The Elm Tree
Riverdave's journal
This essay appeared in the Durham Herald-Sun on 10/23/1995

As autumn is upon us and trees come into their annual crowning display of colors, my meditations often bring me to ponder which are my favorite trees. Both individuals and nations have evolved traditions and lore a about trees that carry special cultural and spiritual significance. The Maya of Central America revere the Kapok tree and for peoples of East Africa it is the Baobab.

But the tree that has acquired the most auspicious standing in Eastern United States history must be the American elm. In a survey of historic trees, the elm came out on top, two to one, over the two great oaks: the live oak and the white oak. For residents of the Triangle, the elm is a significant member of the approximately one hundred species of trees found in our area.

In the wild, the elm is found primarily in rich bottomland forests along creeks and rivers in the eastern and central states from Newfoundland to Florida. As I waft the Eno River, I will often find the elm growing right out of the bank where it soaks up the sun from the forest gap over the water and rightfully earns the designation of River Elm.

The tree is easily spotted from a distance. Often with an enlarged buttress, the trunk begins to fork into a giant slingshot and continues to divide into forks all the way to the end of its smallest limbs. This is known as dichotomous branching and is characteristic of ancient and primitive plant growth that took place as trees first evolved on the planet many millions of years ago.

As elm branches fork, they arch and droop forming a vase-like fountain of vegetation. This profile is easily recognized against the backdrop of other forest trees that have more vertical postures. The fountain appearance made the tree a natural choice to adorn our streets and parks and it became the favorite ornamental tree in the 19th century.

For many Native American tribes, the elm was the tree of great councils and oaths, and later the meeting place for treaties with the European Americans. Perhaps Native Americans were sensitive to a powerful force associated with the primitive structure of this beautiful tree. European colonists  continued the tradition, as George Washington took command of the Continental Army under an elm tree at Cambridge Commons. His diary shows that he searched the bottomland forests along the Potomac River for specimens of elms to transplant to his estate at Mt. Vernon. Four of those he planted by hand still stand today and Washington, D.C. is the most elm-planted of all our American cities.

The tree is one of the earliest to flower in our calendar year. In the Triangle, I find the elm second only to the slightly earlier blossoming red maple. Although not as conspicuous a flower as the maple, the elm's greenish flower clusters hang down on long drooping stalks in late February.

By March, wafer-like winged seeds known as samaras adorn the elm. In April its asymmetrical leaf is easily recognized with a base wider on one side of the midvein than the other. The elm may grow to a height of one hundred and twenty-five feet with a diameter of six feet. A fully leafed and  aged elm may contain as many as one million leaves which will turn a bright yellow in the coming weeks of autumn.

There were two divergent opinions about the economic value of elm wood itself. Many early settlers considered the elm a most useless piece of vegetation. It could not be used for firewood because it did not split well and was difficult to burn because it was full of water. It was not good for posts because it rotted quickly and was not ideal for lumber because it warped and twisted. It was even said to give buildings made from it an unpleasant odor!

But because the wood resisted splitting, it found use for such durable parts as wagon wheel hubs, barrel staves, chopping bowls and other kitchen utensils. The wood held nails and screws well and was therefore ideal for producing boxes and crates.

But this spiritually sensitive tree met a serious challenge in the present century. A fungus was accidentally introduced in 1930 that attacked the tree with what became known as Dutch Elm disease. The fungus was spread by both European and native American bark beetles. The disease initially broke out in Ohio. It had already been ravaging European elms for a number of years, and despite careful inspection, slipped into the United States through quarantine on logs of English Elm which were imported for veneer. Since that time, many an American elm has succumbed.

It is apparent in the North and Midwest that urban plantings of endless rows of elm trees created a perfect venue for the fungal disease to hop from one tree to the next with overwhelming speed and devastation. But In the South, elms were never quite the big hit that they were in the northern and midwestern parts of our country. There are still great stands of elms in Piedmont North Carolina, especially in their natural habitat along our creeks and rivers.

Discovering a prize elm in my hometown of Durham is always a delightful occasion to me. If I have a special concern or commitment to make, I go to the grand old elm by the river at West Point on the Eno Park.  Duke Homestead State Historic Site has a row of large elms.  Perhaps the secret of Washington Duke's brilliance was that he raised his family under the shade of his elm trees.  One of the loveliest elm trees that I recently discovered is located in Durham near the intersection of Bay Street and West Trinity Ave in downtown Durham's Bay-Hargrove Park.

Trees provide us with so many things - a restful green backdrop, shade, fruit to eat, wood to build with, fuel to burn, oxygen to breathe, habitat for wildlife and a magnificent display of colorful art in autumn to set aflame and embolden our senses. And no doubt there are even more vivid spiritual connections between humans and trees. If you have never experienced that connection, go talk to an elm tree, and tell 'em River Dave sent ya . . .
Photo by Riojosie: Riverdave teaches his grandson Owen, a Manhattan resident, how to love and respect a giant elm tree in Riverside Park