Disease-resistant elm makes bid for a comeback

May 26, 2007|By Rona Kobell | Rona Kobell,Sun reporter

The tree doesn't look so special, what with its spindly trunk and saw-tooth leaves. Leaning in its enormous planter, next to four others priced between $140 and $230, the once-glorious species waits for someone to enter this suburban Home Depot and remember.

The American elm, a tree once so ubiquitous in the United States that it lined city streets from small-town Pennsylvania to Washington's Pennsylvania Avenue, is striving to make a comeback. More than 40 years after Dutch elm disease wiped out most of the country's stately trees, America's largest nursery retailer is stocking the saplings for people to buy and plant in their backyards.

It's a strange chapter in the life of a tree as American as Norman Rockwell and older than the U.S. Constitution. A hundred years ago, when elms made strong, 80-foot tall canopies over busy boulevards, nobody could have predicted that the trees would one day be competing with petunias and staple guns for the attention of busy customers.

But those who loved the elm are hoping its arrival at Home Depot - courtesy of a Georgia nursery owner who has cultivated a disease-resistant variety - marks a sort of homecoming.

"Where I grew up, in Tacoma Park, we had one at my house, and so did my father," said Gary Mangum, owner of Bell Nurseries, a Burtonsville distributor that has provided Home Depot with 1,000 elms to sell at its 93 area stores. "They were on all of the streets of Washington, and I remember seeing them all go away. The disease just killed more and more trees until, literally, none remained."

Some elms survived, particularly if they were isolated. Baltimore has a few along Gwynns Falls Parkway, on Keswick Avenue and in Druid Hill Park. New York's Central Park hung on to its elms, and many backyards here and there have an old tree.

Throughout history, elms have been prized for both their beauty and their hardiness. They could tolerate the belching pollution of industrializing cities as well as the searing heat of the country.

But once the elm bark beetle entered the United States in the 1920s, it introduced a fungus that basically starved the trees. Beginning in Ohio, the disease reached Maryland in the early 1930s. By the 1970s, it had spread throughout the country. About 100 million trees died.

Concerns about the effect of invasive species remain today. This winter, Maryland cut down more than 25,000 ash trees in Prince George's County to stop the spread of the emerald ash borer, a wood-boring insect that was illegally shipped here by a Michigan nurseryman in 2003.

Americans of a certain age remember the devastation of the elm, when the leaves of the once-robust trees slowly wilted, curled and turned yellow. If caught early enough, the tree could be pruned and saved. Sometimes, a worker labeled the tree with a tag that said "DED," to show the tree would soon be cut down.

Roger Holloway was living in a small Canadian town when he and his friend rode bikes one day to the trees in front of their elementary school. The disease had struck: all that remained was a pile of firewood.

"We made a fort, and we said, `Why?'" Halloway recalled. "It was like our national tree. There's an Elm Street in every town."

He eventually moved to Atlanta, where his family has been in the nursery business for five generations. He began paying close attention to studies the National Arboretum was conducting on different varieties of elm to find one that was most resistant.

A few years ago, Holloway decided that the Princeton elm would be his tree. It had lined the streets of that New Jersey town for nearly 80 years, and it was beautiful as well as resistant to disease.

Holloway took cuttings from those original Princeton elms and cultivated them. He began selling the elms through his mail-order catalogs. About two years ago, his elms were chosen to line the block of Pennsylvania Avenue in front of the White House.

But if the American elm was going to take hold again, it needed to be in front of less-famous residences, too. So Holloway turned to his Atlanta neighbors, Home Depot. The chain is now trying to sell about 12,000 trees, each wrapped with a tag that reads, "The return of the American Elm."

The trees haven't exactly been flying off the shelves in Maryland. Only about 200 of the trees have sold.

"They don't move real fast," said Chris Beadles, who works at the Home Depot in Bel Air and still had at least one 8-foot tall, $230 elm tree in stock last week. "There hasn't been a huge reaction. I don't have a ton of people asking for them."

As he watched customers walk by the elm at the Ellicott City store last week, Bell Nursery area manager John Guion confessed that Americans might not be ready to welcome back the tree.

"It's beautiful, I think, but people are still leery," he said. "When you hear `elm,' what do you think of? Dutch elm disease."

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