COLUMN: Resilient, majestic elm trees deserve respect
Due to disease, elm trees are not as common as they used to be, but they are still found in this area, the columnist explains
Look at that stately elm tree that you’ve seen once on every drive or walk through the countryside.
Not so much these days. However, with a little careful observation you can still glimpse one growing on the limestone plains outside the Carden Way, or perhaps a relic within a fence line of a farm in the parish of Oro-Medonte.
This species of tree has been severely stricken by a deadly disease and few remain, evoking memories of tree-lined country lanes with swaying oriole nests. I have looked at many old photographs of rural settings and from the 1900’s to around 1950’s each picture shows a stately elm tree standing proudly on the property.
For those of us who have noticed our gray hair turning to an off-white, we can no doubt recall these images. Are those trees gone forever? Will the tall, vase-shaped silhouette of a magnificent elm ever be seen in the landscape again?
The answers lie in an interesting look at the natural history of this native hardwood tree. While elms are usually associated with roadsides or fence lines, they do quite well in moist soil. Many an elm has been found in the depths of a balsam fir swamp.
The indigenous peoples, who were the first human inhabitants of this area, used the bark of the elm tree to make the outer layer of their longhouses. Because the tree grew in a humid environment, the cellular structure of the inner bark made it slightly easier to pull from the trunk. Not waterproof or flexible like white birch bark, but tough and, when applied like overlapping shingles, a damn good protection.
Due to the imposing figure of a tall and spreading elm, certain trees were considered “Council Trees”, a place where generations of people could gather, interact, reflect and plan.
Such a tree once stood in Medonte Township, affectionately known as Elsie. She stood tall and oversaw the arrival of Europeans, the establishment of a lumber mill at their base, and later the return of a surrounding forest.
There is more than one species of elm in the area, including the slippery elm (which was also used medicinally by early residents), the rock elm, and the white elm (more commonly referred to as the American elm). Many hybrid varieties of elms have been bred around the world, giving rise to names such as Chinese elm and Dutch elm. (Did you wince a little when you read the last one?)
Dutch elm disease has killed more than 70 percent of elm trees in North America.
The sad tale begins in Holland with the development of a new landscaping hybrid elm, aptly named Dutch elm. Since it was occasionally attacked by a fungus carried by a small beetle, much research has gone into finding a cure.
Meanwhile, a furniture factory in Ohio had imported a shipment of Dutch elm and unknowingly brought the fungus to North America. This fungus (later determined to be of three types of fungi) spun its spores into the wind and quickly landed on the rough and ridged bark of the American elm. By the 1960s it had infiltrated most of southern Ontario.
Here in North America we already had a wood-boring beetle that liked elm, but the trees seemed able to hold their own against the tunnels interfering with their sapwood. About the same time the fungus arrived here, a European wood-boring beetle also arrived, which also liked elms. The increased proliferation of holes in the bark facilitated the penetration of fungal spores into the tree.
Although the fungus was new, the trees quickly adapted to defend themselves. However, their defense methods turned against them.
In the sapwood of trees are open vessels called the xylem and phloem, which function like our arteries and veins, carrying water up and sugar-rich sap down. The tree found that if the xylem and phloem vessels could become clogged, the fungus could not migrate through the tree.
Great idea, but you know, when the vessels are clogged, how does the tree get water where it needs it? And so we witness a great idea that is not well thought out. The American elms suffocated and starved. Too bad.
So where is the elm today? Although the fungal spores are carried everywhere by the wind, they need holes made by the beetles to land in. Although the beetles can fly, they prefer to crawl, which limits their range; The roadsides were great as they just followed the line down the ditch.
Today, the American elm is still a part of most wetlands. Their salvation as a species lies in their youthful age, as the young trees’ bark is smooth and unattractive to both the beetle and the spores that roam about. Elms can start reproducing at a relatively young age, so new seeds are still being produced annually, resulting in proliferation of young elms scattered across the county.
But once they come of age and their bark begins to roughen, they tend to be doomed in their quest for glorious longevity.
As such, today’s giants tend to be solitary, as their loneliness thwarts their detection by the migratory beetles. Elm trees are known to reach a mature age of 200 or even 300 years. So if you do find one, give them some respect because they are indeed the last of their stately kind as Elsie once stood.