An Old, Sad Story

Ulmus americana, American elm. We all know it, we have all seen it, and most of you, in each of our four major regions could be living with some. I remember my front yard on 8th and Washington St. in Wilmette, IL. There was and still is an elm that shades the entire front as well as the neighbors front yard across the street. Lou Leggett, if you happen to read this would you swing by and give it a checkup for me, I will gladly pay you tomorrow for a checkup today!

Most of us are too well aware of what happened to this fabulous organism. Quickly, in the 1930’s, Dutch Elm Disease began killing thousands of elms across the United States. By the time we discovered how to handle the disease it had wiped out the majority of the original trees. The disease is carried by the American and European Elm Bark Beetle, which inoculates the elm by chewing into the tree’s tiny crotches introducing the fungus to the xylem. The tree reacts by closing off the infected area and at the same time chokes that part of its vascular system. The tree actually kills itself. Once this happens recovery is rare to non-existent. Today, successful treatment relies on the injection of a specific fungicide directly into the tree’s trunk, which stalls the introduced fungi when present. In colder northern climates, Chicago, Philadelphia and New York the treatment must be done every three years while in Washington D.C., every other year. KEY NOTE: Thou shalt only treat healthy trees. In some cases, the very initial stages of the disease have been stopped by injection but this is very rare, and not the prescribed treatment.

As always, other helpful preventative health care treatments are watering during times of drought, mulching or fertilizing where appropriate, and the removal of deadwood during the dormant season. This information, as much as we want to get it to you, is simply a preface to an old sad story. 

I have the honor of sitting on the Tree Advisory Board for two towns near Washington, D.C. One of these small country towns has 6 or 8 very large majestic old elms that shade many avenues and add an ambiance that only large old shade trees can give. Last year I recommended that if no American elm protection program was in process, it would be positive to put all the large elms on a semi-annual injection cycle. Everyone agreed, private donations were made, budget funds became available and along with assistance from The Care of Trees plans were made to inject all the elms in June of 2001.

One of the elms in the plan sat in the front yard of the Town’s Police Department. This tree was the picture of small town America. The tree sat over 3 or 4 businesses, shaded street and sidewalks, has been the site of many lunch hours, chit-chat and maybe even a matrimonial proposal or two. This tree was first on the list as well as under the watchful eye of every citizen in town. I have a habit with my tree care to put a blue ribbon, when possible, around each tree to be injected for ease of location. I arrived one quiet morning in the last week in May to flag the Police Department tree. As I turned the corner, one block from my destination, I pressed on the brake and just sat in the middle of the street staring at my elm in utter horror and disbelief. I mean those words in every connotation they can muster. When an elm contracts the disease, the disease is manifested by what is called “flagging”. The leaves on a limb or section of the tree will turn from green to yellow, then to brown and generally remain on the tree. I was greeted that morning by a giant elm containing two, six-inch diameter leads in the crown of the tree, one yellow and the other already wilted brown. One week earlier I had chatted with the proprietor of one of the business establishments that shared space with our giant tree. We both stood in awe of the tree and she said what an honor it was to work within the boughs of this matriarch.

It is now September and our elm is dead. The Police Department now owns a skeleton of a once incredible organism, an organism admired by each person that shared her space. I parked near the tree the other day and watched more than one person walk underneath her once bountiful bouquet. Each person stopped and looked up, shook their head and kept on going. I feel sad. I feel like I let the town down, we were so close to doing the right thing and I was so proud of the town’s citizens for banning together to do that thing right. I feel as though this town has lost a friend. I have to give a speech to my peers next month entitled, “The Power of Trees”. I think I will talk about this tree and remind everyone to find out what is important to all of their clients, and act accordingly. This is the message I wish to send to YOU, our precious clients at The Care of Trees. 

YOU and your trees are the very life-blood of our company. Without you and your trees we sell insurance, tap on computers as I do now, fly airplanes, or, well you know what I mean. Do you have an elm we missed on our last visit, a piece of deadwood that bothers you, or wonder if it may be time for that next fertilization program? Make sure we continue to ask the right questions and then after our visit, tell us how we did. Take us to task every time we see you and be sure we ask you all the right questions. Do you have an American elm tree? Will you describe its importance and the role it plays in your landscape? Our Mid-Atlantic region graces us with myriad concerns which may become uncomfortable and hard to manage. Understanding where all of us fit into the equation is sometimes difficult. It is something that we will work out together. 

This coming winter is a great time to get together within your landscape and take time to stop, look, and listen. We need to hear what you have to say. It’s our job to listen and until we do, we’re not quite there. Can’t wait to see you this winter.

Copyright 2005 by Peter Deahl. All rights reserved.

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