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Wintering With An American Elm

Every January, I seem to find myself standing at my back door gazing out into the garden and beyond. I catch myself having some of the same thoughts year after year. I wish I planted more pansies, I hope the squirrels don’t dig up all my tulip bulbs, or I wonder what new plants I will add to my garden this year?

There is a great big American elm growing in the cemetery behind my home. I can see it rising up from the ground and reaching for the distant sky. I have no idea how long it has been growing there, certainly for 75 years or more.

It is, unfortunately, one of the few remaining in our area of its size. Literature states that the American elm, Ulmus americana, can live up to 300 years if it is fortunate enough to be spared from the deadly Dutch elm disease. Maybe the isolation of being in the cemetery and having no other American elms planted around it has spared it so far. Dutch elm disease was first diagnosed in the 1930s in the United States, and a conservative projection is that more than 50% of the original population is gone, and more are still dying.

Disease-tolerant elms
Fortunately, with good research they have identified an American elm called Valley Forge that is showing the most tolerance to Dutch elm disease. It is so promising that it is being produced in nurseries and is available to us today. We highly recommend it for planting. A few other hybrid elms that are available that we also recommend planting are Pioneer, Accolade, and Homestead. These hybrid elms show characteristics that are very similar to our American elm, but in many cases they are smaller or narrower.

It is sad and difficult for me to accept that there is not a lot we can do for these huge, mature American elms once they have contracted the disease. The European bark beetle and the elm bark beetle are the main vectors of this fungal disease. They are more attracted to trees under stress than to healthy ones, so if you have an American elm, do everything you can to alleviate stress on the tree when possible. There are more preventive measures and treatments available today than ever before, and research continues to try to save those that remain.

Losing a beloved tree
What started me thinking about the possible death of my beloved American elm was a conversation I had with a client recently. We were discussing the declining health of her Japanese pieris, Pieris japonica. Two had been planted more than 50 years ago at the home she grew up in and still lives in today.

Plants do have a life expectancy and do not live forever. The American elm can live up to 300 years of age in the right location, but even in the best of situations it rarely makes it that long, Dutch elm disease or not. Fifty to 75 years for my client’s Japanese pieris seems incredibly reasonable to me. I have met gardeners who had rhododendrons that have lived close to 100 years.

The sugar maple planted in front of our house, we believe, was planted just after the house was built. That would make it at least 80 years old. It has started showing signs of age in the last few years. This is not uncommon for trees of this age that were planted in similar urban environments. We are taking good care of it, hoping to get as many years as possible of enjoying it before it will inevitably die of old age.

Wise plant choices
What is the lesson to be learned for 2007? Plants are a living, breathing, and fully functioning part of our environment to be cared for and protected. They do not live forever, even though they may outlive our existence with them.

Know your plants inside and out before planting them. Know their ultimate size and any potential for disease or insect injury. Be aware of any other factors that can compromise the overall health and longevity of your planting, such as intolerance to drought, flooding, or pollution. Then you can make a wise and successful choice for your garden that generations to come can also enjoy.

As I settle into winter and look out my back door, I am thinking of spring. I feel blessed to have this beautiful American elm in my view to enjoy. I can’t imagine a winter without it.

Have a gardening question?
Go online to www.KentuckyLiving.com, click on Home & Garden on the left, and then on “Ask The Gardener” link.

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