On The Horns, As It Were, Of an Ethical Dilemma

The human female is a tree-hugger. Literally. There are photos of her, hugging trees. When she was a tot, she used to tell people that she wanted to be a tree when she grew up because, “Trees are nicer than people.” Also, this is Texas. Shade trees are practically worshipped as minor deities.

Thus, we have established that she is an dendrophile. She is also rampantly, rabidly anti-exotic-invasive-species. She will get up early on a Saturday to yank up Japanese honeysuckle or some other Problem Child from the local woods or waterways. She routinely monologues about the evils of Ligustrum, Chinese Pistache, Chinese Tallow Tree, and Chinaberry in the local woods and has been known to snap any sapling she finds right off at the base. She has whole presentations for homeowners’ associations about what not to plant and which native species make better substitutes. Slides and everything.

Which is why I am laughing so hard that I may need to excuse myself to the Little Lokis’ Room so as not to have an accident.

You see, multiple years back, a large oak tree in the front yard breathed its last, and that part of the yard has been bereft of shade since. This made a nice opening for Mischief, so five or so years ago, I planted some elm seedlings yonder thataway. Five stout young trees sprang up right on the property line, in a nearly perfect straight line. There are native Cedar Elms all over the back yard and plenty of Winged Elms in the neighborhood, so she just assumed the newcomers were one of those and didn’t pay them too much mind.

Elms are fast growers, subscribing to the philosophy of “Live fast, die young, leave a lot of offspring.” (As opposed to say, oaks, which believe in “Slow and steady, live forever, leave a few acorns here and there and it’ll amount to a forest someday.”) So, in no time at all, we had actual, tree-sized elms on that property line. She mowed around them, pruned away some branches that were too low to walk under, and remained oblivious.

Earlier this year, however, she finally took a good hard look at their leaves and noticed they were a bit too tapered at the base and shiny for Winged Elm, a tad too narrow and smooth for Cedar Elm. The bark wasn’t right, either… Suspicion had begun to dawn. Could these be Chinese Lacebark Elms, Ulmus parvifolia, an exotic species from–you guessed it–Asia?

Lacebark Elms were introduced around here back in the 1940’s or so and are very pretty, with glossy leaves and interesting bark that exfoliates from pale gray-brown to orange. They’re resistant to Dutch Elm Disease, but they tend to be brittle-wooded and susceptible to mistletoe and rather short-lived. They have escaped cultivation and can be found in the local woods. The human female always tells people not to plant them.

The human female is nothing if not a great rationalizer. “Maybe,” she told herself this past spring, “they’re a native species. After all, I don’t see any peeling bark yet, and the trunks haven’t developed that fluted look Ulmus parvifolia usually has… Maybe they’re some sort of new Lacebark/Cedar Elm hybrid. Maybe they’re sterile and won’t cause any problems! I mean, I didn’t see fruit on them last fall!”

It’s like she doesn’t even know me. Today she is taking a good, honest, clear-eyed look at them.

See the flat, pale green things? It’s October and we have elm fruits! This rules out Winged Elm, which fruits in February before the leaves come out. And they’re clearly setting a ton of fruit, which probably means they’re not hybrids. (Or if they are, they may well be fertile and capable of polluting the gene pool of fall-flowering elms.)

She is finally admitting to herself that it is time to put her money where her mouth is. Does she thank me for what are now five healthy trees taller than the house or practice what she preaches and cut them all down? Which would you rather have, woman—shade or credibility among your fellow native plant nerds?

It’s too delicious! You’re going to be miserable either way and I love it!

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