Slippery Elm in Bloom

Color is slowly easing back into the deciduous woods.  Branches that were bare all winter are beginning to show the subtle reds, greens and yellows of early blooming trees and shrubs.

Slippery Elm (Ulmus rubra) in Bloom

Slippery Elm (Ulmus rubra) in Bloom

Slippery Elm (Ulmus rubra) is among the early flowering trees, often blooming sometime in March.  Before blooming, its rusty colored, fuzzy-hairy flower buds are visible throughout winter.

Slippery Elm (Ulmus rubra) Buds

Slippery Elm (Ulmus rubra) Buds

Slippery Elm blooms before its leaves appear, making it easier for the wind to carry Slippery Elm’s pollen to another flower, helping this species to achieve successful pollination. Wind pollination is a good evolutionary adaptation for an early blooming tree, since wind is a more reliable pollination partner in the usually cool blustery days of March than insects are.  (Although this spring is exceptionally warm in the Northeastern United States!)

Slippery Elm (Ulmus rubra) in Bloom

Slippery Elm (Ulmus rubra) in Bloom

Flowers that are successfully pollinated produce fruits that many birds eat, including Carolina Chickadees, Rose-breasted Grosbeaks, and Purple Finches.

Female Purple Finch. Purple Finches are among the birds that eat elm seeds

Female Purple Finch. Purple Finches are among the birds that eat elm seeds

Squirrels and other small mammals also eat Slippery Elm seeds.

Red Squirrel - a consumer of elm seeds

Red Squirrel – a consumer of elm seeds

Slippery Elm leaves are large and rough, with distinctly toothed edges.

Slippery Elm Leaf

Slippery Elm Leaf

These leaves provide food for many insects that in turn provide pollination services for other plants, or food for other animals. Over 200 species of butterfly and moth caterpillars (Leipidoptera), including those of Mourning Cloak, Question Mark and Eastern Comma butterflies and Polyphemous moths may eat the leaves of Slippery Elm and its close relatives.

Eastern Comma Butterfly

Eastern Comma Butterfly

Polyphemus Moth caterpillar, looking for a place to pupate. What a plump, juicy treat for a hungry bird!

Polyphemus Moth caterpillar, looking for a place to pupate. What a plump, juicy treat for a hungry bird!

Birds depend on these insects as protein for themselves and their growing offspring.

Male Black-throated Blue Warbler. Warblers, Chickadees, Titmice and most other birds depend on insects for a large percentage of their diet.

Cavity nesting birds or small mammals may find a suitable home site in Slippery Elm, while other birds, like Baltimore Orioles, may build their nests in its branches.

Natural cavity in a Slippery Elm. Some strings of nest material are draped below the opening.

Natural cavity in a Slippery Elm. Some strings of nest material are draped below the opening.

Slippery Elm gets its name from its inner bark (the phloem) which is part of the vascular system that transports food throughout the tree. Slippery Elm’s inner bark is mucilaginous (thick, sticky) and fibrous.  Indigenous North American peoples used the inner bark fibers to make rope or other cordage.

Slippery Elm’s inner bark has also been used to make a tea that is easy to digest and high in nutrients; it was given to people who had difficulty consuming food. The inner bark was also dried and ground to make a flour high in nutritional value.

Slippery Elm has many medicinal uses. As a demulcent it is well suited for treatment of inflamed mucous membranes throughout the digestive tract.  It also has anti-inflammatory and astringent properties, and has been used externally to treat skin problems including wounds, ulcers and boils.  Slippery Elm is available as an over the counter supplement, and has been approved by the Food and Drug Administration for use in throat lozenges.  Even plant-derived supplements can have unwanted side effects, so careful research or consultation with a physician should take place before consuming Slippery Elm.

Slippery Elm can be found in much of the eastern two-thirds of the United States and Canada, often in moist woods, stream banks, and woodland edges. Look for it blooming now in a natural area near you.

Slippery Elm (Ulmus rubra) in Bloom

Slippery Elm (Ulmus rubra) in Bloom

 

Resources

Beresford-Kroeger, Diana. Arboretum America: A Philosophy of the Forest.  2003

Eastman, John. The Book of Forest and Thicket.  1992.

Foster, Steven; Duke, James A. A Field Guide to Medicinal Plants and Herbs of Eastern and Central North America.  2000.

Hoffmann, David. Medical Herbalism.  2003.

Rhoads, Ann Fowler; Block, Timothy A. The Plants of Pennsylvania.  2007

Tallamy, Douglas W. Bringing Nature Home, 2007,

Illinois Wildflowers

USDA Database

 

 

Blackhaw Viburnum – A Subtle Beauty

Blackhaw Viburnum (Viburnum prunifolium)

Blackhaw Viburnum (Viburnum prunifolium)

Blackhaw Viburnum (Viburnum prunifolium) begins to bloom about a week after Flowering Dogwood (Cornus florida), its profuse rounded clusters of creamy white flowers visited by a variety of bees, flies and butterflies for their nectar and pollen.  Although less well known than some of its woodland neighbors, such as Dogwood and Redbud, Blackhaw Viburnum’s subtle beauty is a common and essential element of the forest’s palette in spring.

Blackhaw Viburnum (Viburnum prunifolium)

Blackhaw Viburnum (Viburnum prunifolium)

Spring Azure butterfly caterpillars may eat the flowers or buds of many woody plant species, including the viburnums.

Spring Azure

Spring Azure

Hummingbird Clearwing moth caterpillars may feed on their leaves.

