Category Archives: Environmental Education

Northeast Creek Streamwatch provides environmental education opportunities and programs

What a Thirteen Years It Has Been

In February 2006, I and ten others gathered at the Grandale Road bridge over Northeast Creek to do stream monitoring and go on a hike to see spring ephemerals. Michael Pollock had a water sampling kit from City of Durham Stormwater Services, and after we tested samples from the west side of the bridge, led us on a hike.

Walking along the Corps of Engineers boundary trail on the south side of Northeast Creek, we saw trout lilies and foamflowers that had just begun blooming. Walking up the natural gas easement back to Grandale Road, we could look northwest across the creek valley to where the gas easement crossed Scott King Road.

In April we tested Northeast Creek at an accessible meander just north of Sedwick Road. And then we went for a hike to see the budding trees and the spring flowers. The red maples glowed pink; the oaks were light green; some of the trees had a bluish cast. Stepping along the soggy ground of the sewer easement was challenging, but the world of the Parkwood wetland that we were walking alongside offered more natural beauty to explore.

In May, we tested again at the Grandale Road bridge. This hike explored the east side of Grandale Road and up the powerline maintenance access road. Toward the top of that hill, we crossed over to the Northeast Creek stream channel, which we viewed from rock bluffs on the south edge of Parkwood.

I was hooked. Northeast Creek Streamwatch was the organization that understood what my wife and myself had seen in 1993 behind the Food Lion store on NC 55. We had seen a wetland with submerged trees and saplings. A great blue heron was perched on one of the saplings; a green heron perched on a slightly larger sapling nearby. That swamp has now become an open pond in flood times, most of the trees drowned. Beavers and property owners have re-engineered the water flow many times over the last 25 years. And I have become committed to preserving our Triassic Basin wetlands, their flora, and fauna for my grandchildren’s grandchildren’s grandchildren to be able to appreciate.

In the 13 years since then, the “we” that is the evolving association of people identifying with Northeast Creek Streamwatch have seen:
• Regular participation in the Parkwood Christmas Parade by puppets of a great blue heron, beavers, an opossum, and frogs.
• Spring and fall clean-ups of creeks that result in piles of dumped items for Durham Solid Waste to pick up the next week after Earth Day, Big Sweep or Creek Week.
• A class at Parkwood Elementary School about sand, clay, and silt and third graders planting and labeling native plants for a WaterWise garden.
• Library programs on the native plants of Northeast Creek and the techniques of rainwater harvesting.
• A kayak touring company that did trips up from the mouth of Northeast Creek at the NC 751 bridge almost to Panther Creek in Chatham County.
• Hikes along a Jurassic diabase dike formation to the ruins of Sears Mill, an old mill on Panther Creek.
• Testing at Northeast Creek crossing of Grandale Road, Sedwick Road, Ellis Road, and in Meridian Center.
• An umbrella magnolia by Northeast Creek at Ellis Road bridge.
• The descent of a source of Northeast Creek down a steep slope by the Durham Freeway as the creek crosses under the bridge on Glover Road, passes through a steep gully and crosses under the Durham Freeway.
• The seep behind an office near NC55 and Riddle Road that is one of the sources of the prong of Northeast Creek that flows just west of NC 55 down to Meridian Park.
• The runoff from US70 north of Miami Boulevard that flows through the parking lot of pawn shop and into woods into the back yards of folks on Peyton Avenue, yet another source of Northeast Creek; this tributary flows through Bethesda Park..
• A dump site adjacent to the creek of over 50 years duration that is grown up with red cedars, winged elm, and oodles of vines.
• Sandstone caves beneath a bluff supporting leatherwood.
• The wetlands at Ellis and So-Hi roads that extend through the RTP properties of major companies and warehouse complexes.
• The main stream of Northeast Creek in flood at the NC 54, Sedwick, and Grandale bridges.
• A crew from Hillside New Technology cleaning the litter from the blackberry growth next to the NC 54 bridge over Northeast Creek during Big Sweep.
• A mother who brought her son from their neighborhood in North Durham to participate in a clean-up of the creek that feeds Parkwood Lake because she wanted to teach him a service ethic.
• The awarding of Durham’s Distinguished Tree designation to a white ash in Parkwood and a scarlet oak on the Lowes Grove Middle School property near the creek.
• The effects of the 2007 drought at the mouth of Northeast Creek, the appearance of a prairie of grass mat strewn with large mussel shells.
• Snow and ice in the Parkwood wetlands in a picturesque meander that Durham Water and Sewer later repaired with a culvert..
• Neighbors and their acquaintances reporting sewer leaks and stormwater issues to us and we getting to see that they are indeed efficiently handled.
• The Creek Critters Puppets marching as the Krewe de Creek in the Durham Mardi Gras Parade and promoting the 2016 Durham Creek Week.
• The Monarch Caterpillar art project from Fayetteville Street Elementary School at the Monarch Festival along with the students that made it and their parents.
• The recognition as Durham Soil and Water Conservation District’s Urban Conservationist of the Year in 2016.
• The support of some 40 volunteers in the construction of Parkwood Village Association’s Wiggly Trail , erosion control, and native plant garden. Completing this project with volunteer labor and donations in-kind to match a $2500 City of Durham neighborhood improvement project grant.
• Continued collaboration with Parkwood Village Assocation, Parkwood Homeowners Association, Christus Victor Lutheran Church, Lowes Grove Middle School, Parkwood Elementary School, South Durham Regional Library, South Durham Farmers Market, and local scouts as well as many longstanding individual partners.

