, and all my goals are in that direction, at least aesthetically. We're really doing afforestation though, and only slightly altering the existing wooded portion. There, white pine, white cedar, paper birch make up most of the woods, but there are a number of other items. I think the introductions we've made there also offer "more possibilities", exactly the phrase I would have used. Bravo! I think we conservationists need to "be in the flow" more, not just be people perceived as holding our hands up to stop various activities. I think for this thing (civilization) to work, we're going to need to get people excited about bold new agendas and ideas, not just blab about climate change. That just overwhlms and puts people to sleep. anyway, I like your thought processes.

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Michael Young

Wisconsitom, I'm definitely with you about the importance of offering solutions, at least as much as we point out the danger of climate change and other environmental risk. Your afforestation sounds interesting! I take it that it's ultimately for selective harvest?

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wisconsitom(Zone 4/5)

In its original conception, this was to be a 100% "biological" planting, meaning we were planting the trees for their own intrinsic value. That said, some thinning is likely to take place, and if we are able to market some material, that could happen. We also may someday make our own log cabin at that location...or more likely, one of my kids might want to some day. Time will tell. In any case, yes, this is a mixture of conservation and commerce.

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Jay 6a Chicago(5b/6a)

Better safe than sorry.If you know it's poisonous to certain wildlife why plant it? Enough dangerous plants are already around due to human ignorance.Surely there must be native alternatives that are rare to your location that are good for the wildlife.Duh!

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Jay 6a Chicago(5b/6a)

If you find a lot of animal carcusses near your trees you will know it was a bad idea.

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wisconsitom(Zone 4/5)

A bit melodramatic I think^. Even the word "poisonous" is rarely used correctly. It means "acutely toxic" meaning death or serious injury occurs more or less immediately upon ingestion. There are VERY few plants capable of that, in any system. So what we're really talking about is toxicity, slow or long-term. And the OP is suggesting nothing that would lead to "a lot of animal carcasses near your trees". Duh!

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Michael Young

Jaybirdyj, the two tree species I'm talking about planting are native an hour or so, south. So what I'm doing is not so much introducing an exotic, as I am migrating a native a bit further north (in many cases, these species already existed in the north before the last ice age forced them south). My concern here is not that that bodies are going to start piling up, but more a matter of understanding how adaptation to toxicity works. If an Eastern Grey squirrel in Ohio can eat the nuts of buckeye without experiencing toxicity, does that mean an Eastern Grey squirrel in a region of Ontario (where buckeyes don't currently exist) can do the same? Or have they evolved separately?

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Jay 6a Chicago(5b/6a)

I was just giving you a worst case scenario.If they are only an hour or two from native habitat I would not even worry at all about it.The wild animals and insects have adaptations that allow them to recognize or neutralize plant toxins.Forget about it.I care about your feelings too and don't want to see you regretting something you did.Trees can live for a very long time so it's important not to plant doubts along with them.Happy gardening.

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