American Elm Trees

by Leslie Day, author of Field Guide to the Street Trees of New York City

Stately, graceful, fast-growing, and long-lived, the American elm is one of the most loved of our native trees. Planted widely throughout our cities in the early 1900s because of its elegant, vase-shape silhouette and its cascading boughs, it was considered “the signature tree for downtown America.” Fort Tryon Park’s Stan Michels Promenade features many American elms, as does the park drive, the Broadway Promenade and the area around the New Leaf Restaurant. The elms have offered beauty and shade to the citizens of New York City from the day the Park opened on October 13, 1935. Preserving these majestic elms is now a top priority of NYC Parks and the Fort Tryon Park Trust.

Across the country, over 77 million American elms have died from Dutch elm disease, including many of the original elms of Fort Tryon Park. Dutch elm disease is a deadly fungus which infects the sapwood of elm trees and is carried from tree to tree by elm bark beetles. First identified in Holland as Ophiostoma or Dutch elm disease, a shipment of infected logs from Europe arrived in the Midwest in the 1920s.

One of the most beloved trees in our park is the majestic American elm at the northern end of the Stan Michels Promenade. Its massive branches arc over the walkway, shading us in summer and reaching into the Heather Garden with branches so low that we can see its delicate pink and green flowers in early spring. From these flowers come tiny seeds, which sleep within round, lime-green samaras fringed in white hairs. As the samaras fall and cover the ground, robins, sparrows, cardinals and other songbirds descend and feast on this shower of seeds. Once the leaves emerge, butterflies, including eastern tiger swallowtails, mourning cloaks, and painted ladies, deposit their eggs on the elm’s leaves, the butterflies’ host plant. And in autumn, the leaves turn golden yellow.

With the Park’s splendid elms at risk, NYC Parks is monitoring for Dutch elm disease and has surveyed, pruned, and removed infected elms. In addition, the Fort Tryon Park Trust has hired a private tree-care firm to inoculate the elms biannually. Though this is a costly procedure ($50,000 every two years), but it affords the trees protection from the deadly fungus.

The American elms of Fort Tryon Park are priceless. The Fort Tryon Park Trust is committed to their protection for the long term, so that they continue to provide us and our wildlife with beauty, shade, food, and a sense of majesty as we look up and walk beneath them.