In the coming year the wildness will continue as we seek to grow participation in these initiatives:

Upstream Neighbors/Downstream Neighbors – The grassroots network of property owners and residents working on their own to conserve their own part of the Northeast Creek basin. Opportunities and tools to serve them are rainwater retention ideas, planting native plants, removing invasive plants, local creek clean-ups, adopting storm drains, adopting stream segments, adopting highways for cleaning litter. Citizen science activities include Audubon’s Backyard Bird Count, iNature.org, and many others. For additional citizen science opportunities, contact the NC Botanical Garden and the NC Museum of Natural Science.

Upstream Neighbors/Downstream Neighbors serves as a network to involve local schools and churches at the local level in local projects, which over the 47 square miles of the Northeast Creek basin means that seemingly small local efforts can result in large results on Lake Jordan’s quality just as small amounts of negligence have added up to a large excess nutrient problem for Lake Jordan.

Water Stewardship Network – The supporting network of schools, churches, government agencies, businesses, and voluntary associations that have an impact on Northeast Creek and ally with similar groups in other watersheds. These institutions support individual efforts as part of Upstream Neighbors/Downstream Neighbors. These are the locations of events, demonstration projects like gardens or rainwater treatments, and educational programs. They are Upstream Neighbors/Downstream Neighbors for their own property. Northeast Creek Streamwatch’s water stewardship network can tie into the North Carolina Watershed Stewardship Network (http://wsnet.renci.org/huc_report/index.html?huc=030300020605).

Creek Week and Big Sweep Events – The twice a year momentum builder for local efforts. They get people out into the stream environment and wetlands, show the natural beauty, and get something tangible accomplished with a very short commitment of time. This year’s Creek Week is March 17-23, 2019. Start planning local events for March 15 -23 and notifying colleen@northeastcreek.org.

Upstream Neighbors/Downstream Neighbors

Hurricane Joaquin highlighted the effect that upstream water retention has on downstream currents and flooding. It makes us more aware of being upstream neighbors of coastal areas like the Cape Fear region and also our immediate neighbors downstream.

The water that Joaquin dumped on our roofs and flowed down our gutters and downspouts and across our yards into tributaries of Northeast Creek will eventually join water that fell on roofs in Guilford County and flowed down the Haw River. Then it will collect the water that has fallen more recently on roofs in Sanford and Fayetteville before it reaches that bridge. The large area of the Cape Fear River drainage basin includes a lot of neighborhoods, with water flowing from upstream neighbors to downstream neighbors, affecting the use of water and the condition of the stream boundaries along the way.

Closer in, the water from Northeast Creek flows into Jordan Lake, which is the water supply for a number of neighborhoods as well as the towns of Cary and Morrisville. The Town of Cary in turn will supply additional water to the City of Durham during drought conditions.

More local, the water that runs off all at once from roofs, sidewalks, driveways, and streets (surfaces designed not to allow the water to soak in, called “impervious surfaces”) can erode downstream neighbors’ yards. The collecting of rapid runoff at creek junctions can back up into yards and threaten to flood under houses.

