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....

1 comment:

Carol Hooker said...

I first learned about "samara" at a Frank Lloyd Wright designed home in West Lafayette which has that name. More info on the house's website and on Purdue's Horticulture and Landscape Architecture site. I love your blog!