Hummingbird Clearwing nectaring on Wild Bergamot (Monarda fistulosa)

Hummingbird Clearwing nectaring on Wild Bergamot (Monarda fistulosa)

In their later development stages, even Baltimore Checkerspot caterpillars may migrate from the leaves of their preferred food plant, Turtlehead (Chelone glabra) to eat viburnum leaves.

Baltimore Checkerspot

Baltimore Checkerspot

The caterpillars may be lucky enough to attain adulthood, or they may become food for another animal somewhere along the way.  Caterpillars are an important source of food for many animals, but especially for birds.  It can take thousands of caterpillars to feed a hungry brood of young Chickadees or Titmice.

Tufted Titmouse

Tufted Titmouse

If Blackhaw Viburnum’s spring visitors successfully pollinate its flowers, dark blue fruits (called drupes) are produced, maturing in fall.

Blackhaw Viburnum (Viburnum prunifolium) fruit

Blackhaw Viburnum (Viburnum prunifolium) fruit

Chipmunks, squirrels and many bird species, including Hermit Thrush, Cardinals, Bluebirds and White-throated Sparrows, are among those that eat the fruit.

Northern Cardinal

Northern Cardinal

Blackhaw Virburnum can be single or multi-stemmed, and grows to a maximum height of about 15-25 feet (4.6-7.6 meters).  It tends to grow taller when single-stemmed.  Its natural habitat is generally medium to dry upland areas, even growing in rocky soil, like the Sourland Mountains of New Jersey where I live.  Its range is from New York to Michigan and Wisconsin in the north, to the south from Texas to Georgia.

Blackhaw Virburnum makes a great landscape plant.  Look for it blooming in a forest near you, or better yet, add it to your garden and enjoy it and its visitors throughout the seasons.

Blackhaw Viburnum (Viburnum prunifolium)

Blackhaw Viburnum (Viburnum prunifolium)

 

Resources

Cech, Rick; Tudor, Guy.  Butterflies of the East Coast.  2005.

Wagner, David L.;  Caterpillars of Eastern North America, 2005.

http://www.illinoiswildflowers.info/trees/plants/blackhaw.htm

A Butterfly with Unusual Eating Habits: The Harvester

We often think of butterflies as relying on nectar from flowers as their primary source of food for adult butterflies, and many species do.

Clouded Sulphur and Honey Bee on Aster

Clouded Sulphur and Honey Bee on Aster

But there are others who feed mainly on minerals, often from mud or dung, or who consume both nectar and mineral sources.

Red-spotted Purple feeding on minerals in mud

Red-spotted Purple feeding on minerals in mud

One species that has more unusual eating habits is the Harvester (Feniseca tarquinius).

Harvester (Feniseca tarquinius)

Harvester (Feniseca tarquinius)

 

This butterfly rejects flower nectar in favor of honeydew, the sugary secretion produced by aphids. Harvesters also feed on mineral sources such as dung, sap and mud.  In the photo below, the butterfly is feeding on a mushroom.

Harvester (Feniseca tarquinius)

Harvester (Feniseca tarquinius)

The Harvester’s eating habits explain its habitat preference, wet woodlands or along streams, especially where alders are found.

Smooth Alder (Alnus serrulata)

Smooth Alder (Alnus serrulata)

Alders are hosts to the Woolly Alder Aphid (Prociphilus tessellatus), a favorite honeydew source for Harvesters.

Woolly Alder Aphids on Smooth Alder (Alnus serrulata)

Woolly Alder Aphids on Smooth Alder (Alnus serrulata)

Even more important for the Harvester, these aphids are a favorite diet source of its caterpillars. The Harvester is the only butterfly species in North America whose caterpillars are strictly carnivorous.   They feed primarily on several species of woolly aphids, often the Woolly Alder Aphid, but also the Woolly Beech Aphid, as well as others.  The caterpillars will sometimes disguise themselves from predators by using their silk to tie to their bodies the remains of the aphids they consume.  This is especially effective as protection from ants that may be tending the aphids for their honeydew.  The Harvester caterpillars share some of the chemical signature of their aphid diet, which also may give them protection from predatory ants.

So wooly aphids feed both the Harvester butterfly and its caterpillars.  Because of its habitat and food preferences, the Harvester is not commonly seen. So consider yourself lucky if you encounter one!

Harvester

Harvester

Resources

Brock, Jim P.; Kauffman, Ken. Kaufman Field Guide to Butterflies of North America.  2003.

Cech, Rick; Tudor, Guy. Butterflies of the East Coast.  2005.

Glassberg, Jeffrey. Butterflies through Binoculars A Field Guide to Butterflies in the Boston-New York-Washington Region.  1993.

Featured Creatures – University of Florida

Butterflies and Moths of North America

 

Love Nature?

Welcome to The Natural Web! 

Do you enjoy watching birds and butterflies visit your yard or property?  Would you like to increase the number and diversity of these lovely creatures that you might see every day?  You can, if you provide them with the plants that offer the food and shelter they need. 

Over many centuries, birds, butterflies, bees, moths and other critters have evolved together with plants in such a way as to develop mutually beneficial relationships that enable them to survive.  As a result, many bees, butterflies and birds have special preferences for specific plants.  

A plant may depend on a particular bird or insect to provide pollination or seed dispersal services necessary for the plant species to survive.  In return, the plant may reward its partners in reproduction with the food that they need to survive in the form of nectar, pollen, berries, seeds, or leaves, or with a safe place to nest. 

This blog is dedicated to exploring, understanding and enjoying the plants and critters who surround us, and the intricate connections among them, and with us. 

Mary Anne Borge is a naturalist, writer, photographer and speaker, living in New Jersey.  She finds the natural world endlessly fascinating.  The writing and photographs on this website are hers, unless otherwise noted.