|A rare site: A huge and healthy American elm, growing on Wellington St., near Charlevoix, in Montreal's Pointe St-Charles borough. The tree is three times the height of this working class cottage of, roughly, the 1890s, and likely older. Note the jagged, asymmetrical, alternate leaves, typical of all elms. Illustrations: Charles L'Heureux|
Monday, September 19, 2011
island of trees: An elm that persists
Two images, both iconic of the Eastern North American countryside: The first is lone American elm, in perfect health, its gracefully ascending parasol of leaf-thick branches up high in a farmers’ sky. Think of that superb specimen growing by highway 417, south side, roughly two thirds of the way to Ottawa. The second is the same species, dead but still standing, the parasol gone, bleached silver over the decades since starved by Dutch Elm Disease.
We love the elm and hate the disease. I get more questions about the American elm than any other tree. “Are they still around?” being the most common. Yes, as a matter of fact and, at least until a certain age, thriving. Even – perhaps especially – in the city.
Peter Sijpkes knows this because almost every day for the 35 years he has lived in Pointe St-Charles, he has passed by one of the city’s oldest elms and the tree still appears to be in top health. Its mighty trunk, measuring roughly five metres and is three times the height of its host house. The tree, which is at least 150 years old, would have been a scrawny thing at the time, resembling all those wispy elms you see lining farmers’ drainage ditches, their silhouettes resembling the hairdo of Sideshow Bob, of Simpson’s fame, in various stages of dishevelment.
The street is not a tree-lined residential street, where, on occasion, one still finds old elms. Rather, it’s a stark stretch of Wellington Street, near Charlevoix, across the street from an ugly glass factory, which dominates the immediately vicinity with a 24-hour industrial hum. Marguerite Bourgeoys Park, to the east of the factory looks lovely with its green grass, old trees and sculptures but the noise repels would-be patrons. The 19th century houses too are attractive – the brick ones clearly working class, the stone ones once homes of notaries, doctors and the like – but you worry for the noise and incessant traffic and think: Thank God, the residents have this miraculous tree – the other dominant element - to both soften the hot, sharp edges of the street and factory parking lot, but also to provide shade, and sound to mask the hum.
Sijpkes, a retired professor of architecture, likens the tree to “half a Gothic cathedral,” and wonders why more majestic trees are not being planted in his neighbourhood and in the city, in general. I remind him that big trees need big space and there are scant signs of us willingly giving up car space to free up more earth for vegetation.
As we’re looking up, following the paths of the 14 or so secondary trunks that part from a common point like a 30-metre bouquet, a woman next door asks if we’re assessing the tree in order that it be cut down. She lives in a pretty stone house and she’s concerned about the damage being done to her foundations. Charles L’Heureux, who’s walked this stretch before, has also heard from the owner of the cottage hosting the elm, that a root has actually come through the foundations.
I understand the concerns of homeowners. The truth is that tree roots don’t break into pipes or foundations but if there’s already a crack, they’ll seize the opportunity for water or nutrients. Once the roots have made their way in, they expand and can cause damage. In the case of this elm, if we lived in a province that considered extraordinary trees as heritage sites – just as we do with other forms of architecture – these houses would be evaluated for free and, in order to make the changes to accommodate the tree, the homeowners would not be stuck paying the bill for what is, in practice, a public institution. After all, when a public highway is to be widened and houses are in the way, it’s not the homeowner that pays to have her house moved farther back.
Given the obvious good health of this tree, I wondered if it was a subject of research by plant pathologists in Quebec. In Ontario, for instance, the University of Guelph collects cell samples from old elms that appear to be untouched by Dutch elm disease in order to test them for true immunity (as opposed to simply having been missed by the elm bark beetle which carries the deadly fungus) and to create a gene bank of those trees in order to breed disease resistant elms and enhance the genetic diversity. There’s not quite the same program here but there are other approaches to saving the great elms.
Stay tuned for Return of the Elm?! next week. In the meantime, you can visit the Pointe St-Charles elm next Saturday during my treewalk and another of the greats the following Sunday during my treewalk in Mount Royal Cemetery. Details maybe found in the subsequent blog.