The first statewide Native Species Day is coming up on June 17th. In ecosystems made up of native species, each plant, animal, and insect has a specialized role to keep the habitat in balance. These healthy ecosystems in turn provide us with valuable services and resources, like spaces for outdoor recreation and agriculture. Now is the perfect time to learn about how to support our native ecosystems and how to protect them from threats like invasive species and climate change.
Native plants and animals to celebrate in June:
Mountain laurel, Pennsylvania’s state flower, blooms from mid-May to late June. Depending on where you live, you may have already seen some of its distinctive white and pink blossoms this year. Mountain laurel is a shrub that grows anywhere from four to ten feet and has lance-shaped, evergreen leaves. It’s related to rhododendron and is distributed throughout much of Pennsylvania, although you’re most likely to see large swaths of it in the more mountainous regions like its namesake, the Laurel Highlands. Mountain laurel exemplifies charismatic flora, which tend to have cultural significance, appeal to people, and inspire environmental conservation.
Brook trout are Pennsylvania’s state fish and hold strong ecological and recreational significance. They can only thrive in cool, clean, freshwater streams, and are often used as an indicator species for high water quality. They require heavily shaded riparian buffers along streams to keep the water cool and are a great example of how when one native species thrives, others do as well. Eastern hemlock trees and mountain laurel are often found lining healthy trout streams. While historically Pennsylvania has supported an extensive network of brook trout streams, the destruction of forested riparian zones by the timber industry and the acid mine drainage from coal production have had significant impact on statewide trout populations. In recent years trout have made a comeback, though conservation measures are still necessary in many areas.
Eastern Hemlocks, Pennsylvania’s state tree, are a critical part of Pennsylvania’s forest ecosystems. With their enormous trunks and evergreen needles, they provide habitat for birds and important shade for trout streams. Hemlock groves around the state were significantly deforested during the 19th and 20th centuries. While the hemlock has bounced back from the threat of logging, a new invasive pest is threatening its existence in Pennsylvania. Hemlock wooly adelgid arrived in the U.S. by accident over 50 years ago and has since spread to almost every county in Pennsylvania. This tiny insect sucks nutrients out of hemlock needles, resulting in widespread defoliation and tree death. This threatens not only our beloved hemlock forests, but the native trout streams that rely on the shade from hemlocks to keep water temperatures cool. PA DCNR has a conservation plan in place for hemlock forests.
Early summer is an active time for Pennsylvania’s reptiles and amphibians. Many turtle species are laying eggs, and juvenile toads, frogs, and salamanders are emerging after adults traveled earlier in the spring to breed in wetlands and ponds. If you’re out walking, hiking, or cycling in the coming weeks, take extra care to watch the trail and road for young reptiles and amphibians trying to cross.
Common snapping turtles are just one species to look out for this June. While mature adults can have a threatening appearance, they are often misunderstood and play an important role in keeping aquatic ecosystems clean due to their varied diet of aquatic plants, organic debris, dead fish, insects, and small animals. Snapping turtles can and will bite if bothered, but if left alone, are an asset to ponds and lakes.
Learn to identify these common invasive species:
A notorious recent addition to the PA invasive species list, spotted lanternflies feed on the sap from a variety of plants, with a preference for many of the plants important to Pennsylvania’s agriculture and lumber industries including grapevines, maples, black walnut, birch and willow. If uncontrolled, one study found that the spotted lanternfly could cause hundreds of millions of dollars in damage a year and cost Pennsylvania over 2,000 jobs. If you see a spotted lanternfly, kill it then report it to Penn State Extension.
Japanese knotweed was introduced to the U.S. in the 1800’s as an ornamental plant. Since then, it has spread widely across Pennsylvania. Knotweed plants can reach ten feet in height, usually have an extensive root system, and can emerge earlier in the spring than many native plants. Knotweed grows aggressively and threatens native plants by crowding them out.
Garlic mustard was first documented in the U.S. in the mid-1800’s and has spread across most of the country. It can thrive in many habitat types, reproduces easily, and naturally forms monocultures which crowd out native plants. It can, however, be successfully managed through pulling in spring and early summer.
Tips to support native plants and animals year-round:
- Plant for pollinators:
- Choose native plants for your garden.
- Plant a variety of plants that will bloom throughout the season.
- Include trees and shrubs in your garden.
- Mow your lawn less frequently or stop mowing a portion of your yard entirely to help support bee and other pollinator populations.
- Learn how to properly clean your fishing and boating gear to reduce the spread of aquatic invasive species.
- Report invasive species sightings to the PA Department of Agriculture.
Many more resources are available on PA Department of Agriculture’s Native Species Day website.