As homeowners, we can extend the principle of catching and holding rainwater to restrain how much water and how fast its flows downstream during a rainstorm. These actions can affect the amount of erosion of stream banks in downstream neighbors’ yards and reduce flooding of downstream neighbors’ property. We can also save back some of that water for dry spells, hold it long enough to recharge the water table here instead running rapidly the length of the Cape Fear River, and create more habitat for pollinators.

A reasonable goal is to capture the first inch of rainfall from the square feet that your property has as impervious surfaces and hold it for up to three days. There are a variety of ways to do this; the county Soil and Water Conservation District (in Chatham, Durham, and Wake counties for Northeast Creek) can provide technical assistance and tips for beginning your plan of rain saving. And you need not hit the goal of “one-inch saving for at least three days” all at once; you can try different combinations of techniques on your property to see what works best.

Cory Quammen, a resident of Grandale Forest on the headwaters of “Tributary D” of Northeast Creek, is holding a gathering of his upstream and downstream neighbors, Saturday, October 24, 9am – 11am to show some examples of problems caused by excessive runoff as well as some rain-saving measures that have been installed on his property.. Invitations will go to the neighbors within his local creek basin in advance of the meeting. Contact cquammen@gmail.com for further information.

Monarchs Fly at Sandy Creek Park

Teacher photographing students by a monarch caterpillar art project
Northeast Creek Streamwatch member Nancy Lambert, art teacher at Fayetteville Street Elementary School (on Third Fork Creek) photographing students by the caterpillar the Fayetteville Street art students made for the Monarch Festival at Sandy Creek Park, Durham

The Northeast Creek Streamwatch Puppet and Parade unit participated in the organization of the Durham Monarch Festival 2015 along with conservation organizations from throughout Durham County. As part of the festival, schools were encouraged to participate, and Northeast Creek Streamwatch member Nancy Lambert turned her art class at Fayetteville Street Elementary School into creating art representing the life cycle of the monarch butterfly. The big burlap sculpture that the class made of a monarch caterpillar was a big hit.

Northeast Creek Streamwatch member Colleen Haithcock painted the large monarch butterfly banners and some of the signs used for festival operations. The grand parade for releasing the monarchs was led by a stylized milkweed floral spray that Colleen made.

Monarchs migrate from Canada and the United States to the Michoacan area of Mexico every fall and return north every spring. Each journey represents about three generations of monarchs, which lay their eggs on milkweed plants. Because milkweed plants are toxic to livestock, the habitat for monarchs has been decreased from increased pasture land use and from urban development. Conservationists are encouraging the planting of milkweed as butterfly gardens to increase the monarch population. The familiar yellow, black, and white striped caterpillar is the larva of the monarch; get used to tolerating seeing these on the milkweed that you plant for them.

Tenth Anniversary – Statement of Appreciation for Founder Michael Pollock

Michael Pollock holding up a hub cap during an Earth Day clean up in 2006
Michael Pollock holds up a hub cap cleaned from Northeast Creek at the Grandale bridge on Earth Day, April 22, 2006

At the Parkwood Flea Market in early October 2006, Michael Pollock stood at a table recruiting members for Northeast Creek Streamwatch, an organization to conduct volunteer stream monitoring of Northeast Creek, a tributary of New Hope Creek (Jordan Lake). Michael had responded to publicity from the City of Durham Stormwater Services environmental education office for volunteer stream monitors. It is hard to believe that after ten years Northeast Creek Streamwatch is still here, thanks in part to Michael’s persistence.

Michael Pollock grew up wandering the tributaries of Northeast Creek as a youngster, exploring the nature of the banks and wetlands near his home in the Parkwood subdivision of Durham. As he grew older, he wandered farther, read more, learned more and followed the path of nature writing. Today, Michael still contributes articles to the Parkwood Inside/Out, but he has added the Chatham County Line, and also this site, the blog portion of the Northeast Creek Streamwatch website.

Michael attended the University of North Carolina – Chapel Hill, where he studied biology and anthropology. He is knowledgeable about the local plants and amphibians of the area, with a special interest in the local salamanders.

When Northeast Creek Streamwatch has an information table at community events, you can generally find Michael showing frogs, a salamander, or whatever he was able to find in the creek that morning or a collection of local rocks that he has picked up over the years.

If you want to explore the main stream of Northeast Creek, you can go on one of Michael’s quarterly stream monitoring visits to the creek or one of his nature hikes. A favorite time is when the spring ephemerals are out in the Corps of Engineers game land along Northeast Creek at Grandale Drive.

