When I was a girl at Girl Scout Camp, my counselors tried their best to teach me the names of the trees, wildflowers, ferns, and more. They gave us little tricks to help us remember. Shagbark hickory was easy, for example, because of that amazing, shaggy bark. White pine was easy, too, because the needles came in bundles of five and there are five letters in the word “white.” (Don’t try to extend this memory aid to the red pine, though, whose needles come in bundles of two, not three!)
I don’t know how I managed to remember the American elm; there was no particular memory aid provided. I loved the shape of the tree – like a big water fountain. I loved the little, delicate seeds that looked like they were encased in their own little flotation devices. I loved the leaves – their intense green, the serrated edges, the distinct veins. I especially loved that the orioles favored them for nesting sites. It was fun to look for the sack-like nests in fall after the leaves had dropped.
I was pretty young when I heard the grownups talking about Dutch Elm Disease and pondering what would become of the orioles if the elm trees were all wiped out. Would the birds be able to adapt to using some other tree for their nests?
It wasn’t until years later when I started working at the Nature Center that I learned more about Dutch Elm Disease – a fungus that attacks the xylem in the tree and can eventually spread to the roots – and to other elms that share the root system. The fungus is spread by a beetle that bores under the bark of the elm and lays eggs there. When the larva hatch, they also chew through the cambium – creating amazing “galleries” which remain long after the beetles are gone – and even after the tree has succumbed to the fungal disease.
We find the bark beetle galleries at Audubon all the time. Some of the pattern’s are miraculously beautiful. Isn’t it ironic that this beauty is also the cause of the disease that killed the tree allowing me to see the beauty?… Ah nature… Always a puzzle.
I’m happy to say that despite the killing off of most of the elms in our area, we still have orioles. I’m looking forward to May when I’m sure I’ll hear them singing along the very trail where I took this picture. (I learned their song using the method I described in another post! )
I’m also happy to say that I know the locations of several elms that seem to have survived Dutch Elm Disease. And I have just this moment made it my mission to photograph them over the next few months. Stay tuned!
Many thanks to Jayne, whose amazing bird photos can be found here: