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Return of the Elms

Dutch elm disease devastated the iconic American elm. More fungus-tolerant strains could help bring it back.

by Reed Sparling
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On a fall Friday morning, a pickup truck arrived at Mawignack Preserve in Catskill with a long-anticipated cargo: 28 trees. For Scenic Hudson, which owns the preserve, and the Greene Land Trust, which manages it, the delivery and later planting of these trees mark another step in restoring the floodplain forest that once existed there.

A newly planted elm at Mawignack Preserve. (Photo: Dan Smith)

But the choice of tree also plays a role in reviving a species once as American as apple pie.

Fungus decimates “leafy cathedrals”

Search the words “Elm Street” and the name of any city or village in the Hudson Valley, and there’s a good bet a match will pop up. What do Elm Streets in our region have in common with their 30,000-plus counterparts across the U.S.? No elm trees, most likely.

An elm-lined street in St. Paul, Minn., before most of the trees were killed by
Dutch elm disease. (Photo: Joseph OBrien, USDA Forest Service, Bugwood.org)

For much of the 19th and early 20th centuries, Ulmus americana, the American elm, was the tree of choice for planting in parks and along municipal thoroughfares. Their height (80 feet) and the width of their branching canopy (often over 100 feet) led one writer to compare them to “great leafy high-arching cathedrals” that cast “a deep cool shade upon life’s turmoil.”

Crown symptoms of Dutch elm disease on a large street tree.
(Photo: Joseph OBrien, USDA Forest Service, Bugwood.org)

Sadly, beginning in 1930, American elms had turmoil of their own to contend with. That year in Cleveland, Ohio, Dutch elm disease struck its first victims. In the next few decades, it spread and spread and spread. In the 1970s alone, it caused the death of an estimated 77 million American elms, including many of those lining the Hudson Valley’s Elm streets.

“In my childhood I remember elm trees lining urban streets, but they were already dying and being cut down,” remembers Bob Knighton, president of the Greene Land Trust’s Board of Directors and a participant in the recent elm planting at Mawignack Preserve. “I recognized much later how their absence really changed the urban streetscape.”   

Portion of elm wood afflicted with Dutch elm disease showing galleries
created by the European elm bark beetle, which vectors the disease.
(Photo: William M. Brown Jr., Bugwood.org)

Caused by a fungus originating in Asia, Dutch elm disease killed off more than half of the elm trees in the Netherlands (hence its name) before “immigrating” to America in a shipment of logs. It infests trees in a couple of ways — by hitching a ride on one of 2 species of beetles that tunnel beneath their bark, or by spreading from the roots of one tree to another. The propensity for planting elms in long rows resulted in a chain reaction responsible for the demise of so many elm-lined lanes.

Elm trees killed along road. (Photo: Edward L. Barnard, Florida Department of Agriculture and Consumer Services, Bugwood.org)

However it gets into a tree, the fungus devours living tissue, causing branches and leaves to die. Many infected elms perish quickly, while others may hang on for a couple of years.

“Saving the last of something”

Since 2003, biologists with U.S. Forest Service and The Nature Conservancy have been spearheading the American Elm Restoration Project, working to create genetically diverse strains of American elm more tolerant of the fungus. The trees planted at Mawignack Preserve, which range from 2-4 years old and stand 2-4 feet tall, represent about half a dozen of these strains. In the future, Nature Conservancy researchers will monitor the trees’ progress, to see if any fare better than others. (None of the new strains have an absolute immunity to the disease.)

The 28 elms planted at Mawignack Preserve will help to restore the site’s historic floodplain forest. (Photo: Dan Smith)

Planting the 28 elms was no casual affair. “Just to have the site ready to have the most potential for survival took awhile,” Scenic Hudson Land Stewardship Coordinator Dan Smith says. What once was a forest at Mawignack had been farmed throughout the 19th and 20th centuries. More recently, invasive mugwort had overrun the fallow fields. Regular mowing over the last 2 years has kept that in check.

