Tree Talk

The majestic elm

The majestic elm

The majestic elm

Turn uphill on East 36th Avenue off East Madison Street. This month you’ll find yourself looking up through a black filagree of graceful tree limbs and branches — elm trees in their winter nudity.

Come summer, this structure will leaf out, becoming a canopy of green, gently filtering sunlight, casting a dapple of shadows on the pavement below. Now close to a century old, these majestic trees belong to the genus Ulmus. The plants closest to Madison Street are English Elms (Ulmus minor), further up they are American Elms (Ulmus americana).

All together, there are more than 100 elms in Washington and Madison Parks. Fortunately for us, ours have survived the dreaded Dutch elm disease, a micro fungus dispersed by bark beetles. In a matter of a few years, Dutch elm disease turned romantically shaded streets all over North America into barren, sun-scorched byways.

And, while the disease has been spotted on this side of the Cascades, it appears not to have taken hold. Theories differ as to why, but one is that our cool summers and mild wet winters are not hospitable to the carrier beetle.

Taken virtue by virtue, elms seem to be less than desirable trees. They are shallow-rooted. It is hard to garden beneath them. The bark is rough and dull gray. Their oval, sawtoothed, dark green leaves are somewhat roughly textured.

Fall color is, for the most part, unimpressive, but the leaf drop is heavy. But then, just look down a street flanked by mature elms, gracefully arching over to meet in the middle and the overall effect is nothing short of rhapsodic. Even standing alone (and you’ll see a number spotted around our neighborhood) the tree has a stature, imposing in its size and dignity. They can reach 180 feet in height with a trunk circumference exceeding 12 feet.

The British and Americans have long cherished elms for their beauty, the shade they provide, as well as for their resistance to rot when saturated, making the hollowed-out trunks, in centuries past, excellent pipes to carry water.

Artists have painted elms, woodworkers have painstakingly dried the wood and fashioned it into furniture, bonsai aficionados have lovingly tended the dwarfed trees, and poets have celebrated them, as this stanza from Oscar Wilde’s Symphony in Yellow attests:

The yellow leaves begin to fade

And flutter from the temple elms

and at my feet the pale green Thames

Lies like a rod of rippled jade.

If you have space in your garden for a tree to grow to great size, you’ll find elms which have been genetically engineered to resist Dutch elm disease. The British led the charge to save elms through selective breeding. But, given the fact that the disease appears not to have taken hold here, I’d not be timid about transplanting a seedling of one of our mature plants in my garden. Elms are not fussy about soil. Water plants during our summer drought for their first three years. Elms are a bit awkward looking between seedling stage and maturity — as it is with teenagers.

Once up, you’ll cool yourself under them in summer, enjoying the rustle of their foliage, and find their stark beauty standing against a gray winter sky, soothing and inspiring.