Restoring American Elms

Home & Family, Hometown Heroes, Living Green, People
on January 21, 2001

When poet Joyce Kilmer penned the words about never having seen a poem as lovely as a tree, he may have been thinking of the American elm, prized for its height, shade, and graceful, arching vase-like shape.

Once the undisputed ruler of Main streets across America, the American elm was decimated by Dutch Elm Disease (DED), so-called because its believed the elm bark beetle which carried the fungus that began attacking the tree in the 1930s entered this country from the Netherlands. Whatever the beetles origin, the results were devastatingand undoing this disaster has been the 30-year quest of John Hansel.

From the 1930s through the 1960s, some 100 million elms were lost in America, both to the disease and a then-prevailing scorched-earth policy of tree removal to keep the disease from spreading. Streets from Maine to the Dakotas were stripped of the soaring canopies of trees that gave them their charm.

The tree never died entirely, however.

First, some resistant elms managed to survive the fungus. Second, groups of concerned citizens and scientists began working to save the elm. One such organization is the nonprofit Elm Research Institute (ERI), now based in Westmoreland, N.H. It was founded in 1967 by Hansel.

Hansels passion for the tree has deep roots in the imposing stand of elms at his grandparents house in New Jersey. Those trees were later destroyed, as were the elms at the house he moved into as a newlywedseeing them go, he recalls, was heart-wrenching.

That experience spurred him into thinking of another way to grapple with the disease; a long-term approach to the problem, instead of cut and burn, he says.

Today, the institute is engaged in a two-pronged effort: maintenance of surviving elms through application of a specially developed elm fungicide, and dissemination of the Liberty elm, a disease-resistant strain resulting from years of genetic research and cross-pollination of hardier parent trees.

The Liberty elm was introduced in 1983, and since then approximately 250,000 saplings have been cloned by leaf cuttings and released by ERI. Some 50,000 elms, in various stages of maturity, are nurtured on-site before they are sent out into the world. To date, the loss rate of Liberty elms to DED has been less than 10 percent.

The key, Hansel says, is finding ways to manage the disease; prolonging the trees life rather than curing it. The sad fact is elms will never again flourish in the numbers they did; damage done by the disease and the decades-long cut and burn policy was too great. But its possible, says Hansel, to maintain and restore pockets of elms through volunteer effort.

For example, bringing back the elms along U.S. Route 1, the historic highway stretching from Florida to Maine. It was once a virtual, 2,200-mile avenue of elm trees. ERI has worked with such volunteer organizations as the Boy and Girl Scouts and local rotary clubs to bring elms into smaller communities. Its involved with elm restoration at Harvard, Yale, Dartmouth, and Princeton. Liberty elms have been planted at the base of the Statue of Liberty and in front of the capitol in Washington D.C.

I like to see small towns putting in trees along Main Street, Hansel declares. Nothing can change the character of a town faster than putting in a tree.

In the twin towns of Damariscotta and Newcastle, Maine, some 39 mature elms have been restored. Merle Parise, a forester who was involved with the local Rotary effort to plant the Liberty elms more than 10 years ago, says we thought we could recover some of the aesthetic aspect that the town had back in the 1950s. The majority of the elms are doing well, he says, and are starting to throw shade and fill out.

The main element making the Liberty elm a success is an attachment to the American elm of old. Call it the nostalgia factormemories of expansively shaded streets, simpler times, and children at play. Yes, says Hansel, were trying to maintain peoples memories. We want to maintain a bridge to the past. In the meantime, whether we have Main Street or not, we have enough elms resembling their forbears to create that intergenerational link.