The people of Northeast Creek Streamwatch appreciate the fact that Michael Pollock got us going; yes, he’s the founder. We appreciate his sharing his knowledge with us. And we celebrate the ten years that we’ve kept Michael’s project going even as its activities have evolved. Thank you, Michael.

Statement of Appreciation – Mr. Barry Archer

barry archer with fox mask on top of head waiting for beginning of the 2014 Parkwood Christmas Parade
Barry Archer as Creek Critters fox in the 2014 Parkwood Christmas Parade
In March 2014 Northeast Creek Streamwatch participated in the Durham Creek Week stream clean-up by cleaning the banks of the creek that flows into the Parkwood lotus pond and lake. In preparation we had advertised in several local businesses. We set up a table with a banner announcing a creek clean-up, and people came out to participate. Among the folks who helped were several youth, one of whom rode by on his skateboard and went home to change and came back to work. Several of the youth belonged to a local youth group and asked if their youth group could do a another clean-up as they were looking for service projects..These youth were participants in a community leadership training program facilitated by Barry Archer of Barak Source for Learning; they came to the next monthly meeting of Northeast Creek Streamwatch and invited our group to meet with them.

As a result of that meeting, Northeast Creek Streamwatch collaborated with Spring Break enrichment program by locating a speaker from the Ellerbe Creek Watershed Association, who spoke about urban creek runoff and the problems of erosion and non-point-source pollution. The group then conducted two days of clean-ups and learned about the hydrology, plants, and animals of a section of Northeast Creek that included blooming paw-paws and spring ephemerals. This section includes meanders and oxbow ponds, which are normal flood plain features in the geography of the Durham Triassic Basin.

In December 2014, this youth group marched as part of the Northeast Creek Streamwatch unit in the Parkwood Christmas Parade, wearing costumes of a great blue heron, deer, and other creek critters.

In January 2015, this youth group helped make costumes of other creek critters in preparation for the Durham Creek Week kickoff parade. In March 2015, they marched as herons, frogs, and other creek critters in the parade. Adult facilitators and parents of the youth marched as a fox, a leaf and ladybug, an opposum, and a beaver.

The leader of this group Mr. Barry Archer trains the youth in leadership skills, and we have been very impressed with the ability of the youth to volunteer and seek out opportunities for service on their own.

Northeast Creek Streamwatch takes this occasion at the end of a summer program put together by Mr. Archer and Mr. John Apel to thank them for their continuing collaboration with the efforts of Northeast Creek Streamwatch and to the greater Parkwood community. We also thank the youth who have been involved in these several programs for their hard work in cleaning up Northeast Creek and their willingness to learn the science, technology, engineering, and math (STEM) skills involved in the creek and its care.

Beautiful hibiscus

This is based on an article I wrote for the July issue of the Parkwood Inside/Out. There were some website issues, so I haven’t posted in a few months. Hibiscus are probably still blooming; they were still in bloom in the Coker Arboretum last week, but it is getting late in the season for them, so now is the time to go to your local pond.

Parkwood Lake Hibiscus

Hibiscus or mallows are the showiest natives growing along the margins of Parkwood Lake and local beaver ponds in midsummer. The most common species is a small bush with soft, dark green leaves and huge white 5-petalled flowers with dark red or purplish centers, each flower lasting one day. I think this is Hibiscus moscheutos, or H. palustris, but they seem to be considered the same species now. The other Hibiscus is a rare species with bright red flowers, probably H. coccineus, native to Georgia, Florida, and Alabama, but apparently introduced in North Carolina relatively recently, since it doesn’t appear in the comprehensive Manual of the Vascular Flora of the Carolinas written in the 60’s. There were some small Hibiscus at the Clermont end of the Lake before it was deepened last year, and I thought they were killed, despite the ribbons I tied on them, but there are still a few small Hibiscus there. They aren’t flowering, possibly because they get too much shade, or they were cut back, or maybe they sprouted recently. Elsewhere in Parkwood there are rose-of-Sharon (H. syriacus), a tree-sized Old World Hibiscus. Hibiscus are in the mallow family (Malvaceae) with marsh mallows (Althea officinalis, a European plant found in North Carolina whose roots were used to make the first marshmallows), okra, hollyhocks, and cotton.

