May 30, 2018

Reviving the Noble Elm

UMass Amherst students bring back the Massachusetts state tree

It takes the mind of an urban forester to envision how a seed the size of a pinky nail will grow into a towering elm tree.

“That’s the future, right there,” says Justin Hailey ’18S, ’20, as he gently pokes an elm seed into a seed tray in the potting classroom of the UMass Amherst College of Natural Sciences Research and Education Greenhouse.

Hailey is one of 16 arboriculture/urban forestry students in the community forestry course taught by Richard Harper, Extension assistant professor in the department of environmental conservation. On an April afternoon, his class planted six different varieties of American elm seeds provided by the USDA Forest Service lab in Delaware, Ohio.

Harper’s class is taking part in a UMass field trial of Dutch elm disease-resistant trees. American elms, with their graceful, vase-like shape and rapid growth, were once ubiquitous and beloved street trees, but Dutch Elm disease notoriously wiped out most of them by the mid-20th century. When they died, they left tall voids in the landscape of the commonwealth and left Massachusetts with far fewer specimens of its official state tree.

This healthy, mature elm, located across the street from the Newman Center, is the largest documented American elm on the UMass Amherst campus.

Nicholas Brazee, UMass Extension plant pathologist, spoke to the urban forestry class about the American elm. Dutch Elm disease is caused by a fungus, he explained. Despite its name, the disease is Asiatic in origin; scientists from the Netherlands identified it.

Lorré Mitchell ’18S, ’20, who plans to work in urban forestry, says she enjoys hands-on learning in the greenhouse. She traced a shallow grid, as if cutting brownies, in the planting medium to ensure that the elm seeds were evenly spaced. “I'm glad to play a part in bringing back such a cool, noble tree,” she says.

After planting 25 seeds in each tray and tagging the trays, the students carried them, bucket-brigade style, to the mist chamber of the CNS propagation greenhouse to germinate. Then they headed across campus to the Agricultural Learning Center, where Harper and Brazee have staked out a one-acre orchard.

Ankle-deep in black mud, students transplanted elms that had been growing in containers to the field. “You can be rough on the roots, but be tender with the tops when transplanting the trees,” advised Harper. “Elms are vigorous growers,” he noted, of the year-old elms, which were already four or five feet tall. “In two or three years, these will really be cranking.”

It will be many years, however, before future urban foresters and tree lovers alike can see whether some of the elms growing at UMass will have a winning combination of graceful form and disease resistance. Only then can we declare that the official Massachusetts state tree has been restored.

“With trees it takes time,” says Harper. “And a lot of patience.”