Forest Preserve District of Cook County, Illinois
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The American Elm
Nature Bulletin No. 279-A   October 21, 1967
Forest Preserve District of Cook County
Richard B. Ogilvie, President
Roland F. Eisenbeis, Supt. of Conservation

For three centuries, the stately graceful American Elm -- "the tree that like a fountain rises" -- has been our favorite shade tree, and around it have grown some of our finest traditions. The early colonists found huge patriarchs, which reminded them of the magnificent English Elms, and they planted seedlings to shade their homes and village commons. Today, innumerable New England roadways are lined with giant elms, their great arching limbs forming canopies like a cathedral roof. When the pioneers moved westward, they found this tree everywhere in the bottomlands and on low fertile hills. NOW, throughout the Middle West -- even in prosaic prairie towns -- streets and public buildings are shaded and given character by beautiful elms.

It is no wonder, then, that we are dismayed by the menace of two diseases which have killed most of the elms in many towns and cities from the Atlantic coast to Colorado, and which are rapidly spreading. One is the Dutch elm disease, a fungus carried by a bark beetle accidentally brought into this country from Europe. It attacks all species of elms and will kill all species. The other disease is elm phloem necrosis, a virus spread by a small leaf hopper. It attacks and kills the American Elm, the Winged Elm, and two cultivated varieties of the American elm: the Moline Elm and the Vase Elm. There is no cure for either disease. Our only hope is that scientists will find more satisfactory means to control the insects which transmit them.

Six elms are native to eastern United States but, while none are native west of the Rockies, they grow well in all western states. The largest, most widely distributed and most important, both as a shade tree and for lumber, is the American or White Elm. Typically, the main trunk divides into large limbs which sweep upward and outward like a vase but some trees, grown in the open, acquire an oak-like shape and others, with graceful drooping branchlets, resemble a weeping willow .

In early spring, before the leaves appear, the tree is covered with clusters of little light-green cup-like flowers with red stamens and purple anthers, which make it seem to have a lavender glow. Like all elms, its flat seed is surrounded by a papery wing. In early autumn, the pointed leaves -- deeply veined, with saw-tooth edges -- turn golden yellow, then brown, and quickly fall.

The trunk is covered with thick ashy-gray bark divided into broad ridges. In forested river bottoms, straight trunks of 30 to 60 feet are found. Trees from 2 to 4 feet in diameter and from 80 to 100 feet high are common, but elms as much as 11 feet in diameter and from 120 to 140 feet tall have been known. Although it has some close competitors, the Wethersfield Elm in Connecticut, planted in 1758, is reputed to be the largest living elm in America -- 30 feet and 3 inches in circumference at 4-1/2 feet above the ground, 97 feet high, with a spread of 147 feet.

The wood of the American elm is hard, tough and difficult to split but it is apt to twist and warp unless carefully handled and seasoned, and it is not durable in the soil. It is used for barrel staves and hoops, veneer for crates and fruit baskets, cheap furniture, saddle trees and wagon wheel hubs. The early settlers soaked the bark in water and pulled off long flat strips for chair seats. The Indians used the inner bark for utensils, made rope from the fibrous portions, and boiled it to get a remedy for stomach ache.

Next week we will talk about the other "ellums".

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