The Quest to Restore American Elms

The Wallace Elm in Colebrook, NH, harvested in 2017. This elm is the only survivor from a row of elms that lined the street in front the Wallace Farm, owned and operated by the Wallace family since 1785. Princeton elm in foreground. Photo © Gus Goodwin / The Nature Conservancy

The quest to restore the American elm has been underway for more than half a century. Today, with help from The Nature Conservancy’s Christian Marks, success is closer than ever—which is good news for our floodplain forests, as well as our urban communities.

On a humid day in mid-June, Jessica Colby is hunched over a collection of bright green stems, each one waving a leaf or two, each one a tiny banner of hope. It’s almost noon, and the temperatures in the greenhouses at the University of Massachusetts in Amherst are climbing. Colby pushes her hair off her damp brow and, wielding a small blade, gently scrapes the outer layer from the stem she is holding, before dipping it in rooting powder and adding it to the lineup of cuttings anchored before her in a moistened block of foam. The leafy stems march in straight rows across the table, like a band of miniature soldiers fighting for a cause.

Colby and her fellow interns, Izzy Bazluke and Lisette Stone, are, in fact, the latest recruits in what has been a long battle to bring back one of America’s most iconic trees, Ulmus americana. Their fearless leader, Christian Marks, a floodplain ecologist with The Nature Conservancy’s Connecticut River Program, has spent more than a decade tackling floodplain restoration in the Northeast, with a special focus on the American elm. Along the way, he’s developed an eye for what he calls survivor trees—like the two on Elwell Island in Northampton, Massachusetts, where Colby’s stems were harvested. “It’s sort of an obsession with me now,” he says. “I’m always watching, always looking.” As he drives New England’s winding roads, Marks peers into the forests, past the shadows, looking for the elm’s distinctive vase-shaped form, rising above the canopy. These massive trees—often 100 feet tall and more than 100 years old—stand alone in the forest now, surrounded by smaller dead and dying elms, reminders of another time.

Loss of an Icon
The tragedy that befell one of the country’s most magnificent trees began nearly a century ago. First described in the Netherlands in 1919, the Dutch elm fungus is carried by the European elm bark beetle, which crossed the Atlantic in 1930 in a shipment of logs purchased by an Ohio furniture maker. Before long, Dutch elm disease (Ophiostoma ulmi) was sweeping across much of the eastern United States. One after another, the giant trees were infected—and then swiftly cut down. Their famously arched silhouettes, which once soared in shady cathedrals of intertwining branches along countless community main streets, vanished, leaving behind barren stretches of pavement and neighborhoods stripped of beloved trees that had stood for generations. By the 1980s, millions of elms had been lost. The devastation continued along the region’s riverbanks, where the elm had been an anchor species in the floodplain forests, providing critical habitat for wildlife and protecting human communities from rising waters during severe storms.

Today, most of us have never stood beneath one of these iconic trees. Perhaps our grandparents remember them. Or maybe we’ve visited New York’s Central Park or the National Mall in Washington, DC, where fungicide treatments and generous endowments have helped to preserve a few remaining noble specimens. But for most of us, the giant elm is the stuff of legend, a lost wonder of the natural world. And while young elms persist along our riverbanks, almost none survive long enough to reach the canopy. The ancient tree has vanished from the forest, too.

Read the rest of this story at Cool Green Science, the conservation science blog of The Nature Conservancy.