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.