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The Elm City: Then and Now

Click here for photos of the rise, fall, and rise of New Haven’s signature tree.

“New Haven, known also as the City of Elms, is a fine town,” wrote Charles Dickens in 1842. “Many of its streets (as its alias sufficiently imports) are planted with rows of grand old elm-trees; and the same natural ornaments surround Yale College.’

New Haven was one of the first towns in the American colonies to civilize Ulmus americana. The first native elm was planted inside the city limits in 1685, and many more were added over the years, especially during the “Great Planting” of 1786–1800. Dickens thought the trees brought about “a kind of compromise between town and country; as if each had met the other half-way, and shaken hands upon it; which is at once novel and pleasant.” An Ohio minister visiting New Haven said simply, “I call it New Heaven.”

Trees were electrocuted by improperly grounded wires.

That urban Eden did not last. In the twentieth century, New Haven’s elms suffered a series of natural and manmade assaults that brought them down by the thousands. In the 1890s and again in 1908, the city was invaded by elm-leaf beetles, an accidentally introduced species from Europe with a voracious appetite for foliage. Modernization also took its toll. Roots were damaged as streets were excavated for gas lines and water mains and paved to carry automobile traffic. Many trees were removed when electric lines were installed. A few elms were actually electrocuted—killed by improperly grounded overhead wires. In 1913, biologist Clarence M. Weed wrote, “Everywhere [we see] evidence of the decay of these noble trees.”

Dutch elm disease, the trees' most infamous enemy, came in two stages. The first began in 1933, when the fungus Ophiostoma ulmi, which causes the disease, appeared in Connecticut. Ophiostoma ulmi plugs a tree’s water and nutrient channels and can kill an infected elm in a matter of months. But in this initial iteration, the fungus spread slowly. Far more damaging was the 1938 hurricane, which brought down 13,500 trees in New Haven alone, many of them elms weakened by disease.

Then came the second wave of Dutch elm disease, a new and more virulent species that arose in the Midwest in the 1940s and went on to devastate elms throughout the country. Only some two dozen survived on the New Haven Green. At its nadir, the famously shady Green had become a sunny lawn. In 1988 the New York Times wrote that, for many decades, “the Elm City title has been a hollow one.”

Today’s elms are interspersed with sycamores, maples, and oaks.

But by then, new trees were already taking root. Over the years Yale and New Haven, as well as the Garden Club, the Boy Scouts, and other groups, had been planting Ophiostoma-resistant varieties throughout the city and campus. And today the city is leafy again; at least 250 mature trees are growing on the Green. Most, however, are not elms. “We’re not making the same mistake city planners made years ago,” says Peter Tyrell of The Care of Trees, a company used by both Yale and the city. “We’re not planting elm monocultures”—single-species plantations that allow pests and disease to spread easily. Almost everywhere, elms are interspersed with sycamores, maples, oaks, and others.

As for the remaining old elms, they are carefully protected with fertilizer, nutrients, and fungicides. There are several dozen on the Yale campus that are more than 100 years old, in addition to the two dozen on the Green. “For the elms, the Yale campus and the New Haven Green are like the Alamo,” says Tyrell. “It’s their last stand.” the end


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