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Wild Ones: With Holiday Decorations, Buy Local, Be Responsible

When it comes to holiday evergreens, buy local! Yes, it’s good to support our neighbors, but perhaps even more importantly, it’s crucial to protect our local forests. We must do everything we can to prevent the introduction of nonnative invasives.

Understand that I have the utmost respect for human immigrants, and I reverently hope that by next summer, the visa issues pertaining to international seasonal workers will be resolved.

But far too often, plants and insects introduced from abroad can damage a local ecosystem. Although some scientists still contend that “nativeness is not a sign of evolutionary fitness,” the Wild Ones organization promotes native plants, in large part, to support beneficial insects – moths and butterflies, which are the source of “baby food” for songbirds – and the wild bees and other pollinators on which our environment depends. Wild Ones members love insects – at least native insects.

Invasive nonnative insects, on the other hand, are a very real threat to forest health, and their spread is not unlike a human pandemic, resulting from the way plant materials are moved around the globe through travel and trade.

The story of the emerald ash borer is a good example. Researchers will never know for certain, but they’re relatively sure that the shiny, green insects arrived in the Detroit area in 2002, presumably burrowed into the wood of shipping pallets or packing crates carried on cargo ships from Asia. They spread through Michigan during the 1990s by natural means, but also on nursery stock and firewood.

I remember the day back in 2013 when I received a call from a DNR forester who had recognized the characteristic bark of an infected ash tree in the Crossroads at Big Creek Preserve, which meant the invasive beetles had been there for a while. We weren’t “ground zero,” though. The foresters speculated that the emerald ash borer had come into the county on a load of firewood brought in from Michigan.

We all know the rest of the story: Our ash trees have been decimated. It’s another chapter in the sad history of invasive-insect forest destruction that includes the American chestnut, American elm, eastern hemlock and as many as 500 species of plants, mostly hardwood, eaten by gypsy moths.

Back in 2018, an article in the Peninsula Pulse warned us that the Department of Agriculture, Trade and Consumer Protection had found that trees and holiday decorations that were infested with elongate hemlock scale had been shipped into Wisconsin on trees and holiday decorations and that the invasive species could harm our forests and plantations.

To my knowledge, these insects have not taken hold yet, but the warning was real: Buy local, and if you do have a tree from beyond the peninsula, use a curbside tree-pickup service if one is available, burn the tree or take it to a municipal landfill. Do not drag it into the woods or a ditch.

I worry more about the holiday decorations you can pick up at grocery or big-box stores at little cost. They’re charming, but they’re probably not locally produced. And they may be infested with insects, plant diseases or invasive plants such as barberry, nonnative bittersweet and baby’s breath.

If you’ve visited the Sleeping Bear Dunes in Michigan during the last decade, you’re well aware that baby’s breath, of all things, is an aggressive invasive species. How did it get introduced in the dunes? Who knows? Maybe from a discarded bridal hairpiece? A sprig from a prom boutonniere? A holiday centerpiece?

The lesson is real: Plant material from holiday decorations should be burned or bagged and put in the trash – never tossed in the woods or meadows.

So would it be more eco-friendly to have an artificial tree? An imported, petroleum-based plastic tree compared to biodegradable, erosion-preventing, oxygen-producing, carbon-sequestering, job-producing locally grown tree? Really? 

Just dispose of holiday decorations responsibly.

Coggin Heeringa is president of Wild Ones of the Door Peninsula and the interpretive naturalist at Crossroads at Big Creek in Sturgeon Bay.