Monday, May 7, 2007

American Elm

Once the most common street tree in the northeastern United States, the American elm has become something of a rarity. This beloved native was almost wiped out by Dutch elm disease in the middle of the last century. One of the early victims of globalization, the elm was attacked by a foreign fungus: Dutch elm disease was carried to the U.S. by elm bark beetles in imported logs. The disease continues to destroy elms to this day. When you see a mature elm, it’s hard to know whether it has survived because it is disease-resistant or because it is lucky enough not to have been attacked.

An American elm is easily recognizable. Its doubly toothed leaves are unusual for being asymmetrical. The tree usually has a distinctive vase shape. The gentle undulation of its limbs as they reach for the sky gives the American elm a sinuous grace that is unmatched by any other tree. Those characteristics are exemplified by the elm at the Drake House Museum on West Front Street.

The American elm at the rear of 116 Watchung Avenue (visible from Parking Lot 6 on Second Street between Park and Watchung Avenues) was recently cited by the City as a specimen tree at the 2007 Arbor Day celebration. The tree measures 47 inches in diameter at breast height. I estimate its age at 100 years.

The two elms on Park Avenue near Muhlenberg Hospital (1267 and 1303 Park Avenue), have a more pronounced limb curvature than one thinks of as classic. When I drive by those elms in winter, their exaggerated curves against the sky always bring to mind dancing girls.

The best example of a local American elm that I know is in the 3800 block of Park Avenue in Edison. Its arching limbs reaching across the street are visible from a quarter mile in either direction. The elm is on the left side of the road when one is heading away from Plainfield.

Seeing this beautiful tree I understand very easily why people once planted elms to the point of overabundance. Sadly, the huge numbers of those elms and their close proximity to each other made it easy for Dutch elm disease to spread from one tree to the next. Michael Dirr, author of the plant bible known as the Manual of Woody Landscape Plants draws a lesson from the story of the elms: “The extensive use of one tree such as the American elm is an example of foolhardy landscaping. The tree is enormously ornamental and was overplanted. The diseases caught up with the tree and the results were disastrous. Unfortunately, people do not seem to learn by their mistakes and now Honeylocust, Bradford Pear, Green Ash, Red Maple, and Planetree are being used in wholesale fashion for cities, residences, and about everywhere. I strongly urge a diversified tree planting program encompassing many different species and cultivars.”

I have included photographs of every mature Plainfield elm that I know. I would be glad to hear about others. I am also on the lookout for dawn redwoods and for outstanding examples of white oaks and red maples (Acer rubrum).

Copyright Gregory Palermo

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