Morton Arboretum's conservation specialist working to save our endangered trees
Morton Arboretum's Murphy Westwood is working to save trees threatened with extinction
Murphy Westwood knows when most people hear the term "endangered species" they're more likely to think of the giant panda or ivory-billed woodpecker than the paperbark maple or Georgia oak.
But Westwood, a tree conservation specialist at the Morton Arboretum in Lisle, is working to raise awareness that trees need protection, too.
Compared to the 5,500 species of mammals in the world, she says, there are roughly estimated 100,000 kinds of trees, of which one-tenth may be threatened.
"I think there's a lot of work to be done for awareness of tree conservation because trees are so important," she said. "They are the backbone of terrestrial diversity and forests. They are sort of the canary in the coal mine. If things are going wrong in the environment and you start to lose trees, that is going to have a domino effect."
Westwood will speak on what the arboretum is doing to protect trees around the world at a lunch program from 11:30 to 1 p.m. Thursday, Jan. 15, at the arboretum, 4100 Route 53.
Morton Arboretum has long been involved with regional tree conservation efforts -- working with municipalities and park districts on tree care and forest restoration. But in recent years, the arboretum's focus has become more global in an effort to save tree species by working in international partnerships with other arboretums, botanical gardens and conservation organizations.
Focus on China
Many of those tree conservation efforts have been directed toward China, said Murphy, who spent 3½ weeks in the world's most populous nation last year and will travel there again this year. Faced with challenges of urbanization, poor air quality and development, China is home to 30,000 plant species, including the paperbark maple.
Known for its cinnamon-color bark that peels in thin papery layers, the paperbark maple is sold in nurseries in the U.S. for ornamental landscaping, but endangered in China. The arboretum is working with the Beijing Botanic Garden and other arboretums in the U.S. to compare the genetic diversity of the tree's populations in China with those elsewhere.
The project will help Chinese officials determine which of their paperbark tree collections are most genetically diverse and should be targeted for protection, Westwood said.
The arboretum's interest in China dates to arboretum founder Joy Morton in the 1920s. A member of North America-China Plant Exploration Consortium, the arboretum for years has sent staff members to collect plant samples in China because the country has many climate zones similar to those of the United States.
"Our China collection on the grounds is one of our largest and best represented geographic collections," Westwood said.
The arboretum's interest in China now goes beyond collecting plant samples. Despite all the challenges of development, today's China offers new opportunities for conservation, Westwood said. The Chinese government has funded botanic gardens, some of which are displaying the "Vanishing Acts" exhibit developed by the Morton Arboretum.
"They are, I think, recognizing the need for conservation and for trees," Westwood said.
The "Vanishing Acts" exhibit, displayed in the arboretum's conifer collection, is a traveling exhibit also available to other arboretums and gardens.
Nicole Cavender, the arboretum's vice president of science and conservation, said Westwood has the ideal background to develop the partnerships needed in China and elsewhere for global tree conservation.
Westwood, an Evanston native, spent 10 years in the United Kingdom while working on her master's and doctorate degrees with a focus on plant evolution. Westwood became fascinated with trees while working with scientists in the botany department of the Natural History Museum in London.
Cavender said Westwood, who joined the arboretum a little more than a year ago to develop its global tree conservation focus, not only understands the science of tree conservation, but also how to apply it and communicate its importance to others.
"To actually get conservation to work, you have to build relationships," Cavender said. "She's doing a great job."
The arboretum has an ongoing conversation with other garden leaders around the world on how to improve tree conservation, Westwood said. A summary of their findings about the challenges and best practices will be published in the international conservation journal Oryx in April.
Among the arboretum's partners are the London-based Botanic Gardens Conservation International and the Global Trees Campaign, both of which helped the arboretum develop its "Vanishing Trees" exhibit. Westwood is one of the Global Tree officers in the United States and communicates with other officers in the U.S., London and China. The Global Tree Campaign is the only international initiative focused on tree conservation, Westwood said.
Oaks and more
As part of its effort to work with other organizations to conserve trees, the arboretum has agreed to evaluate some 225 species of the oak tree. Home to nearly 200 oaks, including the Illinois Millennium Landmark Tree, the arboretum plans to expand on that population.
Westwood said one species of special interest is the Georgia oak. Although it is native to a climate warmer than that of Illinois, the Georgia oak and other plants in the southern U.S. may find Illinois a more hospitable environment in 50 years due to global warming, Westwood said.
Her own favorite trees include the Wollemi pine, a prehistoric tree thought to be extinct until a hiker discovered a population of them an hour outside Sydney, Australia. The tree is now being vigilantly protected and disseminated so the pines can be grown elsewhere, including at the Morton Arboretum.
Westwood also is partial to the monkey puzzle tree, a threatened conifer that grows in South America.
"It looks like a Dr. Seuss tree," Westwood said. "I tend to like kooky-looking trees."