Humble but Lovable, the Cedar Elm

It’s about time I paid tribute to some trees again, don’t you think? Enough of that introspection hoo-hah! Today I was inspired to write a little something about my favorite Texas tree, the cedar elm (Ulmus crassifolia), because it just keps showing me how wonderful it is.

Also these beauty berries keep telling me they are beautiful, so okay, I put them in here. There are cedar elm leaves around them.

The cedar elm was the first native tree other than the live oak that I learned to identify. Yes, before the Ashe juniper (the one that’s not cedar, but is called cedar). There was one in my neighbor’s front yard, and it looked so different from the other lucky natives the developer had left that I just had to look it up. Then I got confused. Is it a cedar, or is it an elm? Apparently, it’s an elm. Here, read what something official says:

The common native elm in east Texas where it is planted for shade. Called Cedar Elm because of the rough, cedar scale-like texture of the leaves and because it is often found in the western part of its range with Ashe Juniper (Juniperus ashei), which is locally called cedar. The Latin species name means thick leaf.

Ulmus Crassifolia
Oaks and cedar elms mix at the work patio.

The ranch is chock full of them, which makes sense. We have their favorite terrain: near water, flat, and with a saucy hint of limestone to make them happy. The limestone is why they’re all over the hill country. The terrain is why they are all over Milam County.

Don’t confuse the cedar elm seeds with these inland sea oats. Of course you wouldn’t; this is obviously a grass, right?

Cedar elms are very easy to identify by their leaves, which have sawtooth edges and aren’t very big. Nature conveniently deposited one on my arm today.

Cedar elm leaves turn yellow just before they fall to the ground. Then they turn brown.

They’re deciduous, which makes me happy. That way I see a lot more in the woods at the ranch during the winter. Their leaves are dropping right now, and it’s like a gentle rain.

They make pretty displays.

As the picture above shows, they shed their little fruits and seeds at the same time that the leaves are falling. That’s a rare trait in the elm, and an easy way to know you have a cedar elm. Squirrels will eat them, if there aren’t nice juicy acorns nearby. Check this out!

By September or October, the branches are thick with clusters of flat, oval seed packets called samara. The samara looks much like a tiny green round ravioli, or those dots of explosive caps for toy guns of the past. These are the fruit of the elm tree, with the seed forming a reddish bump in the middle.

The many beneficial traits of cedar elm
Here are little branches blown down by the wind that show the seeds and leaf size. Look at all those leaves on the patio (those are just from today, since the building staff obsessively sweeps).

Since these are native trees, they also feed lots of native creatures. Here’s some sort of tent caterpillar or something that has made a home on a cedar elm branch.

Looks yucky, but, yay Nature.

The seeds appear pretty prolific, because they can easily become over crowded. We have some that need to be thinned out, which is always hard for Ms. Tree Hugger. But they can really grow thick, which makes it hard for them to grow tall and strong.

I’m happy to have them, filling the cedar brakes (limestone landscape common in the center of Texas) with something to break up the monotony of those dang Ashe junipers!

Resources

Cedar Elm, Texas A&M Forest Service.

The many beneficial traits of cedar elm, by Marilyn Sallee, Native Plant Society of Texas, 2011.

Ulmus Crassifolia, Lady Bird Johnson Wildflower Center.

Book Report: The Overstory

If you know me or have read this blog a few times, you won’t be surprised to learn this, but I’ve always been a tree hugger, and I mean always. My poor mother (happy birthday wherever your spirit is) used to find me as a toddler wandering around the yard talking to the huge oak trees on our property. When I moved away, I mourned the loss of my tree friends around the town, and even now, when I go back I make sure to check in and see who’s still around and who’s gone.

That may explain why I have been reading so many books about trees, forests, and how they work for the past few years. It may explain why I became a Master Naturalist. It certainly explains why I have a hard time with cutting down trees for human convenience, though I am trying my best to be cooperative with other folks’ agendas in that respect. It explains why I bought the parts of the Hermits’ Rest ranch that I did – there were lots of trees, not a monoculture of non-native grass. I was born an annoying hippie tree hugger!

Of course you use your Sierra Club bookmark on the tree book.

So, then, why did I wait so long to read The Overstory, by Richard Powers? It won a Pulitzer Prize last year and everything! And it’s about trees! Anita and I both ordered it this time last year and planned to read it, so I had good intentions.

But, the first chapter was so sad it made me cry. And the second chapter had nothing to do with the first chapter, so I got confused, put the book down, and read all those other things I keep writing about (of interest to no one but me).

I ran out of books I hadn’t read last week (at least ones I could easily locate). I gritted my teeth and picked up The Overstory again. This time I looked at the table of contents, which was quite helpful. There, I saw that the first chapters were all about different people. I figured I’d just need to hold my horses through those first chapters and it would all come together in the gigantic middle section. Spoiler: it does.

