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Restoring our Grandest Tree

A hundred years ago, majestic American elms lined the streets of our towns and canopied the commons. The Great Hurricane of 1938 decimated them. Then elm bark beetles, feasting on the wounded and rotting bark, proliferated -- carrying the spores of a fungus that had recently been introduced to North America by infected logs shipped from Europe: Dutch elm disease (DED).

Today only a few old elms remain. They survive either because dedicated tree care specialists remove diseased parts and inject the trees regularly with systemic fungicides (a time-consuming process) ... or because a tree is standing alone, isolated from infection via beetles or via the natural root grafts elms make with each other.

Other elm species are more resistant to DED and can reach the same dimensions -- 100 feet tall, 65 wide at the top -- but they don’t have the characteristic graceful, tapered vase shape of _Ulmus americana_. However, breeding programs have now resulted in true American elms that are well worth planting.

The Middlesex Conservation District this year will offer a limited number of perhaps the best variety, ‘Valley Forge,’ at their sale on April 22-24. (Pre-orders are due March 25; call (978) 692-9395 for a catalog or see <>.) These trees come from Acton grower Bruce Carley.

They prefer good moisture, but tolerate some drought -- as well as some salt and soil compaction. Could I replace our dead maple with one of these? It’s 13 feet from the street, and 17 from the house. My main concern is whether an elm would get enough soil water in this constrained space. I could enrich the soil in a big hole when I plant it, but when the tree gets big it will have to rely on the native subsoil -- pure sand here.

I also have to consider the power lines across the street. Eventually it would tower over them, but on the way I don’t want to have to butcher it.

Finally, can I handle the training? All elms need pruning when young, to develop a strong single trunk -- and ‘Valley Forge’ has one additional requirement that’s a little odd. Although when mature it grows straight and tall to the spreading top, the very young sapling has a tendency to curl over toward the ground, in what Carley calls a “whip” shape. I would need to stake as well as prune it for four or five years, until it gets past that.

Photo by C.H. Clark - The old elm in the photo — well over twice the height of the telephone pole a few feet from it — stands in majestic isolation at the intersection of Route 119 and West Meadow Road, in West Townsend. This tree is ten feet from a busy road. Note the low branching of the trunk: early pruning, preventing that, could have improved the appearance.

Text and photo © Copyright 2005 Catherine Holmes Clark

Published in the six Nashoba Publications papers on Friday, 21 January 2005

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