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

 

 

Life in Dead Wood

‘Getting rid of dead wood’ or ‘Cutting out the dead wood’ are phrases that are so commonly used that they have become ubiquitous when referring to a ‘reduction in force’ in the corporate world. These phrases have their origin in advice for maintaining landscaping. In a formal setting where neatness is desired, or where a dead tree or branch poses a threat to people, property or power lines (why don’t they bury those power lines, anyway?), removing dead wood is certainly a prudent thing to do.

But is ‘getting rid of dead wood’ always a good idea? Does dead wood have any function or benefit in a less formal or a natural setting?

Well, let’s think about it. On the plus side, dead wood does provide a home for many species of fungi, some of which are eaten by insects, mammals (including people!) and other critters.

Mushrooms on dead wood

Mushrooms on dead wood

Some insects even develop inside mushrooms, like the puffballs pictured below.

Puffballs

Puffballs

At first glance these snails seem to be using the mushrooms as a sun deck, but a closer look shows that they are feeding here.

Snails feeding on mushrooms

Snails feeding on mushrooms

The young edges of the colorful Chicken of the Woods mushroom are edible, and taste like, well, chicken.

Chicken of the Woods

Chicken of the Woods

Many insect species, including ants, wasps, bees, beetles and even butterflies make dead wood their home for at least part of their life cycle.

Eastern Commas, Question Marks and Mourning Cloaks survive the cold northern winter as adults, often taking shelter in a woodpile or underneath loose bark.

Eastern Comma

Eastern Comma

Mourning Cloak

Mourning Cloak

Some species of solitary bees may make their nests in dead wood, like the sweat bee pictured below sipping nectar in the company of a Gray Hairstreak butterfly. This little sweat bee and other solitary bees are important pollinators, many providing free pollination services for food crops. Some of our native bees are more efficient pollinators than Honey Bees, because the native bees are a better anatomical match for the plants with which they evolved.  Providing habitat for native bees can reduce the need to pay to truck in Honey Bees, the migrant workers of the insect world.  It may also increase pollination rates and crop yield.

Sweat Bee and Gray Hairstreak on Indian Hemp (Apocynum cannabinum)

Sweat Bee and Gray Hairstreak on Indian Hemp (Apocynum cannabinum)

Most wasps are predators of other insects, helping to keep their populations in balance. Mason wasps, for example, provision their nests with caterpillars on which their larvae feed as they develop. They usually nest in borings made in dead wood by other insects like beetles or bees.

Mason Wasp (Monobia quadridens) on Hoary Mountain Mint (Pycnanthemum incanum)

Mason Wasp (Monobia quadridens) on Hoary Mountain Mint (Pycnanthemum incanum)

There are ant species that make their homes in rotting wood. Ants don’t cause wood to rot, and they don’t eat the wood. They excavate spaces for their nests in wood that is already soft, moist, and decaying. Ants are important seed dispersers for many plants, including violets, trilliums, Dutchman’s Breeches, Spring Beauty, and many more.

Ant with Canada Violet (Viola canadensis)

Ant with Canada Violet (Viola canadensis)

Ants and wood boring beetle larvae are favorite foods of many woodpeckers. Among them are the largest woodpeckers in North America, the Pileated Woodpecker. Have you have ever had a Pileated Woodpecker attack the siding of your home? If so, it’s because the bird has detected the presence of a delectable meal of carpenter ants there, which would only be present if you had rotting wood. So think of it as a free consultation, courtesy of nature, to let you know that you have some maintenance to do. Replace, paint or otherwise seal the wood to prevent moisture from getting in, and your problems with ants and woodpeckers will go away. They’ll go back to feeding on insects in the naturally rotting wood found in nature.

Pileated Woodpecker feeding on insects in dead tree

Pileated Woodpecker feeding on insects in dead tree

In the photo below a Pileated Woodpecker is peeking out from his nest hole. Can you tell what type of tree this is?

Pileated Woodpecker looking out of nest hole

Pileated Woodpecker looking out of nest hole

If you said ‘dead’, you’re correct! In addition to providing a bountiful source of insect protein, dead wood offers real estate for homes for many birds, including Downy, Hairy, and Red-bellied Woodpeckers, and Flickers. Even Chickadees excavate holes in very soft, rotting wood for their nests. Titmice, White- and Red-breasted Nuthatches, Carolina and House Wrens all nest in holes in dead or living trees, sometimes using abandoned woodpecker holes. All of these birds also forage for insect protein, a bounty of which is available in or on dead wood.

Carolina Chickadee

Carolina Chickadee

Eastern Gray Squirrels are among the small mammals that may make their homes in hollows in dead or living wood. Their diet depends heavily on tree nuts, but it also includes insects and fungi, as does that of Eastern Chipmunks.

Eastern Gray Squirrel

Eastern Gray Squirrel

Chipmunks often dig underground burrows, but they also use tree cavities for shelter. Larger mammals, like Red Fox or even Black Bear may use fallen or hollowed out trees as a shelter.

Eastern Chipmunk peeking out of tree stump

Eastern Chipmunk peeking out of tree stump

The chipmunks and squirrels may become a meal for a Red Fox …

Red Fox, hunting

Red Fox, hunting

or a Red-tailed Hawk …

Red-Tailed Hawk

Red-Tailed Hawk

… or a Great Horned Owl. Dead broken trees, called snags, are a favorite nesting place for these large predators.

Great Horned Owl in snag

Great Horned Owl in snag

All of this activity contributes to the breakdown and decomposition of the wood, which provides valuable nutrients to the soil. This makes a new generation of plants possible, keeping the cycle of life going.

