Today I learned not to start a sidewalk conversation with “Is this your tree?”
Because the nice lady who was walking towards her tree, and who I’ve seen in the neighborhood for over 25 years, but who I’ve never spoken to until now, answered my question with an alarmed, “WHY? WHAT’S WRONG WITH IT?”
From which the conversation could not recover. My lack of social skills and her lack of hearing proved to be unbeatable obstacles.
“Nothing is wrong with it,” I said, and then said again, louder.
She kept walking toward me to hear better, but when she broke the 6-feet-away Covid rule, I panicked. Neither of us was masked—we were both on solitary morning walks—and I figured if I dug in my pocket for my Emergency Mask I might look rude whipping it onto my face, and then she’d lose any chance to lip-read, so I stepped backwards and yelled, like an idiot,
“It’s a September elm! Those are rare! I didn’t realize your tree was a September elm. It’s blooming now!”
You need to know that the combo of September and elm have no particular meaning unless you are a forester, arborist, botanist, or naturalist. To me, the words mean Ulmus serotina, a native elm with a very small range which happens to include Nashville. But to normal people, the words September and elm just mean “an elm in September.”
Pick an elm, any elm.
You also need to know that September elms bloom in September—thus the creative name—and that most elms around here are the usual American elms who bloom in late February.
When I learned about September elms a few years ago, I was thrilled.
First, because I love knowing that an uncommon tree is common in my neighborhood. I’ve counted seven so far: big ones that must have snuck into property fences long, long ago.
Can you even buy them at nurseries?
Second, native shade trees are a precious and disappearing commodity. In our infill-mad neighborhood, re-development razes trees that can’t be replaced on the smidge of greenspace allowed. Instead, the strip is duly planted with the usual exotic shrubs (like crepe-myrtle, boxwood, Japanese laurel, etc. ) that do not feed wildlife.
Third, I was thrilled to solve a personal mystery: why I sneeze and weep every 3rd week of September exactly like I sneeze and weep every 3rd week of February.
Elm pollen is powerful.
Do the lucky owners of the seven September elms know they have an elm that blooms in fall? Do they know that most elms bloom in spring?
Do they know September elm is “globally imperiled?” Or that Middle Tennessee (and a smidge of Arkansas) have the most Ulmus serotina? And that Guide to the Vascular Plants of Tennessee says the tree is only “occasional” on limestone bluffs, rocky woods, bottomlands, riparian forests in Middle Tennessee? Do they know that the world’s biggest September elm is a 20-minute drive away, at Warner Park? And the runner-up is at Vanderbilt University?
I want to tell them all these Wonderful Things! Or at least one or two of these Wonderful Things?
It’s hard to share enthusiasms during a pandemic, sure, but it’s always hard when you know more about native habitat than you do about how to talk to strangers.
“Your tree is a special fall-blooming elm!” is the easiest Wonderful Thing I could have shared, but it would have taken more skill, time, and spittle than was convenient, so I gave up.
But I was worried. Did she still think I’d spotted something wrong with her tree?
When l walked away, I pointed at the green, sneezy canopy arching above us and shouted,
“So PRETTY. I LOVE your tree!”
Which is what I should have said at the start.
Later, on the way home, while trying not to sneeze and weep, my feet crunched through brown elm leaves. No big deal. Elm leaves always let go early.
And then I saw a scattering of fallen twigs with green leaves. No big deal. Squirrels are busy nipping twigs to insulate their homes.
But on those twigs, I saw a big deal: flowers. Fluffy little threads with teensy, green blooms.
From an elm. In September.
So, I’m sharing this Wonderful Thing with you:
September Elm Number 8.
GroWild native nursery in Fairview, TN does list September elm on their current plant list. Another Wonderful Thing.
My Instagram posts are 100% nature, and most of it the Sidewalk kind.
I’m not fond of facebook, but some people aren’t on Instagram, so I post nature things there from time to time.
Joanna Brichetto is a naturalist in Nashville, the hackberry-tree capital of the world.
She writes about everyday natural wonders amid every habitat loss, and her essays have appeared in Creative Nonfiction, Brevity, Fourth Genre, Hippocampus, The Hopper, Flyway, The Common, City Creatures, The Fourth River and other journals.