Elms stage a comeback in Wyoming

By Jennifer Frazer
Cheyenne, WY (August 20, 2007)- The elm is back. After decades of loss to Dutch elm disease, new hybrids and disease-resistant true American elms are being planted again, and Cheyenne residents need look no further than Old Happy Jack Road or McAllister Lane to see them.

This spring, the Cheyenne Department of Urban Forestry planted hybrid elms on Old Happy Jack Road near its intersection with Westland Road, and along McAllister Lane and Merritt Road near Storey Boulevard. And some Cheyenne residents need look no further than their own backyard. At the last two state Arbor Day celebrations in Cheyenne, the Wyoming State Forestry Division distributed sapling hybrid elms. “I’ve heard some reports back on those little trees,” Hughes said, “and they’re doing pretty good.”
American elms were legendary for their stately arching vase shape that, when planted along city streets, created an outdoor cathedral. But they were decimated by Dutch elm disease during the middle of the 20th century. The disease was called Dutch because the fungus that caused the disease was first isolated there, but it seems to have originated somewhere in Asia. The disease was spread by bark beetles that carried the fungus from tree to tree.
But the fruit of many efforts to create resistant hybrids of American elm and Japanese elm, and to find Dutch elm disease-resistant 100 percent American elms are finally becoming available. Many such elms have been planted in Wyoming and along the Front Range in the past five to 10 years, particularly the hybrid Accolade.
Cheyenne Forestry decided to plant two resistant hybrid elms- Accolade and Discovery- to promote diversity in the urban forest, said Randy Overstreet, assistant director of Cheyenne Urban Forestry. Diversity helps protect against mass die-offs, and because they have strong wood and grow quickly. “We’re trying to just see how well they do,” he said.
If other Wyoming communities are any indication, they seem likely to do well. Accolade elms in Medicine Bow and Douglas are growing well, said Mark Hughes, community forestry coordinator with the Wyoming State Forestry Division. Hybrid elms were first planted in Wyoming about 10 years ago, he said, with Powell and Gillette among the first communities to try them. But most plantings have been made in the last five years, he said – including even Wamsutter, in the Red Desert.
Accolade is thriving, Hughes said. “That particular hybrid has been planted and is doing well,” he said, “not only in adapting to poor soils and short growing conditions, but it is (also) fast growing.” The new elms do well in tough urban conditions, he said, because like elms of old, they are adapted to poor soils and urban life.
Still, elms are harder to find in the West than in their native territory back East. Wholesalers have them, but local retail nurseries may not. Hughes suggested interested homeowners check with their local nurseries before they place their orders for next spring’s trees to see if they might be able to include elms in the order. Elms that are hardy to USDA Hardiness Zone 4 should work in Laramie County, he said. Princeton is one such unhybridized elm- having grown well as far north as North Dakota- but so are many hybrids, he said.
Still, Shane Smith, director of the Cheyenne Botanic Gardens, said that, though good trees, elms can never achieve their iconic arching canopy in Cheyenne’s climate. The native cottonwood, despite its sometimes annoying habits, is the only tree he has seen that can achieve that in Cheyenne’s harsh high-plains environment.
“I still personally think nothing is out there that fills the niche the cottonwood filled in our street treescape,” he said. “There’s all these controversies about the cottonwood: it drops wood, it gets disease, it’s short-lived. I contend it’s like a cranky old uncle you just have to get used to and love. There’s nothing that takes the place of the cottonwood in terms of stature, including elm.”
Related Resources:
Wyoming Tribune-Eagle
Westfall Weekly News
Elm Watch
My Elm Story