Posted On: March 14, 2014

Meet the Tree: Ulmus Procera

Madison Square Park is full of history. For example, the arm and torch of the Statue of Liberty were on display in the park for six years, many believe Mad. Sq. Park to be the birthplace of baseball. In addition, many other historic events and every day occurrences breathe life and depth into this unique public space. If walls could talk, what would they say? In Mad. Sq. Park we ask ourselves, if these trees could talk, what have they seen?

In this case there would be no better tree to ask than our two Ulmus procera. Both stand in the north end of the park, one on the Oval Lawn and the other behind the Farragut monument. While there are no surviving records confirming the ages of these trees, they are estimated to be around 300 years old. The area of Madison Square Park was first designated as a public space is 1686. While it is not likely that the trees are quite old enough to see the public space’s formation, they certainly were around when Madison Square was formally opened as a public park in 1847. The park was originally designed in a more linear, geometric form. These trees and many of the ones planted on the Oval lawn formed rows bordering the pathways. If you look at the two remaining English Elms and its deceased brother by the fountain, you can easily imagine the old contours of the park. The trees were preserved in 1870 when the park was formally designed by Ignatz Pilat and were one of the many preserving factors for several redesigns of the park throughout the years.

Elms have seen quite a bit of history in general. The most striking of which was the introduction of the microfungus Ophiostoma ulmi. This fungus is thought to have been brought over from China on elm bark beetles and is responsible for the infamous Dutch Elm disease. Dutch Elm disease was first reported in the United States in 1928. By 1989 the fungus had destroyed 75% of the then estimated 77 million trees. Luckily, these two trees were unaffected by the disease. The Conservancy continues to take precautions to preserve these trees and protect them from infection. However, English Elms continue to be rarely found beyond Brighton, England. Few notable trees still remain at sites of English colonies such as New Zealand, Australia and New York. The Hangman’s Elm in Washington Square Park predates our trees but very well may be a sister tree as English Elms do not produce fertile seed and its natural regeneration is done entirely by root suckers. Unfortunately many of the trees planted in the colonies are now hundreds of years old and are succumbing to old age.

Many do not realize the effect Dutch Elm disease had on the American landscape. American Elms were the most commonly planted street tree in the United States. Countless streets in America still hold the name Elm St. and even New Haven, Ct held the title “The Elm City” because of the beautiful vase shaped shade Elms that lined the streets. Their story reminds us of the importance of bio diversity in gardening and public planning.

Hopefully, with protection, our Elms will continue to see several more years of healthy growth, watching over the park as enduring guardians. Our arborists preformed major preventative surgery on them some years ago to help reduce the weight of their top growth. While this may make them look a bit strange, their new-suckered growth is a driving life force that will help the tree’s photosynthesis without the added weight that could cause their old wood to crack.

*A children’s book was written in 2008 about the now dead southern Elm. The Tree by Karen Gray Ruelle depicts a charming story on the author’s thoughts on this old historic Elm.