Project-based homeschooling: American Elm

‘Princeton’ American elm.

Happy Arbor Day!

In my last post, I told you a bit about my boys’ interest in plants and how we began identifying all the plants and trees in our yard. Even more so than plants, I think my eldest son is interested in trees, and he loves to try to identify them and propagate some of them, which I also mentioned in my last post. Today is Arbor Day, so I thought it would be the perfect day to write about my son’s special interest in American elm trees.

Sometime during this past year he read about the American elm tree. This is a beautiful tree that can grow to over 100 feet tall and live for a thousand years. You may already know how this beautiful tree used to line many urban streets in the central and eastern United States, but around the 1930s almost all of them died from Dutch elm disease. (Millions of elms were killed by this disease.) There were a few American elms that didn’t die, however, including one cultivar named ‘Princeton’ American elm. (Named so because it was developed by Princeton Nurseries in 1922.) Today these trees are under conservation, and many ‘Princeton’ elms are being replanted in urban settings. We have even found a few of these young elms in a town square of a small Georgia town we’ve traveled to.

For the first time, we’ve been able to see new leaves emerge on our American elm tree.

After learning about the American elm and the conservation efforts to save it, my son wanted to get one to plant in our yard. We certainly don’t need more trees, but how could we say no to our little conservationist? Last October, we got one from Thomas Orchards, and we planted it in a grassy area in our front yard, which is near the street. It’s been exciting for us to see its first leaves appearing this spring and to think that someday it may tower over our street just like American elms did long ago.

Planting our new tree last October.

By coincidence, several years ago I got the opportunity to photograph an estate in Twin City, which is a tiny town located in central Georgia. On that property, there was a huge American elm, which was a rarity. The owner of the house said that researchers from the university had come to see her tree and study it. Here’s a photo I took of that tree:

Quite impressive, isn’t it?

What is your favorite tree and why?

Project-based Homeschooling: Plant Project

A winged elm (Ulmus alata). We found two fully grown winged elms in our yard when we began our mission to identify and label all the plants and trees in our wooded yard.

Happy Earth Day! To celebrate, I thought I would write about a project we’ve been working on for over a year. My older son has always had a special interest in plants. When he was little, he became obsessed with seeds for awhile. Then he had his carnivorous plant project, and we still grow the carnivorous plants. My younger son also enjoys gardening and likes having his own plants to care for too.

Wild ginger (Hexastylis arifolia) grows abundantly in the woods behind our house, and I love this wild plant. If you pull back the leaves, you can see their bell-shaped flowers.

About a year ago my twelve-year-old became extra interested in plants, especially trees, and he even asked to go to the Atlanta Botanical Garden for his birthday.  He’s been learning how to grow and propagate trees by himself, particularly redbud trees. His younger brother wanted to try this too, so he’s trying to grow some hickories. Needless to say, my refrigerator has been packed with little pots of dirt and seeds this past winter! If they have any success growing these trees, I’ll be sure to write about it in the future.

Butterfly Pea (Clitoria ternatea). We found this growing wild by our driveway!
There are some trees that are very difficult to identify, such as this prominent oak in our front yard (center). We think it’s a post oak. (Quercus stellata)

What started all this? Well, we decided to try to identify and label the plants and trees that grow naturally in our wooded yard. I had mentioned trying this a long time ago, but I never did it because it was a huge undertaking. Finally my twelve-year-old wanted to do it in earnest, so we got serious about it.

So far we have identified and labeled 20 different species of trees and plants! It feels like we’ve made a lot of progress, but there are so many plants we still haven’t identified!

Plants we’ve found:

Butterfly Pea (Clitoria ternatea)
Wild Ginger (Hexastylis arifolia)
Solomon’s Seal (Polygonatom Communtatun)
St. Andrew’s Cross (Hypericum hypericoides)
Smartweed (Polygonum pensylvanicum)
Pennywort (Hydrocotyle microphylla)

Trees:

Wild Black Cherry (Prunus serotina)
Dogwood (Cornus florida)
Willow Oak (Quercus phellos)
Winged Elm (Ulmus alata)
Hawthorne (Crataegus)
Blackjack Oak (Quercus marilandica)
Water Oak (Quercus alba)
Sassafras (Sassafras albidum)
American Sweetgum (Liquidambar styraciflua)
Carolina Basswood (Tilia americana caroliniana)
Loblolly Pine (Pinus taeda)
Shortleaf Pine (Pinus echinata)
Holly (Ilex)

Water Oak. (Quercus nigra) Surprisingly, we have only one water oak in our yard, but it’s huge, and it’s near our front porch. It also happens to be my favorite tree in the yard.

As a homeschooling mom, I can say it feels great when your kid gets old enough to do the hard work by himself. This project has led my twelve-year-old to learn how to use a dichotomous key when trying to identify plants and trees. He has used Tree Finder: A Manual for Identification of Trees by their Leaves (Eastern U.S.), Winter Tree Finder, A Field Guide to Eastern Trees and the Internet to identify several plants and trees. Then he lists the plant names in a notebook. Sometimes he takes photos of them, but I often do that. I’ve also been helping by uploading some of our photos to iNaturalist, which has been a big help in identifying plants and trees too.

We have several white oaks. (Quercus alba) The ink on the label has already faded in just one winter. Time for a touch up.

I also help by writing out the labels that we put on or near the trees and plants (because I have the nicest handwriting). We always put the common name and the scientific name. My yard is starting to look a little bit like the botanical garden….well, I guess it would need to be much neater before I could say that! But I enjoy seeing the labels nonetheless.

We have a few wild black cherry trees. (Prunus serotina) They surprised me one year by producing small, tasty cherries! These trees have beautiful bark too.

This Friday is Arbor Day, so I’m going to use that day to post about a particular tree my son wanted to buy and plant in our yard.

There is one small willow oak (Quercus phellos) trying to grow among the the other hardwoods in the backyard.

I hope you are having a happy spring!