Tree Facts: American elm making a comeback

Farm Forum

For the first time in more than 40 years, the American elm tree is being sold in large numbers to homeowners and other retail customers. In the 1990s, researchers at the Department of Agriculture’s National Arboretum research station in Beltsville, Md., identified several types of elm trees that were genetically resistant to Dutch elm disease. In 1996, several horticulturalists started growing the disease-resistant trees, a job that proved more difficult than expected. Now they are being sold at nurseries and big box stores.

The American Elm tree is native to the United States and Canada from the east coast west to the Great Plains. The American Elm once dominated the nation’s landscape, but was nearly wiped out by Dutch elm disease. Elm trees once lined the streets of nearly every American town and still do in some South Dakota and North Dakota cities. The sturdy, fast-growing Y-shaped tree was exceptionally tolerant of city life, but it was felled by a deadly fungus.

Dutch elm disease arrived, probably on wood imported from China, in 1930. It spread from Ohio, where it was first reported, to the rest of the nation over 50 years. The disease, spread by beetles, killed an estimated 100 million elm trees. The fungus is called Dutch elm disease because it was identified by Dutch researchers.

Federal, state and local governments spent millions of dollars in efforts to stop the disease from spreading but nothing worked. By the 1960s, the American elm had largely vanished from much of the nation’s landscape, nurseries and garden stores.

Some tree species planted to replace the elm tree are now suffering their own disease calamities, a fact that may help restore the elm tree to the American landscape. For example, the emerald ash borer, an insect, has started to ravage ash trees. It is ironic that the situation has come full circle over the last 50 years. Elm trees are being planted to replace ash trees that were planted to replace the elm trees.

The American Elm has qualities that make it an ideal tree for use as either a shade tree or shelterbelt tree. It grows fast and can almost reach its mature height of 35 – 60 feet in thirty years. It is drought resistant and can survive drought conditions and several extremes in weather conditions.

Across the nation, horticulturalists are trying to increase production of other disease-resistant varieties of American Elm such as Valley Forge, New Harmony and Jefferson elms to add genetic diversity and make elms less vulnerable to disease. In the decades ahead the numbers of these trees will be increased and conservation districts and nurseries will make them available across the nation.

My sources for this news release were the USA Today and NDSU Extension Service. If you would like more information about “American Elm making a comeback,” call Bob Drown at the Conservation Office at 605-244-5222, Extension 4 or by e-mail at