Will elm trees make their way back?

Can you help us solve the mystery of the St. Joe's elms?

Legend (and some undeniable paperwork) tell us that in 1991 Saint Joseph's College purchased a membership with the Elm Research Institute in Keene, N.H., and received 100 seedlings of the American Liberty elm variety. These elms are propagated from American elms that have shown a natural resistance to Dutch elm disease; they are not a new species or a variety of the Asian elm. According to records at the Elm Research Institute, Saint Joseph's College had attempted to get a local Boy Scout troop involved in planting the seedlings, but when that fell through, students from the environmental studies program "took it over and planted the seedlings on campus in a highly wooded area." Eventually some of the seedlings were planted in intervals along the roadway coming into campus.

Only two of the seedling trees are known to have survived. Both were moved twice during the construction of Alfond Hall, and a third one didn't survive the first transplant. I remember driving by them every day coming on campus and watching as the leaves got brown, and then holding my breath in the spring to see if new leaves would sprout. The survivors are now 10-15 feet tall and are planted at the side of Alfond Hall near its small handicapped parking area. However, 100 original seedlings is a lot of seedlings, and certainly not all were planted by the roadway. No one seems to remember the location of the original nursery or what happened to them. If you know anything about the elm seedlings, please be in touch. We'd like to solve the mystery!

There is one elm on campus that we haven't talked about. It stands out - and stands tall. An original and stately American elm measuring roughly 70 feet high anchors the back corner of Xavier Hall. Visible as you head to the dining hall or down the path to the lake, the elegant beauty is about 45 years old. No one knows when it first seeded or if it was planted by someone, but it doesn't show up in photographs of Xavier at the time of the property's sale to the Sisters of Mercy or in yearbooks of the late 1950s. Another elm mystery! It's nice to think it has watched over Saint Joseph's for the last several decades and kept pace as the college grew. In any case, the elm stands proud.

elm tree

One of two American Liberty elms on campus, which were developed through cross-pollination with American elms that have natural resistance to Dutch elm disease. The Liberty elm was named after the Liberty Tree, the Boston elm tree from which two effigies were hung in protest over the Stamp Act in 1765. It is available through the Elm Research Institute or similar organizations.

A lone majestic original near Xavier is one of the few remaining on campus

"A society grows great when old men plant trees in whose shade they know they shall never sit."
— Rudyard Kipling

One of my fondest memories of childhood is riding my horse or my bike along the roads of Windham, in the heat of the summer, and being able to stop under the graceful arch of an elm to rest in the shade. I especially remember observing an oriole nest that hung precariously from a branch 50 feet in the air over Ward Road. There was an elm tree outside my bedroom window and another in our backyard. My uncle's ?eld was full of the smaller "pasture elms" that still pop up in vacant fields for a few years before succumbing to disease and neglect.

elm tree

This stately American elm at the back of Xavier Hall is roughly 45 years old. Elms can live to be 200 years old or more, growing to 100 feet high with a 60-to-65 foot crown. An elm in Yarmouth, Maine, nicknamed Herbie, is thought to be the oldest living elm in the Northeast. It was planted in 1775.

Fifty years ago, southern Maine had thousands of American elms, even though Dutch elm disease had been spreading ruin to these beautiful trees across America since the 1930s. Nearly every farm had an elm near the house to cool it on muggy summer days, and college campuses across the country were graced with these tall trees that often reached up to 100 feet in height.

By the 1970s, more than 77 million elm trees across America had died. They were replaced (if they were replaced at all) with non-native species that were fast-growing and unattractive, or with maples. I have nothing against maples, and agree that in the fall they are the glory of New England; but for summer beauty, shade, and historic magnificence, they simply do not have the grace or grandeur of the American elm.

Julie Moore

Julie Moore ’04 admits to a passion for elm trees. Through writing this article, she managed to set in motion the donation and planting of an elm tree in the village center of Windham, just a quarter mile from where she grew up enjoying the shade of elm trees now gone from disease. She is shown here next to an original American elm that probably self-seeded on the slope behind Xavier Hall sometime in the 1960s. Does anyone remember its origins or early years?

Some towns in Maine have struggled mightily to save their elms, and through planning, spraying and pruning the dead wood have managed to save many. I myself have tried to encourage officials in my town of Windham to replant these graceful, magnificent trees that once lined the main streets (including Route 302) of almost every American small town and the parks of big cities.

Some nurseries across the country have tried to bring back the American elm by propagating seedlings from hardy native elms that appear to have a natural resistance to Dutch elm disease. One such group is the Elm Research Institute in Keene, N.H., which propagates fast-growing Liberty elm seedlings and donates a free tree for every 4-6 trees purchased (depending on tree size purchased). The free Liberty elms are presented to a town of the buyer's choice for planting on public property. Each tax-deductible gift helps the Elm Research Institute fulfill its mission to "re-elm" the streets of America. In addition, Wal*Mart has a program that donates elms to towns where the company does business. In fact, I have been successful in getting a tree for the town of Windham, which has been purchased by Wal*Mart and planted this summer on Windham Hill near where I grew up.

Throughout the country, the welcoming small-town atmosphere of 50 years ago is largely gone as more and more chain stores and malls appear on the landscape. The few remaining "ghosts" of the mighty elms that once graced our roadsides are a reminder of a gentler, slower time in our history.

If only we could go back. Perhaps, through replanting, we can.

Julie Moore '04, who grew up in nearby Windham, Maine, has been the executive secretary in the academic dean's office for 20 years. She has a passion for elms.