Table of contents that makes reading the book easier!

By the way, they aren’t kidding when they say this is the greatest novels ever written about trees and perhaps one of the greatest about anything. There’s nothing I like better than a complicated plot that weaves new knowledge and a much-needed perspective on how to change the world. No, make that a much-needed perspective ON the world, one I share.

That Richard Powers. When I was in grad school, he was already a legend, the topic of many a conversation in the English department. He left just a semester before I got there (I was in another department, but many of my friends were in the English department with my brilliant boyfriend). Probably because I got sick of hearing about him, I didn’t read his first book. I got bogged down in The Gold Bug Variations (about music and genetics) but should probably go back and find that one to read.

Because Powers is such a polymath and so incredibly gifted, he crams a lot into a book. It’s not one of those quick summer novel kind of things. It’s more of a book to read when you are all alone, overwhelmed by real life, trapped by a pandemic, surrounded by people who don’t want to talk most of the time. Hey, that’s ME! I was in the right situation to immerse myself into the interwoven plots, make it through the deep despair the novel can raise in a tree hugger, and come out of it with my personal beliefs validated.

I sort of needed “Do Not Disturb” signs when I was trying to finish The Overstory, because it came right when Lee was in one of his talkative moods. My sometimes elusive goal is to stop what I am doing when he starts talking, so I had to re-read a lot.

Maybe that was a good thing; maybe it drove the message home. I’m finding it very helpful and very comforting to take that message to heart. We are not in charge of the earth. There are other minds and other forces at work, ones our perception of time makes it hard to notice. I take comfort that no matter what crazy Armageddon humanity is hell-bent on driving itself toward, Gaia, the trees, and the deeper consciousness will heal and persevere. It gives me the grain of hope I need to keep a-going.

Anyway, yup, good book. Read it.

Happiness Is New Life

As I was reading my morning news/opinion pieces, I was reminded by the Rev. Jim Rigby that it’s important to remember that there’s good stuff going on today. Go to his Facebook page to see his ten reasons to be grateful today. What struck me was this:

What a shame it would be if we forgot to celebrate the fact we are alive, that we are all connected to each other, or that underneath all our problems we are still expressions of a cosmic process. What a shame if, in the middle of this terrible storm we did not pause to appreciate the courage and nobility of those who struggle on our behalf. 

Jim Rigby, Facebook, July 27, 2020

To that I want to add that we continue to celebrate that life and death go on, regardless. While I heard of the death of an old colleague this morning, I also saw beaming baby photos from three other friends.

My morning also featured this new heifer, who doesn’t seem to understand that cars have the right of way! The old ones politely moved.

And last night, when I went out with Lee to look at the frogs, he asked me what a particular plant growing up out of the disturbed earth was. Usually what we see are the plants that typically come up in disturbed soil, but this one looked familiar.

It’s a leaf, all right. I didn’t take a picture of the whole thing.

It was not a hackberry or a cedar elm, even if the leaves have serrated edges. It looked like, hmm, what is that tree in the field on the other side of the woods? Thank goodness I have iNaturalist!

Sure enough, it’s a cottonwood, which is also a native tree, but we only have ONE on our property. We had just been talking about how we REALLY need some trees. And boom, we have one! New life to be happy about.

We may or may not move it. It might look nice next to the little pond. I know their seeds are a big messy, but I love the way the leaves shimmer in the wind and the seeds fly around like snow. We only have the one tree, because cattle eat up any saplings in the pasture. Now we have one with a chance to become a nice shade tree, eventually.

The rain that fell all over the county completely missed our ranch. There was a little peninsula of nothingness, and we were in it. But we got a nice sunset.

Now I just have to mark it so no one will weed-eat it or pull it up! I’ll just stay optimistic about this, and carry it into the rest of life today. Back to work on the ole kanban cards.

It Rained! And Other Signs of Life!

It being July in Texas, we are always prepared for a scarcity of rain and a lot of hot days. All we can hope for is to get some remnants or edges of a hurricane. Well, that seems to be happening right now, and since last night three bands of rain have come through our little ranch. The total rainfall so far is an exciting .15″ – not much, but it is better than nothing. We usually get about an inch per month, so we’re hoping that the big rain to the south of us sends us a bit more later tonight or tomorrow.

The third wave of rain as it approached. I could hear the thunder when I took the picture. The plant in the foreground is Lindheimer’s doveweed (Croton lindheimeri).
Root growth on the avocado “tree.”

The rain lowered the temperature, so I was able to get out and look around some today. Get prepared for a lot of pictures of things that are damp!

