|This American elm, self-seeded and growing at the corner of Dr. Penfield and McTavish streets, is in full form and is testament to the fact that elms are alive and well and living on the street -- at least until they reach 20-30 years. Several other elms grow just north on McTavish. Illustrations: Charles L'Heureux|
Saturday, September 24, 2011
island of trees: Return of the elm!?
Treewalk today: Pointe St-Charles, meet @ 4:30, 1900 Wellington, old Bank of Montreal, corner Ste-Madeleine, prelude to fundraising event @ 7 pm @ same venue. Free of charge for those attending fundraiser (see previous blog for details and for full list of fall walks), $10 for others. Finishes @ 5:30 pm.
"But the survival of wild places and wild things, like the permanence of noteworthy architecture, or the opera, or a multiplicity of languages, or old shade trees in old neighborhoods, is not a priority for most people."
Is this true? Pieter Sijpkes, the architect who introduced me last week to his favourite tree, the Wellington Street Elm, passed this quote on to me. He agrees with Hoagland, believing that, in large art, our appreciation for the permanent or, at least, of entities with greater longevity than that of our own species, is small. Better to take down an old tree or an old building, he says, so as to put up condos, save cars from being soiled by tree debris, prevent damage to foundations, etc. rather than finding ways of accommodating the culture, history and services offered by each.
But I’m not sure I agree with Hoagland and Sijpkes where trees are concerned. I’ve frequently been impressed by the Herculean efforts exerted to save a particular tree or entire species of tree. This is perhaps no more true than where the American elm is concerned. In fact, as I write, numerous elm angels are at work in cities, like Quebec, Guelph, Fredericton and Winnipeg, to both preserve the remaining healthy trees and to breed those trees that appear to be immune to Dutch elm disease (DED).
King of those angels might be the late Henry Kock, a horticulturist who launched the University of Guelph Arboretums’ Elm Recovery Project. Beginning in the late ‘90s, Kock traveled throughout Ontario collecting twigs of seemingly healthy mature elms, in what amounted to an elm dating service. He could see that many of the elms, untouched by the disease, were solitary and far from the next healthy elm, making cross-pollination of the tree impossible. The twigs were grafted to elm rootstock and deliberately infected with the fungal DED. The surviving clones were considered immune and transplanted to the seed orchard along with other immune trees in order that they reach sexual maturity and cross-pollinate, thereby enlarging the gene pool of immune trees.
Since the program, 600 trees have been grafted and 70 have survived inoculation. Ultimately, according to Kock’s successor, Sean Fox, that number will be whittled down to the top 30 “to keep in the gene bank.” Since it takes roughly 12 years for the elm to produce seed, none of these super-elms is yet ready for larger scale, commercial cultivation. Fox estimates that “within 10 years, we’ll have disease-resistant cultivars.”
What impresses me about this program is that these are human heads and hands speeding up the process of evolution. Mainly, it’s citizens that alert the Guelph program of healthy elms and without them and their donations, the program would not survive. “We don’t receive government support,” notes Fox. Clearly, there are many citizens pining for the return of the 30-metre high trees which, in their heyday in the 1950s, completely shaded many a street in eastern cities, including De Lorimier which, according to Martin Gaudet, supervisor of City of Montreal’s nursery, “was spectacular.”
Gaudet, who knows such sites only from archival photographs, regrets that the City has no program in place to create a gene pool of Montreal’s healthy mature elms. In the early ‘60s, however, the late Réné Pomerleau, an Agriculture Canada mycologist (fungus specialist) working on site in l’Assomption (which later became the City nursery), pioneered a DED-resistant American elm, known as “l’Assomption.” So, Quebec had its own elm.
“There are still a few out here,” says Gaudet, on the phone from the nursery, “but it never really took off.”
Other cultivars of the great elm, however, are being tested for DED-resistance. Ulmus Americana, “Brandon,” for instance, which was developed in Alberta, are being tested in their University Street sidewalk plots, between St-Jacques and St-Antoine streets. Planted in the late ‘90s, “the trees are very regular – they look like mushrooms,” says Gaudet, explaining that they are all clones. While they won’t reach the heights of the original American elm, they will grow to impressive 15 metres high and 12 wide. Will that satisfy the desire of some of us for a return of the complete elm canopy? If not, it’s good to know that the Guelph cultivars are waiting in the wings.