Tree Tuesday / Le mardi des arbres: The American elm (Ulmus americana, Orme d’Amérique)

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Many thanks for the warm reception of last week’s inaugural column. One thing I forgot to mention was that the language of the column will alternate from week to week. Alors, la semaine prochaine, cherchez Le mardi des arbres.

Tree Tuesday reader “Sid” wondered about the fate of the elm in Montreal. Was the iconic parasol-shaped tree of farmers’ fields and grand city streets wiped out by Dutch elm disease? As you will conclude from this photo taken at the corner of McTavish and Dr. Penfield streets: No, not completely. The elm – the American elm that is, for there are numerous other species – is still alive and (sometimes) well and living in Montreal.

The difference between the American elm now and in its heyday between 1880 and 1960 is that the tree has been relegated to a largely marginal status. Why? Because Dutch elm disease, a fungus spread by a beetle, only attacks elms of a certain height. This meant that the 35,000 elms that once created a canopy over such streets as Sherbrooke and St-Hubert have been reduced to a mere 500; In the 1950s and ‘60s, the great trees – some 40 metres tall — had to be felled so that the gradually dying branches not pose a public danger.

In non-managed landscapes, however, the disease-struck elm has the opportunity to regenerate from its roots, sometimes in a disease-resistant form. Even if the new trunks are not disease resistant, the tree usually has time to reach reproductive maturity and send its wind-transported samaras (seeds) out into the world. Given that the elm is a hardy, drought- and salt-resistant type of tree, there are numerous elm seedlings, saplings and young trees growing in Montreal’s marginal landscapes: alongside railway tracks, in vacant lots, down alleys. If you glance in an alley and see a tree with a rounded shape and weeping branches composed of dark green leaves that are markedly toothed, oval shaped and 10 – 15 cm long, chances are its an American elm.

While the City of Montreal no longer plants the American elm, numerous disease resistant elm hybrids are being tried such as the “Urban’” and the “Pioneer” elms that were planted recently on the revamped section of St. Lawrence Boulevard. The city used to plant the Siberian elm, a disease resistant species, but not longer does due to the tree’s fragility. It too has the classic weeping form though its leaves are smaller and paler than the American elm. A fine specimen may be seen at the corner of St-Hubert and Napoleon streets.

Finally, here are a few places where you may still find the American elm at its full height and splendour:

1) Jarry Park – look for the two tallest trees

2) Montreal Botanical Gardens

3) Parc du Boisé des Pères (corner of Dickson and Rosemont)

4) Christophe-Colombe, north of Metropolitain Highway, alongside the bike path: a rare grove of American elms

5) Near the Bordeau prison on rue Zotique Racicot, between rues Jean Tournois and Edmond Valade

Thanks to Pierre Francoeur and Lynda Génois, horticulturalists in the respective arrondissements: Ahuntsic-Cartierville and Le Plateau Mont-Royal.

8 comments

  1. Thank you for letting my curious and fertile mind provide an ideas for this already-excellent series on our urban trees, and also for doing a truly splendid job of it too.

    I’m going out to hug one of those elm trees right now.

    I’m a big fan of the many (but not that many!) giant old trees in Montreal. (I hug these too.) For instance there is a grove of giants in Parc Lafontaine, and here and there throughout the city one will find a real giant. I always wondered what is the biggest or oldest tree in the city, and yes I know these are not the same thing, and no I am not suggesting this as a subject for spacing, but I do think this sort of thing would be a good subject for a wiki.

    you can see a video of the parc lafontaine giants here:
    http://video.google.ca/videoplay?docid=2083568649195542314

  2. An urban tree wiki would be a great thing. I’ve always been curious about the different kinds of trees found in the city and Bronwyn is the first person who has really been able to sate my curiosity.

    I would have loved to see Montreal when tall elms lined its streets. They gave the city such an elegant, almost regal atmosphere.

  3. …for a large concentration of different types of trees, head down to Place Riopelle.

  4. As anyone who has been to Winnipeg can attest, elm-lined streets are beautiful. Long ago, when every other North American city gave up the fight against Dutch elm disease, Winnipeggers fought on and continue to fight.

    A wonderful article on the trees is here: http://www.elmcare.com/features/mar01-1.htm

    Thanks for Tree Tuesday, I’m a huge fan.

  5. Another thing, the article mentions Montreal several times and talks about how Canadian researchers may have made a breakthrough on a vaccine for the disease — something that we may one day see elm-lined streets again.

  6. Thanks for something new to look forward to each week!

    A friend of mine in the Town of Mount Royal had an item (w/ pix) in her blog just a few years ago about an elm across the street from her house finally dying and having to be removed; a late survivor on the island. I sympathized particular keenly because of my own experience with them:

    In my family’s place in south-eastern New England (’twas my grandfather’s), the grounds were dominated by elms in my childhood; the biggest one, over the driveway courtyard, shading it nearly completely even though on the north side of it, is clearly visible in an aerial photo taken in 1965. (One taken high enough that you can see cities 80 miles away on the horizon.) They all succumbed by the early 80s.

    When I first visited Nantucket Island I was startled to see that the town’s streets were still lined with elms. Bit of a time warp.

    The tallest tree on our land is now a weeping willow which is nearly 5 stories tall (judging from the 3-story house), anchored against the occasional hurricane winds by its flanking maples’ intertwined roots. (The coastal area all around there is notable, btw, for the large number of multi-trunked mature trees dating to the 1938 hurricane: stumps that re-sprouted.)

    Since then a number of others grew up, probably from seedlings, similar to what’s mentioned in the post, and rather rapidly too, but all show signs of dying now.

    In place of the driveway elm now stands a rapidly maturing tulip (yellow poplar) tree my dad planted in the late 70s or early 80s. With global warming it stands a good chance of prospering for a long time, being more suited to what was a mid-Atlantic climate than the traditional New England one. (I’ve seen lots of huge specimens in New Jersey, for instance.) Down the street stands another specimen, one of the tallest trees in the neighbourhood.

    It makes me wonder if replanting strategies will keep up with the now inevitable northward march of climate zones. Is this on the radar for Montreal’s arborists?

    With that in mind, I’ve noticed that in a little park near me (Parc Mahatma Gandhi) is a stand of catalpa trees, a south-eastern US species I first learned about when I researched an odd looking tree behind my cousin’s apartment in Brooklyn, NY. They seem to be doing well despite our winters. Again, makes me curious about what arboreal strategy the park managers might have.

    Parc Lafontaine I love especially for its big trees; it first reminded me of some of the better NYC parks in that aspect.

    I’d love to see info on guided tours of the city’s trees; an excuse to dig out my book of North American trees.

  7. Nice post!

    Anyone knows a garden store or nursery where I can get a disease resistant American Elm in the Mtl area (southshore)? They are hard to find.

  8. A followup to the elm saga: there are two mature elms in Parc Kent here in CDN; yesterday eve I noticed for the first time that a plaque about them was added just this past June. I don’t know which species of elm they are, but they show early signs of disease stress, something with which I became quite familiar on my family’s place.. Pix here (phone pix taken by lamplight, sorry):

    Plaque:

    http://www.box.net/shared/static/xpcxo9skgx.jpg

    Elm # 1:

    http://www.box.net/shared/static/rs39dt5qb8.jpg

    http://www.box.net/shared/static/k99oe8sj59.jpg

    http://www.box.net/shared/static/4at3cizrrc.jpg

    Elm #2:

    http://www.box.net/shared/static/2b839ci3nb.jpg

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