Friday, September 24, 2021

A tree in a million

Not long after we moved here to our new home, we noticed a huge, barren tree on a nearby property. Of course it was barren; it was December. We have more deciduous trees around here than we had in our old location, so we didn't give it much thought except to note how large and majestic it is (perhaps 80 feet high).

But as spring and then summer progressed, and the tree filled out in leafy abundance, we were mystified by what species it is. It's juuuust far enough off the road that we can't make out the leaves, but it didn't have the appearance of an oak or a maple. What could it be?

It dwarfs the tiny century-old farmhouse nearby.

The property is unoccupied at the moment, so we can't ask the owners what kind of tree it is. Nor do we feel comfortable trespassing to key out the leaves.

Then, mid-summer, we were fortunate enough to meet the people who had lived there for something like 16 years. We chatted for a bit, then we asked what kind of tree dominated the parcel.

"It's an American elm," we were told.

An elm! In North Idaho!

Elms are native to the eastern half of America, so I'd never seen one before. This particular species of elm, as I'm sure you know, is highly susceptible to the fungal invasion called Dutch elm disease, which tragically killed off so many stately trees (by some estimates, as many as 75%) during the 20th century. To have a tree of this majesty and girth, especially after such a widespread die-off and so far out of its native range, makes it a vanishingly rare treasure. A tree in a million.

Elms, I understand, love water (another reason they're not common in the dry west), and this particular tree has its roots near a spring. Doubtless it was planted about the time the house was built.

Someday I hope to collect some seeds and try my hand at growing our own little elms.

In the meanwhile, we'll enjoy this magnificent matriarch from afar.


  1. I used to live near a town Princeton, Il. It had a beautiful tunnel through the whole town formed by elm trees. They almost all died back when I was a child, really sad.

  2. What a unicorn...

    My grandparents entire midwest town changed from Dutch Elm - they lost 4 trees on their town lot alone...

  3. We moved to a house that had an elm and had to be cut the same year.

  4. I grew up on Elm Street (in southern New England). I remember the last Elm being taken down in the 50s.

  5. Long Island used to be COVERED with elms. They all died off, except for a few in the Hamptons that the jet set keeps alive through constant infusions of antibiotics. No joke; the trees have pressurized tanks with antibiotics chained to them with pipes going into the trees. Even with this, they're barely hanging on.
    The rest of us "dirt people" replanted with maple trees. They too were beautiful. They too died off due to some disease back in the 80's/90's. Elms, maples... and humans... as H.G. Wells said in War Of The Worlds, we have to EARN our right to be here...

  6. I remember reading an article years ago of Arborists lamenting the preemptive cutting of Elm trees for fear of the Dutch Elm disease. They had suggested watching them to see if any had resistance to the disease, if they did, they survived, if not they died anyway.

  7. We are located on a farm in central Montana, and many of the surrounding farms have American Elms in their windbreaks, including ours with 30+ elms that were planted decades ago. In the closest small town, the main street through town has elms on both sides of the street that are at least 80 years old that form a canopy over the street. So, maybe they're not as rare out West as you're thinking? You've got me curious about this! I remember reading an article several years ago in a local ag paper about the elm disease, and that they decided to take a "wait and see" approach with the elms in this area, which is fortunate, because these survived. Thank you for sharing the photos of this beautiful tree - so glad you can enjoy viewing it from your property!

  8. Patrice, if you ever get seeds, send some my way in Kansas and we'll see if we can get them to grow again here in the midwest. Perhaps the Dutch Elm disease has died off long enough for the trees to survive.

    Mama J

  9. We moved when I was 4 back in the late 1940's and had the most beautiful elm in the front shading the porch and another right out the back door shading the kitchen from the setting sun at dinner time. Much wringing of hand and wailing as they had to be cut down in the 1950's. Such beautiful trees. I envy you living where you can see such stately tree.

  10. I have an elm tree in my front yard in Page AZ on Elm street. You can not park in front of my house for six months out of the year because of the sap it drops onto everything close to it. Sidewalk turns black every year and has to be pressure washed to be removed. great tree for in the pasture but not close to a hose.

  11. Very cool to have such a tree nearby! I'd say the 75% number of trees that die is generous. I recall the farm I grew up 100% of the trees died (entire front yard of them - maybe 20 trees?) and the towns nearby were decimated. And now it's nearly as bad with ash trees that became the standard replacement. This one is probably a survivor because it is so isolated. I know there are hybrids of American & Chinese species, but of the ones I've seen, few have the vase shape that gave such great shade along streets without low branches.