I’m always happy when there is new life. And even before I left the house, I realized that our avocado seed is getting pretty robust in the root department. Now we just need a stem!

Speaking of trees, we now have one in the back yard. I didn’t mention it earlier, because I was sad about it. You see, we bought a Shumard oak back when Kathleen and I bought those plants for our office. The guys had set it next to the RV, and I guess forgot about it. I watered it every few days, not realizing I’d needed to water it EVERY day, so by the time we went to plant it, it was mostly dead leaves.

It’s a tree. Not much of a tree, but a tree nonetheless.

But, Chris said its stem was still alive, so he planted it in the back corner (if I could use the backhoe thing, I’d have planted it). He then proceeded to set up a fine watering system that piggybacks on the chicken system and has been able to water it every other day or so.

Yep, those are new, non-dead leaves.
New leaves, and the life-giving water hose.

When I went out to say hi to the chickens to day, I looked over at the sad tree, and lo and behold, there are lots and lots of little new leaves appearing. It’s coming back! I’m so glad the rain is here to help out. It may even someday provide shade to the chickens and to the cattle behind us. That may be a while.

I found some other encouraging things as I was walking around today. I saw a young snake next to the tiny pond, and managed to get a picture of it before it dove underwater. As I patiently waited for it to come back up (with no success), I did notice a freshly shed snake skin near my feet. I bet I know who that belonged to!

I enjoyed looking at dragonflies, turtles, and bullfrogs in the rapidly shrinking pond. The rain will at least give it a bit of fresh water. I’m hoping that the tropical rain tomorrow or the next day will refill it and the other ponds.

This guy kept dipping into the water then zipping off. It was not easy to get a picture. Note dead boopie grasshoppers on the shore. It could explain why the bullfrogs don’t appear very hungry.

Maybe the grass will turn green again, too. The chickens will like that. By the way, they’ve all settled down now that Clarence is the guard rooster. He has figured out how to get to the food inside the chicken run, so all I have to do is make sure he has water every day (though Lee thinks he’s found the pond behind the house).

I got to watch this great egret snatch a fish out of the pond behind the house. This is where Clarence could be going if he runs out of my nice water in the dish.

New life always signifies hope for me. That little stick of an oak tree is my symbol of hope after adversity for now!

Book Report: The Hidden Life of Trees

Take a minute to look at things from a long point of view. Reading (or just looking at) this beautiful book lets you leave the now and enter the enduring. I’m so glad we still have trees around to take care of us and the earth long term.

I’ve been reading a lot of Peter Wohlleben’s books, such as The Inner Life of Animals, which I wrote about in April of last year, and The Secret Wisdom of Animals, which I wrote about in June 2019. This one, The Hidden Life of Trees: The Illustrated Edition, is not the entire original book, but long excerpts from the original, punctuated with beautiful photographs of trees around the world. I bought this version for those photos (and eventually will read the unabridged book).

I admit that I am really, really fond of pictures of trees. I usually have one in my immediate environment, like here in my office.

My main tree image in my office, by Sean Wall.

My whole life I’ve been drawn to trees. My mother used to tell me how she’d find me in the yard chatting away to the huge live oaks surrounding our house. And I remember when I was able to visit my home town again after moving away, I insisted on visiting certain trees in what is now Tom Petty Park and the Duckpond area in Gainesville, Florida. Yes, I was always this way.

So, this book gave me a lot of pleasure. It’s not like someone went out and took a lot of great photos to add to the book, because most of them are iStock photos, according to the credits. Nonetheless, the photos were well chosen to accompany the text, so they brought me joy.

Here’s one beautiful photo from the book.

Of course, Wohlleben does a great job presenting fascinating research about trees in a format that any lay person can enjoy and be amazed by. Now that I know how trees communicate, I don’t think I’ll be planting one all by itself ever again. And that’s only ONE thing I learned.

The trees (and bunny) in our woods have lots of friends, and the downed trees are allowed to go back to the earth and provide nutrients.

I found myself reading a bit, then just lingering in the photos, imagining myself in those places, smelling the earth, hearing the wind in the leaves, seeing all the creatures the trees support. That’s worth the price of the book, right there! You can bet I’m going to keep that book on my coffee table, which is part of a tree, to dive into whenever I need to.

My other tree art in my office. It’s a watercolor by LE Martin, from 1995, which we found in the Rattlesnake house, unframed, in a cabinet.

Oh, Christmas Branch?

Here’s something fun and positive! Last week, the building where I work put up their lobby decorations. They are really nice and subtle this year, with logs and sticks as prominent elements. One decoration caught my eye:

These sturdy twigs with a few glass ornaments on them are lovely and simple.
No matter how hard we tried, we could NOT get the giant stocking left over from many years ago to attach to the backhoe.