Tree stump with mushrooms, mosses, ferns and Canada Mayflower (Maianthemum canadense)

Tree stump with mushrooms, mosses, ferns and Canada Mayflower (Maianthemum canadense)

Dead wood provides shelter and food for insects and other arthropods, birds, and large and small mammals, including people. With the assistance of all of the inhabitants who avail themselves of these services, dead wood gradually breaks down, enhancing the soil for a new generation of plants.

Dead wood also helps to divert and slow the flow of water in heavy rainstorms, allowing the water to slowly penetrate into the soil where it falls, rather than rapidly running off into creeks, rivers, streams and storm sewer systems, contributing to flash flooding along the way.

So, what do you think, should we ‘get rid of the dead wood’?

Resources:

http://www.carnegiemnh.org/mollusks/palandsnails/ecology-diet.html

http://bugguide.net/node/view/5345

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

Eastman, John. Birds of Forest, Yard, & Thicket. 1997.

Eiseman, Charley; Charney, Noah. Tracks & Sign of Insects and Other Invertebrates. 2010.

Elbroch, Mark; Rinehart, Kurt. Behavior of North American Mammals. 2011.

Eaton, Eric R.; Kauffman, Ken. Kaufman Field Guide to Insects of North America. 2007.

Harrison, Hal H. Eastern Birds’ Nests. 1975

Mader, Eric; Shepherd, Matthew; Vaughan, Mace; Black, Scott Hoffman; LeBuhn, Gretchen. Attracting Native Pollinators: Protecting North America’s Bees and Butterflies. 2011.

A Winter Garden Can be a Wildlife Habitat

Wild Bergamot (Monarda fistulosa)

Wild Bergamot (Monarda fistulosa)

Thinking about ‘cleaning up’ your garden for the winter?  You might want to reconsider.  You may be disturbing the winter homes of many of the creatures you enjoy seeing during the warmer months.

For example, butterflies may be present in our yards and gardens in some life cycle stage year-round.  Except for species that migrate or live in more hospitable climates, butterflies will need to find a safe haven to survive the cold winter months in northern locations.   Fortunately, providing winter butterfly habitat may be less work than you think.

Swallowtail Chrysalis

Swallowtail Chrysalis

Leaving leaf litter is one of the most beneficial things you can do, for both the plants in your garden and the critters that live there.  Great Spangled Fritillaries and Baltimores are among the many butterfly species that spend the winter in or under this free, natural insulation and rich fertilizer.  A mulch that’s automatically replenished by nature every year, leaf litter helps to minimize the need for watering your garden, while protecting soil from erosion, and controlling weeds.  As the leaves gradually break down, they replenish the soil with essential nutrients plants need to survive and flourish.  Leaf litter is the best, most cost effective mulch you can use for your plants, and provides important habitat for insects and birds.

Wild Senna (Senna hebecarpa)

Wild Senna (Senna hebecarpa)

Hoary Mountain Mint (Pycnanthemum incanum)

Hoary Mountain Mint (Pycnanthemum incanum)

Many perennials and grasses have lovely forms in winter, while providing food and shelter for insects, birds and other critters, so it’s best to leave them standing as much as possible.  Pictured here are just a few of the many plants that provide visual interest in winter.  Butterflies that use some of these as food plants will often spend the winter in leaf litter below them, or on the plant itself.  Some skipper caterpillars may make a winter shelter in grass leaves, while overwintering Eastern-tailed Blue caterpillars may take refuge in a seed pod.

Blue False Indigo (Baptisia australis)

Blue False Indigo (Baptisia australis)

For those lucky enough to have a meadow, maintenance recommendations include mowing to a height of 12-16 inches in late winter, but it’s best not to mow more than a third of a site in a given year.  Although some overwintering butterflies and other beneficial insects will be lost as a result of mowing, the height helps to minimize harm to those whose shelters are at ground level or just above.  The timing offers winter food and cover for birds.  Mowing only a partial site enables the area to be repopulated by residents from the unaffected portions of the meadow.

Brush piles, logs, standing dead trees, tree cavities and loose bark may also provide overwintering sites, so preserve or make these available if you can.  Eastern Commas, Question Marks, and Mourning Cloaks are some of the last butterflies active in late fall, and the first to emerge in spring.  They spend the winter as adults, and are among the species that may use these winter shelters.  Butterflies that overwinter in other life cycle stages may also take refuge here.

Eastern Comma

Eastern Comma

Birds may visit some of these plants for their seeds, like the Chipping Sparrow pictured here, feeding on Indian Grass.  Hungry foragers like Chickadees and Goldfinches are likely to visit the mints and coneflowers.  Birds may also find and feed on insects sheltering among these plants, including some of the overwintering butterflies.  But to make up for it, they will feed on insects that may otherwise parasitize the butterflies.  So over all, birds help keep the insect population in a healthy balance.

Chipping Sparrow eating  Indian Grass seeds

Chipping Sparrow eating Indian Grass seeds

I like the look of nature in winter.  It’s fun to search for signs of critters, like a butterfly chrysalis attached to a tree or shrub branch.  A few leaves of grass tied together with silk may be a winter haven for one of the skippers.  With birds foraging for seeds, fruits or insects, that’s all I need to keep me interested.  That’s a good thing, because the more we can leave their habitat in a natural state, the more good we will do for the insects and birds we enjoy so much.

Goldfinch in winter plumage

Goldfinch in winter plumage