Last September, members of the Hudson Valley Corps of the Student Conservation Association spent 3 days building a fence to keep out deer and planting 150 trees — maples, dogwood, witch-hazel and other varieties. They left spaces in the emerging forest for the elms’ planned arrival, making sure that the new elms would be far enough apart to prevent the fungus, if it also arrives, from spreading via neighboring roots.

A 1968 survey of a floodplain forest near Mawignack Preserve indicated that American elms dominated the canopy. By the 1990s, most were gone. So planting these 28 trees represents a welcome comeback.

Data indicate that large numbers of elms once populated the forests around Mawignack Preserve. (Photo: Dan Smith)

“Planting elm trees as part of the reforestation project at Mawignack Preserve feels like we are beginning to come full circle to replace some of the natural beauty along Catskill Creek that Thomas Cole lamented losing to industry way back in 1841, long before anyone knew that disease would ravage the elms,” says Knighton.

“One of the things that really drew me to the field is the romantic notion of saving the last of something,” adds Smith. “There aren’t as many of those opportunities as you might think. So playing a small part in restoring American elms to the landscape is really exciting.”

More in this Series

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The photogenic sprawl of trees in their vibrant fall colors is arguably one of the Hudson Valley’s most defining features,...
The Hudson Valley is famous for its fall foliage, best seen across rolling hills, apple orchards, and riverside mountains. Everyone...
Among local trees that have captured the imagination, it’s hard to top the Balmville Tree. Walk, bike, or drive past...
The annual changing-leaf display along the Hudson River always boosts flagging spirits — and who couldn’t use a little pick-me-up...
Could drones play a role in halting climate change? A company in Canada thinks so. Toronto-based Flash Forest has proposed...

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Hudson Valley Viewfinder is a collaborative, community digital magazine sharing what inspires us about the beautiful Hudson Valley. We publish original stories and multimedia content about all things sustainable in the region along the Hudson River — including agriculture, science, wildlife, outdoor recreation, green transportation, environmental justice, and more.

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Our mission is to immerse you in the storied history, fresh happenings, and coming solutions for making the Hudson Valley greener and more livable long-term.

Viewfinder is published by Scenic Hudson, the celebrated nonprofit credited with launching the modern grassroots environmental movement in 1963. With over 25,000 passionate supporters, Scenic Hudson’s mission is to sustain and enhance the Hudson Valley’s inspirational beauty and health for generations to come. Viewfinder supports that mission, because the better people understand what makes this place special, the more they will invest in protecting it. 

Keep up with the latest stories by subscribing to Scenic Hudson’s monthly digital newsletter, and connect with us on social via Facebook, Instagram, Twitter, LinkedIn, and Threads.

Lynn Freehill-Maye
Managing Editor
editorial@scenichudson.org 

Riley Johndonnell
Director Creative Strategies & Communications
rjohndonnell@scenichudson.org

Lynn Freehill-Maye
Managing Editor
editorial@scenichudson.org 

Riley Johndonnell
Director Creative Strategies & Communications
rjohndonnell@scenichudson.org

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We’re always looking for ideas around our main topic areas of Climate Solutions, Land + Air + Water, Plants + Animals, History + Culture, Outdoors, and Community.
  • Journalists and writers who have deep familiarity with New York and the Hudson Valley, we’d love to have you contribute! Please do introduce yourself by email, sharing writing samples and any relevant pitches you may have.
  • Photographers and videographers, we’d love to hear from you and see what you do. Please send along a portfolio with images or footage that showcases your best and/or most relevant work, with an emphasis on anything captured outdoors. 
  • Illustrators, we commission artwork on the regular. Drop us a note with some of the beauty you’ve created.
  • Media Partners & Social Media Influencers, we welcome opportunities to team up on series and campaigns. Reach out with any background about yourselves and your ideas.
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  • We love to collaborate with media outlets, especially on episodic series (like these) of interest to our shared audiences. Past collaborations have included radio interviews, panel discussions and other events, original artwork, and e-blasts, all furthering the campaign’s excitement and reach. 
  • We also love to partner with other organizations whose missions align with Scenic Hudson’s. Feel free to reach out with some background on your group and its work.
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