Ephemeral Elms

Every day, I’m thankful to live on my street because of its amazing architecture: I wake up in the morning, look out the window, and feel both wowed and grateful. But I’m also thankful because about halfway down Chestnut Street there is an elm tree: a graceful survivor, one of a handful in Salem. I walk down and touch it every day. Elm trees are touchstones for us now because they are so rare, of course, but I think it is useful to remember that even before the dreaded Dutch Elm Disease elms were always BIG: majestic, legendary, historical. I have a particular Massachusetts point of view here–the American elm is our state tree–but elms seem to have been held in high esteem wherever they have flourished and perished. Massachusetts had several George Washington elms and an assortment of “Great” elms and it was duly noted whenever they came down—in storms of 1876, 1923 or 1938–well before the tree plague came to our shores. The archives are full of stories about these trees, as well as prints and photographs: I particularly like those captured by international plant hunter Ernest Wilson on his Sanderson camera in the 1920s, part of the collection of the Arnold Arboretum. The first picture below is relatively rare; Wilson preferred to take pictures in the late fall or winter to reveal the trees’ “architecture”, and often posed his wife and/or car–or some nearby boy–in proximity so we can see their great scale.

Ephemeral Elms Lancaster EW AA

Elm Holliston EW AA

Elm Hingham Wilson AA

Elm Hingham sign AA

Elm Framingham EW AA

Great Elms in Lancaster, Holliston, Hingham (+sign) and Framingham, Ernest Wilson, Arnold Arboretum Collection.

There were two notable “George Washington Elms” in Massachusetts, one in Cambridge and the other in Palmer. Both were captured by Wilson as well as many other photographers: these were famous trees, even though there does not seem to be much verifiable truth behind their legends (particularly the Cambridge tree–whose remains or “relics” were scattered about after its death in 1923: you can read much more about it here). The Palmer tree came down in the Hurricane of 1938.

Elm Palmer GW EW AA

Elm Cambridge Wilson AA

Elm Cambridge destruction 1938 Leslie Jones

“George Washington” elm trees in Palmer and Cambridge by Ernest Wilson; the remains of the latter, Leslie Jones Collection, Boston Public Library.

An elm tree didn’t have to have Washington or Revolutionary connections to become “great” in Massachusetts: every town seems to have its beloved tree with an “ancient” name or association: the great “Queen Elm” in Lancaster (a town famous for its elms), the “Gulliver Elm” in Milton, the “Winning Elm” in Chelmsford and many “big” and “old” elms, like the stately elm on Boston Common which came down in 1876. In Salem we had the old “Bertram Elm” in front of the Salem Public Library (the former home of John Bertram) and many, many, more–now sadly gone, except for a few singular survivors, like our Chestnut Street tree. I believe there were a few new elms planted this summer, though–so things are looking up.

Elm Boston Common DC card 1876

Elm Salem Bertram postcard

Chestnut Street Elm

7 responses to “Ephemeral Elms

  • Andy Perrin

    Fittingly, there is an American elm, a youngish one, growing next to the site where Thoreau’s cabin was by Walden Pond. (Not the reconstruction, the original cabin site.)

    By the way, there is also a good (old, and free) book that you can google called The Historic Trees of Massachusetts by James Simmons that has many lovely photos.

  • az1407t

    When I was a boy in the 1950s and 1960s, I used to walk up Lafayette Street to go to school. Elm trees lined this street and they were like a canopy, keeping the street nice and shady in the summer months. I was hoping by now that disease resistant elms would be planted all over the place. They graced so many cities and towns. I was in Castine, Maine a few years ago on the mid-Maine coast. It has one of the largest concentration of elm trees now. It was a treat to see them. Check out the attached link and scroll down a bit. You will see some photos of some of these magnificent trees. https://newengland.com/today/travel/maine/castine-maine/

    • daseger

      Yes I’ve seen those old pictures and posted them here–beautiful. I walk up Lafayette Street to go to school too, so I have a vested interest in its tree canopy! The city did plant quite a few trees along the street in the late spring, and watered them all summer long. Thanks so much for the Castine link.

  • Deb Costa

    There is an American Elm on The House of the Seven Gables property next to Nathanial Hawthorne’s Birthplace.

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