I’m not completely sure what the white Hibiscus are. Both H. moscheutos and H. palustris have been called swamp rose mallows, and the former has also been called wild cotton (but don’t look for a cotton boll), breast root, and crimson-eyed rose-mallow. Both can have pink flowers, but H. moscheutos is usually white and I only see white flowers around here. The name would make more sense if the rose in rose-mallow just means rose-like. The Greek word for mallow is hibiscus and moscheutos refers to the smell of musk roses, another relative. These plants are perennials, but their tough stalks seem to regrow from the base each year. I usually see hibiscus growing around 2 to 4 feet tall, but they can reach 8 feet. They have oval to three pointed, red maple-like leaves alternating along the stalks. The leaves don’t look particularly fuzzy, but they still have a soft texture. The large flower buds are surrounded by an array of needlelike, but soft green bracts and larger sepals that extend after flowering to protect the developing fruit. The petals have a soft, pleated appearance and the male and female parts are united to form a structure like a radio tower jutting from the center, like other Hibiscuses. The flower gives way to a dry capsule that opens in the fall or winter, releasing many seeds. Hibiscus don’t produce fibers, but the fruit resembles an unopened cotton boll. These mallows like to grow in marshes and beside ponds in full sun, but yards with moist soil and those around Parkwood Lake should be able to grow them.

H. coccineus is called rose, scarlet, or brilliant mallow, and scarlet mallow comes closest to describing the color. Supposedly it is also called Texas star, but it shouldn’t grow there naturally. This species can grow up to 10 feet tall and has palmate, or hand-like, leaves with three to five points. There must be some red Hibiscus in yards around the Lake, and they self-seeded into the marshy ground along Clermont, or someone planted them there, because I’ve never seen them naturalized elsewhere. These plants seem more lofty and airy than the white Hibiscus and very tall examples can be seen waving over the flowerbeds along the central brick path at UNC’s Coker Arboretum.

Hibiscus are supposed to attract butterflies and ruby-throated hummingbirds, but I mainly see bees visit them. I also don’t see many insects eating the leaves, but Japanese beetles and the spiny caterpillars of Io moths, one of the smaller giant silk moths, can eat Hibiscus, and common checkered-skippers, painted ladies, and gray hairstreak butterfly caterpillars, eat plants in the mallow family and this might include Hibiscus. Cooks can use Hibiscus leaves as a thickener like okra and as cooked greens. Hibiscus, especially H. moscheutos, leaves and roots are mucilaginous and were used herbally to soothe and soften tissue and H. moscheutos was used against breast cancer.

If you look for Hibiscus at the Lake, you will probably notice the color of the water. At the start of July the Lake was opaque yellow with silt eroded from the Meadows at Southpoint construction site at the corner of 54 and Barbee Road, the headwaters of the stream feeding the Lake. Durham Stormwater Services investigated and said there weren’t any big problems with the erosion controls and the contractor was very cooperative. This is how the Lake fills with muck, but soil also bleeds from yards with every rain and much of Parkwood drains into the Lake, so when people pile leaves and logs in the streams, this is also usually where they are heading. I’m not sure how much of a problem the recent runoff is for aquatic life, but excessive siltiness is harmful for some organisms. Further downstream a beaver pond bordered by Hibiscus, roses, dogbane, spotted jewelweed, and beds of brilliant green knotweed is still the color of tea, naturally dyed by decaying vegetation. Northeast Creek turned brown with the recent storms, hopefully not only because of the massive grading at sites just north of RTP. The poor water quality tolerant carp are jumping in the Creek, and they are the subject of my article in the latest issue of Chatham County Line (www.chathamcountyline.org).

Eastern Cottonwood: the Rarest Tree in Parkwood

Below is an article I wrote for the April issue of the Parkwood Inside/Out.

The rarest tree in Parkwood

The big tree between the Parkwood Athletic Association field and the Masjid Ibad Ar-Rahman mosque might seem unremarkable, the quintessential tree, but it is the only Eastern or Carolina cottonwood I know of in Parkwood. Until recently it was the only one I knew of anywhere, but a year or two ago I was at the intersection of 54 and 55 and realized that the tall tree beside a stream between Walgreens and McDonalds is a cottonwood, and I saw a cottonwood of some kind at the Rollingview area of Falls Lake. River Dave once told me there are some along the Eno River and closer afield at New Hope Creek. Next to Parkwood’s cottonwood there used to be a pile of ballfield gravel, which resembles rocks along the Eno, so I wondered if the cottonwood might have come with a load of gravel, but since there is another arone around, maybe it came from this area after all.

