Sunday, April 19, 2009

The Mystery Tree...Revealed!

Remember the tree growing by the pond that had little pom pom flowers growing all along the stems in March? Now that it is mid-April, the flowers have developed into ruffly clusters of light green seeds, and the mystery tree has been identified as the Red or Slippery Elm, Ulmus rubra. The name "Red Elm" comes from the reddish brown color of the heartwood, and the name "Slippery Elm" comes from the slippery, mucus-like substance that can be ground from the inner bark. This mucilage can be made into a tea, or gruel for food, and is also said to be good for sore throats and irritable bowel syndrome. The fibrous part of the inner bark makes good twine or rope, and the wood is very shock resistant due to the interlocking grain pattern - good for making wagon wheels.
The Red Elm is less susceptible to the Dutch Elm Disease than its cousin, the American Elm (Ulmus americana), which has drastically declined in numbers in North America due to this introduced disease.
The seed of the Red Elm is called a samara - a fruit with flattened, papery, wing-like extensions. The "helicopter" seeds of maples and ash trees are also known as samaras.
This particular Red Elm tree has produced thousands and thousands of seeds this spring, while the Red Elms planted in my yard at home barely have any seeds. Like many trees, the Red Elm may not produce a heavy seed crop every year. Seed production takes a great deal of energy, and by "flooding the market" in a particular year, the tree prevents seed predator populations from building up to high enough levels to take advantage of the heavy seed crops. Even so, only a few of the seeds will ever survive to become mature trees.
The leaves of the Red Elm have a wonderful rough, sandpapery texture - we'll have to remember to check them out in May, after the spring "leaf out."
One mystery solved! But there's always another mystery, never fear: just across the trail another tree is flowering, and I...have absolutely no idea what it could be! Stay tuned....


All around the EDC right now you can see the Downy Serviceberry blooming (Amelanchier arborea). These small, slow-growing trees are native to Indiana and were planted in front of the building and in the backyard habitat to provide food and shelter for wildlife. Some varieties of Serviceberry grow as a shrub, rather than a tree. In some parts of the country, Serviceberry is also known as Shadbush, Shadblow, Juneberry, Sarvisberry, Sugarplum, and Saskatoon.
The flowers of the Serviceberry are short-lived, only a week or so, so enjoy them while you can! After the flowers are done, small red-purple fruits form - they look and taste somewhat like blueberries, and are a tasty snack for birds. Sometimes people use them to make jams and jellies as well, if they can manage to beat the birds to them! Many species of caterpillars feed on Serviceberry leaves, providing food for baby birds and insect-eaters, and making it a great native tree to plant for wildlife value. The timing of the appearance of Serviceberry flowers coincides with the "shad run," hence the name "Shadbush." (Shad are a type of fish that swim to their spawning grounds in the spring). The name "Serviceberry" is also related to the timing of the flowers: when pioneers saw the Serviceberry blooming, they knew that the ground had thawed enough to bury anyone who had died over the winter, and the beautiful flowers could also be used as decoration for the funeral service. The Native Americans used the straighter branches of the Serviceberry to make arrow shafts, and used the berries in combination with fat and dried meats to make pemmican. Serviceberry is a member of the rose family, along with blackberries, raspberries, apple trees, hawthorn, pears, and strawberries - you can see the resemblance in the shape of the flowers.

Wednesday, April 1, 2009

Fox Squirrels

The most commonly seen squirrel in Eagle Creek Park is the large, reddish-colored Fox Squirrel (Sciurus niger). Gray squirrels are native to Indiana as well, but there are no populations living in Eagle Creek, although they can be found on the campus of Butler University. The smaller Red Squirrels (also known as Piney Squirrels or Chickarees), barely larger than chipmunks, are present in low numbers in the park, and it is possible we have nocturnal Flying Squirrels as well, although their presence has not been officially confirmed.
Fox Squirrels will nest in hollow trees (or sometimes attics), but they also build nests of dead leaves and twigs high in the treetops. These leafy nests are known as dreys, and winter and early spring before the trees leaf out is the best time to see them. (Nests of large birds can be similar in size, but usually don't contain dead leaves.) Summer dreys may be small and loosely constructed, but winter dreys and dreys built by a mother squirrel for raising babies are sturdy, intricately woven, and lined with soft, insulating material. Fox Squirrels in Indiana can have at least two litters of babies per year: one in early spring, and a second in mid to late summer. The first litter is sometimes born as early as February, although the mother squirrels take a gamble with the chance of severe spring weather. Newborn squirrels are pink and hairless, but despite their lack of fluffy squirrel tail, they are still identifiable by their long front toenails.
A litter of baby fox squirrels was found in a gutter of a house a few days ago - the mother apparently nested in the gutter and the babies were washed out by heavy rains. The babies already have fur and have their eyes open, so they were probably born some time in February. Before I sent them to a wildlife rehabilitator, I got a video clip of the babies trying out some solid food for the first time. As you can see, they're still a little wobbly! The babies will be released back into the wild as soon as they are old enough.