Saturday, May 9, 2020

A tale of two elms

For many years, I would admire this massive American elm, Ulmus americana, on my trips to southern Ohio lands via State Route 104. It had the classic elm vase shape, and an enormous canopy spread. Then, about three years ago the tree began to show signs of being infected with Dutch elm disease. It succumbed quickly and its skeleton is rapidly disintegrating. I finally forced myself to stop and document its demise today. It sits near the southwest corner of the Ross County fairgrounds, not far north of Chillicothe.

Dutch elm disease is a virulent fungus that probably is indigenous to Asia. It somehow got to our shores in the early 20th century and quickly laid waste to our American elms. These stately trees used to be commonly used as street trees, forming overarching leafy canopies that shaded streets and such situations were apparently quite spectacular. Behemoths would have been quite common in wild landscapes as well.

Today, American elm is still very common, but generally only as saplings and small trees. Once they get to a certain size, the fungus attacks and takes them out. Gargantuan specimens such as the tree above are decidedly rare these days, and over the years I have watched many such isolated plants succumb to the Dutch elm disease.

Fortunately, about 15 miles up the road in Pickaway County is a survivor and I stopped to pay respects today. It, too, is isolated out in a field and the Dutch elm disease has not yet managed to get to it. I rue the day when I pass by and notice dead and dying branches - near certain signs that the fungus has gained a beachhead.

But maybe this amazing tree will be spared, who knows. It certainly looks grand now, and from what I can tell, healthy as a horse. Even though it's pretty far removed from other trees, I'd wager there are Baltimore orioles preparing to nest in it. Nearly every big elm like this that I've seen has its resident orioles. Back in the day, the colorful blackbirds were strongly tied to elms, and still are whenever they can find one.

Elms also host a massive assemblage of specialized moth larvae such as the amazing double-toothed prominent, Nerice bidentata. Its caterpillar specializes on elm foliage and the caterpillar's back is scalloped in such a way that it mirrors the serrations of the elm leaves.

Next time you're driving on State Route 104 in Pickaway County, watch for this behemoth on the east side of the road. It's 1.7 miles south of State Route 56. The tree even shows up readily on Google Earth!


Rosalyn Rinehart said...

Elm trees in my yard,here in Logan County, have been long gone. Sad that Norway spruces and blue spruces are are also going that route. Most sad,is my favorite tree, concolor white fir,20 some years old starting to show brown needles at bottom!! Am finding out they do not like Ohio weather either. Not sure what to do to try saving it.

Vireo said...

Very informative, Jim. I have a Russian elm in my patch which seems to be immune to the attack of the Dutch elm disease.

Unknown said...

There's a magnificent Elm in the neighborhood that I grew up in. It's on the west side of Cbus on Wrexham Ave. and for all I know, remains unknown to science and lovers of trees.
Here it is:,-83.0519796,3a,75y,244.23h,114.04t/data=!3m7!1e1!3m5!1s1R9Qy_PPJ5SAGiO1J6RQbA!2e0!!7i16384!8i8192?hl=en

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