Cottonwoods (Populus deltoides) are real poplars (“tulip poplars” are in the magnolia family) and resemble famous relatives like quaking aspens. The name poplar might come from a Latin phrase, arbor populi, the people’s tree, and the deltoides probably refers to the leaf shape. Eastern cottonwoods have large, spade-shaped leaves ending in a long point and with hook-shaped serrated edges. The leaf petioles are long and compressed, and there are glands at the leaf end. With these long stems, the thick leaves flap in a breeze, making a lot of noise. The yellowish twigs have a lumpy profile and have a squarish cross-section where there is a lot of growth. The terminal buds are covered by 6-7 scales and are supposed to be sticky or resinous, but not fragrant. Cottonwood leaves fall early in the season and without much color. Cottonwoods put on height quickly, as much as 13’ their first year, getting about 100’ tall (but higher in the West), sometimes after only 15 years, and develop an ever spreading form similar to broccoli, as can be seen in Parkwood. Our cottonwood has a stout trunk with strong branches starting near the ground and sweeping around, ending in twigs with an upward turn like claws. Cottonwoods have thick bark, but young trees are not very fire-tolerant, one factor limiting where they could grow out on the prairies. As with many fast-growing trees, cottonwoods don’t live very long, only about a century.

Other poplars grow in NC, including swamp cottonwoods (P. heterophylla), but I think our tree is an Eastern cottonwood. The only other poplars I know of in Durham are the very columnar Lombardy poplars, European ornamentals planted in yards, and white poplars, naturalized European trees which have an overall white appearance and form thickets, such as the one behind the former Triangle Nursery.

Long, wind-pollinated catkins (thus the name necklace poplar) emerged on Parkwood’s cottonwood in early March, while the leaves were still in large, conical buds. Each tree produces only one sex of flowers. On female trees small cottony seeds mature later in the spring, and fill the air. Wind dispersal allows cottonwoods to find rare open ground, such as bare banks of streams. The seeds have to drift to suitable ground fast, because they don’t remain viable very long.

In tree-rich Durham, cottonwoods are just another deciduous tree, but they could be called a Laura Ingalls Wilder tree, and were valued out on the prairies, where they were one of the few large trees, usually growing near water. The outer sapwood is wide, whitish, and lightweight, while the heartwood is dark brown. Cottonwood is easy to carve, but inflexible and warps a lot when drying, so it is mainly used for crates, plywood, excelsior (shredded wood, like the mulch on the path to the Hidden Playground), matches, and paper pulp. Indians in the Midwest used cottonwood for poles and started fires with the roots, and reportedly teepees relate to the shape of cottonwood leaves and children played with various tree parts. Cottonwoods are planted as windbreaks and to reclaim mines.

Deer, beavers, rabbits, and mice chew on the twigs and livestock can eat saplings if hay runs out. One guide says tea of the inner bark was used as a “female tonic” and to relieve scurvy, and cottonwoods produce aspirinlike salicin. Purple finches and other birds and squirrels eat the buds and catkins. Bees sometimes harvest the pollen, though the trees don’t rely on animals for pollination. Mourning cloak and red admiral caterpillars might eat the leaves, but around here they have many other choices, so cottonwoods seem to have few herbivores. Cottonwoods frequently develop internal rot, creating cavities for owls and squirrels.

To find out about the black locusts blooming at Parkwood Lake Dam this month and the honeylocusts on the Tobacco Trail, check out my article in the April issue of the Chatham County Line) newspaper.

My article in the May issue covers catalpa trees, such as the southern catalpa on Revere Road and others blooming in a few weeks.

Durham Creek Week Kickoff features Northeast Creek Critters and Puppet Theater

The 2015 Creek Week Kickoff at Durham Central Park on March 21, 2015 saw the creek critters from Northeast Creek march in the parade with people from the other watersheds in Durham County.

One of the highlights of the event was the Northeast Creek Critter Puppet Theater featuring Woodrow the beaver and Clyde the raccoon and puppeteers Barry Archer and John Apel.

