The Return of the Majestic Elm

By Bill Herrfeldt
Baltimore, MD (July 15, 2007)- They were a staple in the visual diet of most Americans. When you were growing up, if you had visited any of the thousands of towns and cities across the country, you saw majestic elms reaching for the sky, forming canopies of green that provided relief from the summer’s heat. The elm was an essential feature of America’s cultural landscape for more than a century, and gave its name to streets all across the nation. The elm became a defining element in the urban design of America-first in New England, and continuing westward throughout the U.S. Then disaster struck. Dutch elm disease arrived in Cleveland on a shipment of bark beetle-infested logs in 1930. Fungal spores on the beetles’ backs and legs spread the disease rapidly along the East Coast.


It advanced into New England where its spread was helped by a hurricane that tore through the region in 1938. Dutch elm disease quickly stripped the quaint villages and towns, leaving behind dead and damaged elm trees for the beetles to feed upon. In his book The Republic of Shade, historian Thomas J. Campanella calls the loss of the American elm “an environmental catastrophe unparalleled in American history.” “We have lost about 95%, or about 100 million of the country’s elm trees to the disease. And those aren’t forest trees, but just the trees in the landscape,” says Roger Holloway, owner of Riveredge Farms in Atlanta, Ga.
Elms on the upswing
But the elm tree hasn’t been consigned to the history books just yet. There is a groundswell of nostalgia over the elm tree which has encouraged scientists to find varieties that are resistant to Dutch elm disease. After much research, Holloway zeroed in on the Princeton variety, an American elm first chosen in the 1920s for its beauty and disease resistance by William Fleming, Jr., at the Princeton Nurseries in New Jersey. Today, you can see the magnificent stand of elms on Washington Road in Princeton. The Princeton elm is one of several types of American elms that have proven to be most resistant to disease.
“The nursery business is conservative and you’re going to have a wide variety of things to grow. However, over the past several years, I have focused on this particular tree,” Holloway says. “A lot of people have an emotional connection to these trees. They remember Elm Street,” he adds. How do we know this renewed interest in the elm is genuine and not just a passing fancy? “We’re shipping thousands and thousands of them all over the country. And the landscape architecture trade has caught on to the trend, and elms are being specified for many jobs,” Holloway says.
Returning America’s past beauty
The National Park Service in Washington, D.C., completed one such job in 2003. It chose Princeton Elms to be planted across from the White House on Pennsylvania Avenue. This tall, arching, and fast-growing elm made it the most logical choice.
Another example of the current excitement over the American elm is the work being done by the Casey Tree Foundation-better known as Casey Trees-whose mission is to restore the canopy provided by trees, many of which are elms, that have been lost in our nation’s capital. “We probably had 30,000 to 40,000 elm trees, mostly in the public spaces. That number is now about 8,500, and we are losing 250 or so every year to Dutch elm disease,” says Dan Smith, senior director of communications at Casey Trees. “We have a long way to go in meeting our goal, but we have managed to at least stem the loss of trees in the District,” Smith concludes.
Erickson Retirement Communities is also jumping on the American elm bandwagon. “We have been specifying hybrid elm trees at Fox Run and Sedgebrook [Erickson campuses in Michigan and Illinois]. These elms are hybrid crosses of Chinese and smoothleaf elm varieties,” says Ken Weikal, landscape architect and a consultant to Erickson. “The form is similar to the American elm, but a bit smaller and with a more interesting bark.”
For information on how to get involved with the restoration of our country’s tree population, contact the Alliance for Community Trees at www.actrees.org.
For the full article, visit the Erickson Tribune.