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Growing a healthy environment with native trees

Less than half of all tree species now growing in urban areas around the world are native to the local environment. While imported tree species are chosen for aesthetic reasons, it has a huge impact on wildlife.

Native trees are known to support local ecosystems much more effectively, providing a home and food source for local insects and wildlife.  But the exact benefit of using native trees has never been studied in Canada.

Through Mitacs-Accelerate, Eric Davies, a PhD candidate from the University of Toronto’s Faculty of Forestry, joined Ontario-based arborist firm Treefeed.ca to determine exactly how native versus non-native trees can benefit local ecosystems and wildlife.  Working under his academic supervisor, Dr. Sandy Smith, Davies conducted detailed surveys of different tree species.

“The most important thing that trees provide is a habitat for insects and birds which promotes a healthier environment and ecosystem.  During the project, I analyzed the number of insects and birds living in native trees and found there to be up to 25 times more wildlife activity than in non-natives.”

“These insects are extremely important to the health of the overall ecosystem.  They act pollinators and biological control agents, helping to manage pests while providing a food source for birds and other wildlife.  In some species of non-natives, such as Ginkgo Biloba trees, we found almost no insect activity at all.”

The research also looked into the effect that fertilizing has on trees and found it provides significant benefits with more, thicker leaves, providing a greater food source for insects.

A new landscaping rating system is being introduced across Canada, the Sustainable Sites Initiative, with guidelines promoting the use of native trees.

Director at Treefeed.ca Dave Buttivant said with this in mind, the Mitacs-Accelerate internship has provided his company with concrete research knowledge about the benefits of using natives and fertilization.

“The biggest benefit is that it has separated us from the pack.  Our clients can now see that we are basing our business on solid research.  It separates us from everyone else who is just out to make a profit.”

“For us, the tree care industry is all about planting the right types of trees in the right areas and everything is leaning towards using natives.  With Eric’s research, we can go out our clients and confidently tell them what native trees are best for their area for environmental benefit because we’ve got the data to prove it.”

Davies said the “hands-on” nature of the Mitacs-Accelerate program has given him practical skills he couldn’t have learned at university.

“Mitacs has opened up a whole new realm of research for me, which is applied research, with benefits for industry.  It also leads to more employment opportunities as well because of the connections you make outside academia.”

Mitacs gratefully acknowledges the Government of Canada, the Networks of Centres of Excellence's Industrial Research and Development Internship program and the Government of Ontario for their support of Mitacs-Accelerate in the province.