Tuesday, July 08, 2014

Requiem for an Elm

The lovely, spreading American elm at the corner of Harrison St and Hamilton Ave. has finally succumbed to Dutch elm disease. Not that many people will have noticed. Thousands of cars pass through this busy intersection every day, their drivers seeing only a blur of green. And there are many trees in the neighborhood that even those of us who walk will find conspicuous only in their absence, when we encounter a stump and a large gap in the canopy and wonder what was there.

This elm is one of the trees I noticed, so well matched to the space it was given, its long limbs spreading the gift of shade. And though I grieve its passing, it has lived a longer life than any American elm could be expected to live. Coming to New Jersey from Michigan and North Carolina, I had largely conceded the elm to fringe status, its glorious, towering vase-like form living only in memory. But in Princeton, American elms are more than a memory. They may sometimes be downed by the disease, but are not out. Nine years ago, the famous elm in Princeton Cemetery finally succumbed, but not before making the front page of the New York Times and spawning a generation of disease resistant elms, some of which were chosen to grace Pennsylvania Avenue in Washington, D.C.

By chance, I happened to be walking by the elm at Harrison and Hamilton recently when a man was standing beneath it with a clipboard. It was Arborist Joe Christopher, who oversees treecare at the housing development there. He said the tree has to come down, and recalled stories of how, when Dutch Elm disease swept across America, chain saws could be heard all day.

We agreed that Princeton is on the cusp of a similar era. Christopher predicts "a decade of mayhem", beginning when the emerald ash borer sweeps into Princeton as it has all over the midwest and now in the east, killing any ash tree that hasn't been inoculated against it. Over the years, Princetonians have rallied to protect this or that beloved tree from being taken down by developers. But there's a much bigger battle going on, one that has to be fought by government agencies, regulators and inspectors, to protect America from the radical change that comes when a pest like emerald ash borer is introduced.

Other tree species are also threatened. Thousand cankers disease, a major threat to black walnuts, was found recently in Bucks County. The Asian longhorned beetle, another accidentally import that threatens many hardwood species, particularly maples, has been found again on Long Island, and is proving hard to eradicate in Massachusetts.

We're in for a rough patch with our trees, and all the myriad kinds of insects and other wildlife that depend upon them, which is why the loss of our elm at the corner is by comparison a positive story. It lived a good and fairly long life, despite considerable odds. Efforts are underway in town to bring back the American chestnut and the butternut. Ash may still persist as small individuals in the woods after the emerald ash borer sweeps through. But the beauty and diversity that was once ours for free is now having to be worked at. What we're losing, species by species, is that easy grandeur that has long defined America.


  1. It is not at all certain that Dutch Elm Disease happened to this tree. Something has harmed it for sure--possibly the same invisible something that hurt my nearby willow tree, which shows similar symptoms (i.e., sparse leaves). Dutch Elm manifests differently that this, normally. This could well be the function of harm done by a harmful pesticide in runoff, which has happened a few times in this neighborhood in recent years. Arborists should not remove this tree yet; it might recover next year. But even if it dies, Dutch Elm should be confirmed by a biologist before just assuming that is what it is.

  2. The trees around the elm are not showing symptoms, which makes pesticide runoff seem less likely. An elm in my neighbor's yard loses some leaves in the summer, but maintains enough to keep going. So I know what you mean about a tree showing symptoms and then being able to rebound. But I looked at the elm down at the corner again today, and see that less than 5 percent of the leaves are still green. Here's a link to a number of different diseases that affect elms: http://www.extension.umn.edu/garden/diagnose/plant/deciduous/elm/leavesbrown.html.

  3. I see that is really is dead. I believe that pesticides can hit trees selectively. I'm sad to see it go. And maybe I'm "in denial" because I don't want it to be Dutch Elm. I would like to know the cause, though, because of our several elm trees. Not sure if we should worry or not.

  4. How about this for a theory: A tree that's fighting off a disease could be more affected by this or that lawncare chemical than other trees. Given the increased number of pathogens and destructive insects that trees must now contend with, growing conditions that contribute to health become all the more important. If an American elm or pin oak can have a good and fairly long life, even if eventually succumbing to a disease, that's better than the expected fate of ash trees. Even the healthiest ash trees are expected to quickly succumb to Emerald Ash Borer once it reaches Princeton, unless treated regularly with insecticide.