The elms are flowering

This is an article I wrote for the February issue of the Parkwood Inside/Out. We are planning trash cleanups on March 28th and a hike, and will be participating in the costume parade downtown on March 21st and other events for Durham Creek Week 2015. Check this website for announcements and all events will also be posted at:

Creek Week Events

Parkwood’s elms are blooming

Red maples dotting the still bare landscape with blots of crimson are one of the first signs that spring is here, but elms are among the first trees to flower. These prominent trees might be less appreciated because an elm in flower is stormy grey or lime green. Winged elms are the most common species, especially in central Parkwood, but there are slippery elms along the streams and probably American elms, and there are scattered Eurasian ornamentals. The most prominent and beautiful elm I know of in the area is the classically fountain-shaped tree on Highway 54, across from . Because its limbs are all high above the ground, it is hard to identify the species.

Elms, especially American elms, are beloved for the fountain or vaselike shape of mature trees, and there is a graceful symmetry to elms generally. Their leaves and branches alternate, creating an airy lattice effect. The straight veins in their oval leaves, double toothed like a pruning saw, are straight and parallel, but elms also have a very unsymmetric feature – the leaf bases are lopsided, especially in American and slippery elms. Elms have thin, elegant branches, strengthened by very tough wood, and the bark of some species can be twisted into rope. They produce wind pollinated bisexual flowers in early spring, developing into small seeds with a circular flange that drift with the wind several weeks later. The elms generally like moist soil, but winged elms seem to grow in drier soil as well.

The massive, spreading elm in front of Carrboro’s Town Hall could be an American elm (it is big enough for a plaque, yet nothing identifies the species), and I think there are labelled American elms in the Coker Arboretum at UNC. American or white elms are around, but are less common after the arrival of Dutch Elm Disease, a fungus that came to the US around 1930, and is spread by introduced and native beetles that bore in elms. Many elms have been killed, especially American elms, but this seems to be a little less catastrophic than the introduction of chestnut blight and emerald ash borer beetles, and the disease can be managed. American elms are large trees with furrowed bark, brownish leaf buds, and their leaves and stems aren’t very hairy, or less so than slippery elms. Their seeds have some hairiness, while the seeds of slippery elms lack hairs. Both American and slippery elms have large, sandpaperlike leaves, but American elms have greenish flowers, unlike slippery elms. Because their wood is so strong and resistant to splitting, and grips screws tightly, American elms have been used to make things like sports equipment, boats, flooring, crates, and kitchen cutting blocks. Many were planted for landscaping in the northeast, though they grow throughout the eastern USA. In A Natural History of Trees, botanist and nature writer Donald Culross Peattie wrote “If you want to be recalled for something that you do, you will be well advised to do it under an [American] Elm – a great Elm, for such a tree outlives the generations of men; the burning issues of today are the ashes of tomorrow, but a noble Elm is a verity that does not change with time. And although Elms too are mortal, great ones are remembered as long after they are gone as are great men.”

Slippery elms are similar to American elms, but smaller and less vaselike. They have been called red elms, having hairy, reddish leaf buds and reddish flowers, as well as hairy twigs. Their inner bark is slippery and becomes mucouslike when chewed. This inner bark was used to make tea and flour and was used for a variety of internal and external problems and still has an FDA approved medical use. American elm bark was used medicinally by Native American groups.

Winged elms are named for the cork flanges that line their twigs to varying degrees. Sweetgums usually aren’t as winged as elms and their leaves are very different. Winged elms leaves are smaller, smoother, and more symmetrical than those of other elms, and large trees have light brown bark. I think these are the first elms to flower, with brownish flowers that turn into silvery, hairy seeds. As with most trees, winged elms grow a lot when they first leaf out in spring, delicately etched leaves surging forth from the twig tips at a fast clip. The tiny, silky looking new leaves hang as if limp, but are actually strangely stiff. Snow, ice, and maybe hurricanes smashed many of the spindly young loblollies behind the Fire Station around 2002, leaving winged elms, ash, and a few surviving pines as the dominant tall trees, to be replaced themselves by oaks, hickories, and beech in coming decades.

Many animals chew on elm branches, leaves, and seeds, including opossums, rabbits, and bobwhites. The caterpillars that fed on elms are like a who’s who of moths and butterflies, including many of the moths you might see at your porchlights this spring. Double-toothed prominent moth caterpillars feed only on elms. They bite into a leaf and then rest there, so their jagged backs appear like the missing leaf edge. It is surprising that this camouflage works, since elm leaves are emerald green, but the caterpillars are pale seafoam blue and green.