Branching out: Native Trees for Clean Water!

Photo: Tim Lumley

Planting trees is a great way to restore and protect clean water and ecosystems for rivers in Tennessee!

Every tree species has its origin, much like us as people, and as you stroll down your street or wander through a park, there’s a possibility that the trees around you have roots (no pun intended) right here in Tennessee.

Referred to as native trees, these tree species are endemic to the region, having thrived here for thousands of years. When we choose to prioritize planting these native trees, it becomes a profound way to not only connect with our local ecosystem but also to contribute to the enduring health of our rivers and waterways.

Photo: © Lissaker

But if that hasn’t convinced you, here are our top reasons to support planting native trees:

Native Trees Support Watershed Health

Photo: Tim Lumley

Native trees are the backbone of ecosystems, finely tuned to local soil, climate, and environmental conditions. Unlike non-native species, these trees have evolved over time, developing resilience to local pests, diseases, and climate variations. Other organisms in the system are adapted to the structure, function and chemical composition of native trees.

Improves Water Quality

  • Planting the right trees or hedges in the right place can filter and significantly reduce the amount of point source pollution running off land and into rivers.
  • Tree roots can help bind soil together, reducing the chances and sedimentation running into rivers.

Stream Bank Stabilization

  • The chances of bank collapse are reduced by trees binding the soil together.
  • Roots from local trees can also be used to help prevent erosion.

Reduce Stormwater Runoff and Flooding

  • Trees planted along rivers can absorb extra water and mitigate flooding.
  • They can intercept heavy rainfall, reducing the speed at which surface runoff reaches the river.
  • Felled trees form a vital component of ‘leaky dams’, and trees which naturally fall into the watercourse can deliver a similar impact.
  • The underground networks created by tree roots contribute to higher infiltration rates of soils, meaning that is absorbed into the soil and recharges aquifers rather than running into rivers and potentially causing floods.
  • Trees promote infiltration by slowing down runoff and by increasing soil drainage in the root zone. The addition of organic matter (e.g. leaves) also increases storage of water in the soil, further reducing runoff.
  • Forested land produces very little runoff, which can reduce downstream flood flows that erode stream channels, damage property and destroy habitat.

Carbon Sequestration

  • Trees are the ultimate nature-based solution to climate change, locking up carbon through photosynthesis.
  • This reduces the concentration of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere, effectively tackling global warming.

Healthy Habitats for Biodiversity

  • Trees and wooded areas provide essential habitats and food sources for wildlife.
  • They also provide shade, preventing rivers from getting too hot for the species living in them.
  • As we are living through a global biodiversity crisis, creating and connecting new habitats for wildlife is more important than ever.

For all these reasons and more, planting native trees in our watersheds, especially in riparian zones are champions in water conservation. One example is the bald cyprus which is one of the most well known native trees in Tennessee. Bald cypresses have very important roles since they tend to grow along rivers and in wetlands; they are excellent at soaking up floodwaters and preventing erosion. They also trap pollutants and prevent them from spreading.

Photo: Nashville Tree Conservation Corps

Embracing native trees fosters a more sustainable and these simple trees serve as a reminder of our home and history, offering not only scenic beauty but also serving as a crucial source of balance that shapes our own well-being. It is evident that the prosperity of our economy and the quality of our lives are intricately tied to the health of our ecosystems. The act of planting native trees transcends symbolism; it represents a tangible and impactful contribution to the preservation of biodiversity, the conservation of water and soil, and the support of interconnected ecosystems. Whether in urban or rural landscapes, prioritizing native tree species and planting them in our watersheds signifies a deliberate step towards, is beneficial for us now and generations to come.

Next Steps

Plant your own trees! Here’s a resource from our partners at Tennessee Environmental Council to guide your efforts -

Puruse native tree choices for Tennessee with the resources from our partners at Tennessee Smart Yards -

Learn more about riparian forests in Tennessee from this resource from our partners at the University of Tennessee’s Community Riparian Restoration Program -