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Good news for the American elm... and for its fans

If, like me, you love trees, I have some good news for you. Then maybe some even better news.

But as rain inevitably precedes the sunshine, good news often comes out of bad. You might recall that, in a former column here, I passed on some sad news. In April, a famous and historic American elm tree finally had to be cut down.

It was the elm that had shaded the Princeton, NJ, cemetery for an estimated 278 years. The tree grew close by the grave of Aaron Burr and was a familiar sight to George Washington and other notables of the Revolutionary era. If you wish to read about this tree in greater detail you can find the columns archived at my Web site. Go to www.landsteward.org and scroll through the column titles under the Plant Man heading.

What made this particular tree so famous was its resistance to disease. When the infamous Dutch elm disease struck in the early 1930s, the result was the death of an estimated 77 million elm trees. But this tree, the Princeton elm, appeared to be unaffected by the devastating disease.

Cuttings from this “mother tree” were planted and they too were found to be resistant to Dutch elm disease. This disease-resistant strain has been carefully studied and developed, and 88 saplings were recently planted near the White House in Washington as an indication that American elms were back.

Then the sad note...

In April 2005, the grand old lady in the Princeton cemetery finally showed signs of succumbing to the fate she had resisted for so long and had to be cut down.

And now the good news. A disease-resistant American elm sapling, descended from the original mother tree, has been planted in the cemetery to carry on the tradition for what might be another 300 years.

There was a full account, with pictures published in Princeton’s local newspaper and you can read the story here: http://www.towntopics.com/jun2905/story3.html or click on a direct link when you find this column at my Web site.

So the sadness of losing a grand old tree is diminished by the knowledge that a healthy young tree has taken her place.

And now for the “better news” I mentioned earlier. Thanks to the dedication of some fine nurserymen and scientists, American elms are once again appearing, not just as part of experimental or civic projects like those in Princeton and Washington, but also in the regular landscapes and private gardens of homeowners.

A few years ago, that seemed to be no more than a dream for most amateur arborists, but for once it seems to be a dream that has come true. I have planted a number of these new “Princeton” American elms, and I am very impressed.

If you’re looking for some fast growing shade trees and you’d enjoy being party to the revival of an American classic, Princeton elms could be what you’re looking for. They’re very adaptable to a wide range of weather conditions too, unless you live at an exceedingly high altitude or in a tropical region. Bear in mind that they can easily reach 100 feet high and will grow at a rate of 3 to 6 feet per year.

Is the Princeton immune to Dutch elm disease? No elm is totally immune. However, the Princeton can tolerate and repel the fungus (Ophiostoma ulmi) without succumbing to the disease. In tests carried out over many years, the Princeton elm was found to have a survival rate of 95% from all landscape causes and scored highest for Dutch elm disease survival in controlled research carried out by the USDA Arboretum. You can’t get much better than that!

Good news indeed. If you’d like more information, including purchasing resources, feel free to drop me an e-mail. Say “Welcome home” to an American classic!

The Plant Man is here to help. Send questions about trees, shrubs and landscaping to [email protected] For resources and additional information, or to subscribe to Steve’s free e-mailed newsletter, go to www.landsteward.org