State of the Elms -August 2007

The comeback of the magnificent American Elm

by: Lucy Apthorp Leske

photography by: Nicole Harnishfeger

Seventy-five years ago, Dutch elm disease arrived in the U.S. with devastating consequences. A native citizen adopted by 18th-century American colonists as a symbol of liberty and planted thereafter from coast to coast in a nearly unbroken line, the American elm was practically wiped out in a 20th century debacle almost identical to the plague that killed off the American chestnut. But strangely, the elm did not disappear entirely from the American consciousness or town square. Unlike the chestnut, some elms managed to survive the epidemic that swept the country before World War II and appear to be carrying on. In a few pockets in isolated locations, the American elm is alive and well and even making a comeback. Nantucket is one of those places.

In his fine, well-researched book, “Republic of Shade: New England and the American Elm” (Yale University Press, 2003), author Thomas J. Campanella documents the rise and fall of the American elm both in our landscapes and the collective American psyche. Happily thriving in the primeval North American forests when Europeans first arrived, the elm had long been spared slashing and burning by native Americans for a variety of reasons, most of them related to its botanical and horticultural traits.

A long-lived deciduous hardwood tree, the American elm (Ulmus americanus) preferred as one of its native habitats the wet bottomlands of natural river valleys, locations that native populations avoided when choosing spots to grow crops. At maturity, elms arch skyward, with few lateral branches casting the kind of dense shade farmers hate, so it was possible to leave them in place along field edges without interfering with crops. As a result, when settlers arrived, some of the oldest, largest and most magnificent trees in the unspoiled landscape were American elms. These trees’ Gothic arching forms supported the roof of the natural world itself. They were paeans to God’s work and captured settlers’ imaginations.

Not unfamiliar to Europeans, the American elm had many relatives both in Europe and elsewhere, including the English (U. procera), Scotch (U. glabra), Dutch (U. hollandica), and smooth leaf elms (U. carpinifolia), all of which had been widely domesticated throughout Europe for many years. All bore the characteristic serrated and toothed leaves, wide-spreading branches, and open center that made them suitable as cultivated shade trees. None, however, bore the graceful vase shape of the American elm.

Another interesting horticultural trait of the elm served to ensure its role as America’s greatest shade tree. It turns out that its wood was virtually useless for anything settlers needed. As Campanella writes, “...elm wood, tough and fibrous, was no friend of the carpenter. It took forever to dry, and its elongated cellular structure made planing difficult.” Although useful for some purposes, it had no unique use and so was considered “junk wood.” It was simply not cut down or cleared and often left in place as a boundary marker. The American elm became America’s shade tree by default; it was the only one left standing.

That the elm became the country’s greatest street tree was not an accident, however. Its features and growth habit fit the bill perfectly and were gradually recognized as valuable. One has only to look around Nantucket to see why. Dale Gary, Nantucket’s town arborist, would argue that Nantucket has the best collection of mature elms in the country. He should know; he and his crew have been taking care of them for nearly 10 years. Nantucket currently has approximately 300 living elm trees of all ages, from recently-planted to centenarians, lining its streets and lanes, most of them clustered in town and officially known as “town trees” because they either lie on town property or have been maintained by the town for more than three years. The elms lining either side of Milk Street just west of the Main Street Civil War monument exemplify the arching growth, fountains of cascading leaves and light- dappled shade that caused the elm to grow into the nation’s most popular shade tree by the beginning of the 20th century. The giant elm on the corner of Sparks and Atlantic avenues next to the Nantucket High School, one of Nantucket’s oldest and largest trees, is both typical and remarkable for its vigor.

Lucy Apthorp Leske is an associate editor of Nantucket Today. She writes a weekly column, “Gardening by the Sea,” for The Inquirer and Mirror, Nantucket’s newspaper since 1821.

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