They brought back memories of my mother’s favorite decoration back when we lived in south Florida, where people placed a small dead tree painted white in front of their picture window. From it, they hung lovely satin balls on ribbon, with a spotlight on the whole thing. It was so pretty.

When I got home to the Hermits’ Rest, I focused on outdoor things. Kathleen and I re-used many decorations yesterday to brighten up the ranch. As we did that, I assessed our tree situation. The bare-branched “nature tree” we keep up all year around finally quit lighting up, so it really can’t be a Christmas tree this year. It lasted many years, since we first started building the house, so I can’t be too upset with it.

The nature tree, back in its prime.
Continue reading “Oh, Christmas Branch?”

Fall Beauty Is Subtle but Sweet

I’ve really been enjoying the weather and the fall foliage the past week or two. It got all windy in Austin and leaves were swirling like they did back in Illinois when I lived there.

One oak and many cedar elms

Here at the ranch the cedar elms are the ones that provide color. It’s not bright, but the trees have many shades going from orange to russet brown.

Yellow leaves!

There’s one tree with yellow foliage. I’m thinking it’s a mesquite. I didn’t look too hard. It must be something else.

Continue reading “Fall Beauty Is Subtle but Sweet”

What’s in Bloom? Who’s Happy?

Stork’s-bill lights up the lawn.

That’s the question I asked myself this weekend. So I wandered around with my head down to see what’s there.

I

Speedwell is so tiny, but it lights up the ground as it opens by midday.

was surprised to find the lawn (sorta) around our old church property blooming away. Granted, they were tiny wood sorrel, blue speedwell, and pink storks-bill flowers, but they were enough to keep at least four kinds of small butterflies happy.

These are prettier in person. Their bodies look blue.

I saw lots and lots of these lovely tropical checkered skippers, plus elusive little sulphurs and a hairstreak. And my friends the fiery skippers still are hanging around. Not bad for December.

The fiery skipper loves the wood sorrel.

Looking Up

When I looked up, I noticed the big oak tree (the only tree on the property) seemed to be shaking, even though there was no breeze. Then I heard a whole lot of chattering.

The tree is holding up well, even though it lost some limbs in recent storms.

The tree was filled with fat, happy squirrels. They ran up and down, jumped over branches, and tussled.

I’m a happy rodent.

Why were they so happy? Well, it’s autumn, and this tree alone has provided enough acorns for an entire city of squirrels. Why go elsewhere?

The ground is solid acorn. Busy tree.

I wish you the bounty and happiness these little guys have found. I also hope you are finding the life and beauty wherever you are. It’s there!

Things I Love about the Eastern US

azalea
Good old azaleas. They didn’t all blow away. These are relentlessly cheerful! Along with camellias, these are plants I miss a lot in Texas. We have the wrong soil.

I’m spending time in High Point, North Carolina, where my step-mother, step-sister, and other family live. Mostly my husband and I are visiting, but I did get to walk around the woods that surround the facility where my step-mom lives, Pennybyrn at Maryfield.

squirrel2
A gray squirrell with his meal. The ones here are smaller than our fox squirrels; the ones on Hilton Head were tiny!

I’ve written about it before in the past (on Facebook I guess), since she and my dad lived there since the place opened. It’s one of those places for well-to-do people over a certain age, with homes, apartments, assisted living places, and a wonderful nursing home. There are lots of nice nuns and a lot to do. And the buildings are lovely.

penny
Here are some of the apartments. The woods are off to the right, and there are also multiple ponds.

It’s on a lake that’s off the Deep River, and bordered by some lovely mixed hardwood and pine forest. I enjoyed walking out there today and looking at all the native plants and birds (the landscaping is also nice, but not all native). It was interesting to see what was and wasn’t damaged by Hurricanes Michael and Florence, which both came through recently.

chapel
This little chapel is where I went in and talked to my Dad. He build paths and garden plots for the residents here.

The variety of trees is amazing. Maples, oaks, short- and long-leafed pines, sumac, dogwood, and redbud, to name a few.

And I saw blue birds, blue jays, crows, cardinals, house finches, and more (including geese I heard but did not see).

It’s just so different here from Texas. The trees are SO tall, and the plants so varied. And it smells great, thanks to all those pine needles. One of these days I’ll take another vacation in the Blue Ridge Mountains.

maple
Most of the leaves I saw had multiple holes in them. This red maple isn’t as bad off as some of them.

Sadly, the hurricane blew down most of the autumn leaves, and the remaining leaves were quite tattered. Huge old trees are down all over town. I guess that makes room for new trees and lets the sun in.

While I’m at a place where lives end, I always remember that death makes room for life. Hmm, good thoughts for the current autumn/Halloween season.