My earliest memory of an American Elm happened at age four, when I noticed something unusual under one of my favorite trees.
As I would later learn, an arborist was injecting medicinal serum into the tree and carefully metering its flow.
When I asked my mother why this was necessary, she told me the tree had Dutch Elm Disease—a fungus spread by bark beetles. I asked my mother if the tree would live and, with gentle sadness in her voice, she replied “I don’t think so.”
I remember being sad as well, because I love trees and this was a beautiful, tall American Elm. The very idea that it might disappear was, to my four year old soul, a tragedy—one of my first encounters with death. But I had no idea this was just part of a much greater tragedy that nearly eradicated this magnificent icon in urban and small-town America, as Dutch Elm Disease destroyed street after street and park after park of magnificent American Elms.
A healthy American Elm can live for hundreds of years and grow more than a hundred feet high—with a magnificent, fanned-out canopy that defines “shade tree” and will always be part of my memories of childhood before air-conditioning, when I largely lived outdoors on summer days. I remember asking my mother about a painting by my great-grandmother, which included a tree with a fan-shaped canopy, and Mom told me this was an Elm, which greatly elevated the species in my Tree Pantheon.
At least part of the secret of the Elm’s beautiful shape and towering stature has to do with the structure of its xylem—the internal cells that make wood woody. Basically, the grain of Elm xylem is twisty, and the wood itself surprisingly springy.
This is also why you may not often see furniture made from Elm wood. A British company named Ercol won critical praise for its chairs, dressers and tables inspired by the unusual grain of Elm. The “Ercol Originals” are crafted from Elm and Beech, and were designed in the mid-1900s by the founder, Lucian Ercolani. Embued with simple lines that recall Shaker craftsmanship, they have achieved the status of classics in the great tradition of British cabinetry. I love the economy of form that Ercolani brought to such staples as the Windsor Chair, making it extraordinarily beautiful, even –or, to my mind, especially!–when turned upside-down, so that one may enjoy its ingenious joinery.
Watching my Dad splitting firewood, I remember watching him wrestle his wedge out of a log. When I asked him what the problem was, he explained this was Elm, and that splitting Elm can be like chopping chewing gum. (Why my Dad would even attempt this archetypically difficult thing is a story for another day.)
Sadly, the xylem’s structure is also one reason why Dutch Elm Disease is so devastating. Xylem tubes constitut the circulatory system of a tree, conducting water and nutrients from the roots up to the highest twigs. But Elm xylem becomes easily clogged by the biochemicals produced by this tree in its usually-futile attempt to cure the illness.
Today, the relatively few American Elms that survive on the continent are either blessed by geography—such as those that live in British Columbia and other areas not yet plagued by the fungus—or by genetics…or by skilled, unending care.
These last include the gorgeous American Elms cared for by the Scott Arboretum of Swarthmore College.
These stately, towering Elms take my breath away whenever I see them. Each is injected with a special, protective fungicide every year…and inspected continually for any sign if the disease, especially the tell-tale wilting of leaves called “flagging.” Any part of the tree exhibiting symptoms is carefully pruned away, and the exposed xylem is treated with a bleach solution to keep it fungus-free.
I hope I am correct in identifying the tree shown here as The Swartmore Class of 1875 Elm. As its name suggests. this magically-bent-and-curved specimen turned 135 years old In June 2019. Thanks to its astonishing xylem, the branches are fantastically labyrinthine, seemingly supported by thin air.
Incidentally, Dutch Elm Disease did not originate in the Netherlands, taking its name from the fact that seminal research on the illness was performed by Dutch scientists in the 1920s. The deadly fungus may actually have originated in Asia.
I had a tough time choosing my favorite photograph of this gorgeous tree that I love so much, and it came down to the two above and below. Which do YOU prefer? Please tell me with your LIKE and COMMENT—and thanks so much, dear follower!