They’re Putting The “Elm” Back In “Elm City”

by Thomas MacMillan | May 27, 2009 11:32 AM | | Comments (7)

TM_052309_017.jpgDigging in a front yard on Bishop Street, Debbie Edwards and Rosita Murphy came away with five promising young specimens, furthering their mission to restore the meaning of New Haven’s nickname.

Those young specimens are American elm seedlings, a surprisingly rare find in the city that bears their name.

New Haven was dubbed the Elm City when the first public tree planting program made it a home for many mighty American elms. Dutch Elm Disease later decimated the elm population in the mid-20th century.

But a number of American elms in the city mysteriously have continued to thrive, even without pesticide treatment to prevent the attack of the beetles that carry Dutch Elm Disease. Two of these trees are on Bishop Street in the East Rock neighborhood.

It’s their progeny that Edwards and Murphy were recruiting on a recent morning.

The Bishop Street elms seem to have a natural resistance to Dutch Elm Disease. Edwards and Murphy hope that trees grown from their seeds will have a similar hardiness. The two women are members of the Garden Club of New Haven (GCNH), which is embarking on a multi-year experimental project to propagate the American elm once again in the Elm City.

TM_052309_005.jpg“We’re looking for the jagged leaves,” said Edwards (pictured), the president of the GCNH, as she scanned the front yard at 110 Bishop St. for the young American Elm’s telltale leaves.

She doesn’t usually go into people’s front yards, Edwards said. But there was obviously an overhaul of an overgrown garden underway at 110 Bishop. “We saw this and said, ‘We’ll help you weed,’” she said.

TM_052309_003.jpgIn addition to five seedlings, Edwards and Murphy collected a bag of American elm seeds. The club aims to collect 50 to 60 seedlings and germinate the seeds to grow more, which will eventually be planted around the city. The young elms will need to be cared for in pots by adoptive parents for at least three years before they are strong enough to be planted directly in the ground.

Once they’re ready to go, the GCNH plans to give the seedlings to organizations and local schools to plant. “We think it’s going to be important for kids, to help them understand how important urban forests are,” Edwards said.

The American elm tree has a storied past in New Haven, Edwards later explained. She said the first American elm was planted on the New Haven Green in the early 1600s by a poor parishioner who wanted to contribute to one of the churches there. The motivation for the current project is therefore both historical and horticultural, Edwards said. “It’s the history of it in New Haven. It’s a sad thing that it’s fallen so.”

“It’s an important project for the city… to reconnect with being the Elm City,” Edwards said.

The project is experimental, however; success is not guaranteed. No one knows why there are a few American elms that seem to be naturally resistant to Dutch Elm disease. “That’s the mystery,” Edwards said.

It’s also unknown if seeds from these trees will be similarly resistant. The matter has never been studied, Edwards said.

The Garden Club’s project is based on another project that it completed 25 years ago, when it planted more than 100 trees on the New Haven Green. The GCNH is working on a three-pronged continuation of its commitment to trees in New Haven, of which American elm propagation is one piece. They club is also working with local filmmaker Karyl Evans to create a documentary about the history of the elm in New Haven, and is designing a self-guided walking tour of the Green.

When the GCNH decided to take on the task of elm propagation, the club contacted Sandra Anagnostakis, an agricultural scientist at the Connecticut Agricultural Experiment Station on Huntington Street in New Haven. Anagnostakis is specialist in diseases of forest trees.

“I think it’s an excellent project,” said Anagnostakis. She has been helping the club to find seedlings. The project is especially valuable for American elms, because, having four chromosomes, they cannot be cross-bred for disease resistance with other elms, which have only two chromosomes, she said. “This is a fabulous chance.”

It will be important to plant a number of the seedlings close to each other so that the trees can pollinate each other and create another generation of disease-resistant trees, Anagnostakis said. “If 10 of them survive near each other, that will be a very good sign that the there is some resistance there.”

“No one has found a really resistant specimen of the American elm,” Anagnostakis said. The Garden Club’s project offers an opportunity to find such a specimen. “Nothing ventured, nothing gained,” she said.

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Posted by: norton street | May 27, 2009 12:32 PM

this is great, this city is well-known for its tree lined narrow streets. i hope this works out because it would be nice to have a city that has a nickname it can live up to. if the city ever gets around to cutting down the dead maple next to my driveway, i would love to plant an elm there.

nhi, could you follow up and let us know if this works out.

Posted by: Becky | May 27, 2009 12:58 PM

Can you include contact information for those of us willing to adopt a tree. Don't know how great of a green thumb I'd have with an elm sapling but I'm willing to give it a try!

Posted by: steve ross, arbor amore | May 27, 2009 1:05 PM

This makes me very happy. Thank you Debbie Edwards and Rosita Murphy!

Posted by: robn | May 27, 2009 8:00 PM

New Haven needs more good solid citizens like Debbie Edwards and Rosita Murphy .

Posted by: Wicked Lester | May 28, 2009 12:17 AM

First it was seed bombs, and now this! Spring has sprung in the Elm City and it is a beautiful thing.

Posted by: remy zimmermann | May 29, 2009 2:30 PM

A wonderful project by a fine organization. Thanks so much to the Garden Club of New Haven.

Posted by: New Havenite | June 1, 2009 6:43 PM

I think I saw an elm on Elm St near Dwight the other day if someone wants to look for saplings over there.

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