Bringing Back the Local Elms

Posted on 08 December 2010

Heller_Jefferson Elm Tree Planting_3114

By Annette Hinkle

Early last Saturday morning, Mac Griswold of the Sag Harbor Tree Fund and Lee Foster, treasurer of the Hampton Library, met behind the newly renovated library in Bridgehampton to welcome the arrival of its newest residents — two Ulmus americana “Jefferson” trees.

The young trees will join a majestic old Norway maple on the property as part of the library’s permanent landscape and patrons looking out the large window along the back of the building will now be glimpsing a unique bit of this country’s arbor history — as well as its future.

With it’s massive size and beautiful arching canopy of leaves that offer cooling shade on even the hottest of days, the mighty Ulmus americana, or American elm as it is commonly known, was a species that once graced the streets of small towns from coast to coast.

“When the beautification movement started across North America in the 1880s, they picked the elm,” says Griswold. “It was cheap, hardy and they grow like crazy.”

But in the early 1930s, Dutch elm disease, a fungus carried by the elm bark beetle, arrived in Cleveland aboard a shipment of logs from France. Because American elms had been planted in such large numbers, the disease spread quickly and within decades, the American elm was largely a memory.

While there are disease resistant elm cultivars with names like Athena, Liberty and Princeton on the scene (many of them living quite happily in Sag Harbor), the story of the Jefferson is unique.

“Many of the cultivars are very good looking, but in the view of experts, this may be the best looking and most true to type,” explains Griswold.

A few years ago, plant pathologist Dr. Jim Sherald of the National Park Service noticed that one particular American elm growing on Jefferson Drive on the National Mall in Washington DC seemed to leaf out earlier in spring than others, and held it’s leaves much longer in the fall. So Dr. Sherald took a clipping of the tree and propagated it — and he discovered that it was resistant to Dutch elm disease.

From that tree, the Jefferson cultivar was created and in 2007, the Sag Harbor Tree Fund, whose goal is to diversify the village’s tree stock so that it is not susceptible to a single tree disease, obtained 20 of the small trees from a grower in the Midwest and sold them for $600 each as part of a fundraiser. The only caveat was that the delicate small trees had to spend the next few years under the watchful eyes of a local nursery.

“They were less than four feet tall and as big around as a little finger,” recalls Griswold.

“We took them to Bob Strubel at Stony Hill Nursery in Amagansett who mulched them, irrigated them, fed them, put a fence around them and tended them.”

Of the 20 trees, 12 survived and the Tree Fund will report back to the National Park Service about their success rate with the new cultivar. The two Jefferson elms being planted at the Bridgehampton library are the first to leave the nursery, and one of them was donated by Lewis B. Cullman of the Cullman Foundation, which started a nationwide chess program for disadvantaged children.

“His wife, Dorothy [who died in 2009], was a big supporter of the Tree Fund, and she was the one who bought the tree, but Lewis donated it to remember his wife’s interest,” explains Griswold. “I love the idea that this great supporter of education for kids ended up with a tree at the Bridgehampton Library.”

“We were so excited by the prospect and the premise,” adds Foster. “we’re delighted and elated at the opportunity to put these trees in at the library. These trees have meaning.”

In spring, two Jefferson elms will be planted by the East Hampton L.V.I.S., and two more are reserved for Sag Harbor’s Main Street and will be planted by the Tree Fund when space becomes available. The other young trees will be planted on private properties in and around Sag Harbor.

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