Rock Elm With Swallowwort (oil on canvas 11 x 14 in.)
I carried a twig and a portion of vine home to use as reference for the painting. An interesting thing about the corky thickening of bark is how it begins rather abruptly after a twig is two or three years old. Older, slow-growing twigs have corky coats nearly
to their ends, and faster-growing twigs are slender and naked, back to the point where the thickened bark begins. Rock Elms are not towering fountain-shapes like open-grown American and Slippery Elms, but have a central stem right to the top of their crown, and in the open, their random-looking branches give the whole tree a rectangular shape. Their leaves are large, crisp, and dark green, with deeply serrated edges.
We noticed this Elm with the drooping corky-barked twigs in June 2012, and since then we've visited it often, and inspired by Owen Clarkin's interest in rare trees, we've been more and more conscious of Rock Elms in our travels through eastern Ontario. Having rock-hard wood, this Elm was harvested for special high-strength uses like boat gunwales and agricultural tools, until now very few are left standing isolated and unnoticed, away from other Rock Elms, and as a consequence, hard pressed to reproduce their kind. When these isolated Rock Elms die, this special species is at risk of disappearing entirely - unless people start planting them.
Although it is sunny and bright, this painting has a rather ominous tone. Swallowwort - recently better known as Dog Strangling Vine, is spreading along this roadside. Skeins of last year's slender stems with paired, blonde pods, are delicately draping the lowest branches of the tree. They look for all the world more like decorations than evidence of an aggressively spreading invasive alien. You can find out more about Dog Strangling Vine at the Invading Species website.
You will notice that this tree is "posted" as a boundary tree, by the sign nailed to it, which is visible in the upper right hand corner of the painting. Another bit of evidence of boundary is the wires of a bent down page wire fence, nearly hidden in the snow. One of the branches crosses the painting diagonally, and one would think it is sending the silent message "don't come here". But I feel that the tree is friendly - it's just feeling rather defensive. It is already under siege of the Swallowwort - have compassion and don't cut it down - and please help its relatives to propagate and spread their little ones across the landscape, enjoying life to the fullest, as in the "olden days".
The Rock Elms all had an unusually big seed crop this past season, and Owen Clarkin and Justin Peter have taken several trips out to locate and catalog individual trees and to collect seeds from them. They are now nurturing hundreds of Rock Elm seedlings, some of which are the progeny of the tree in this painting. You can contact Owen to get seedlings for planting this spring in your yard, fencerow, or woodlot. We planted three in our shallow-soil limestone plain in October.
Dog-strangling Vine, Vincetoxicum rossicum, spreads relentlessly where introduced in southern Ontario. I painted it in Spencerville, Ontario, and Fred wrote a "Non-Fibre-Values" article about the experience of finding it there. He has plotted our observations of the limits of its spread here over a google maps background, and you can see that since we first saw the species here in 2005, it has spread from about 200m to about 1 kilometre, or about 100 m per year.
Dear patrons and supporters,
The originals of the Frontenac Arch series including this painting are showing in a special exhibition at Grace Hall, Sydenham, Ontario, opening on 1 February and closing on 29 April. Everyone is invited to the next public reception and talk (April date to be announced).