It could be called lending a helping branch.
Scientists from The Nature Conservancy are using small branches from large survivor American elms in a handful of locations throughout New England to try to develop new Dutch elm disease-resistant strains of the stately tree that, decades ago, was among the most prominent in city parks and streets throughout much of the United States.
In coming days, aided by Chesterfield arborist Jim McSweeney, Conservancy ecologist Christian Marks will visit several Western Massachusetts sites to take sample branches for large elms that survived the onslaught of Dutch elm disease that ravaged the American elm population in the Northeast from from the 1950s through the 1970s and continues into the present. Samples also are being taken from sites in Connecticut and Eastern New York.
“The disease has had a profound impact on trees that were treasured by so many people in city parks and streets,” Marks said. “It also had a dramatic impact on floodplain forests along New England’s rivers.”
Before Dutch elm disease, American elms, among New England’s largest trees, would grow to dominate the forest canopy, creating a unique ecological niche that combined flood tolerance with shade tolerance
The elm still is the second most abundant tree species in the floodplain forests of the Connecticut River watershed; however, today’s elms are typically much smaller than those that preceded the disease, and the unique niche the larger trees created has been mostly lost. Restoring it would benefit these crucial floodplains.
“An array of bird species and other plant life rely on these floodplains, but they also have important benefits for people,” Marks said. “Among other things, they absorb flood waters and blunt the impact of ice-buildup, protecting communities from potentially expensive and dangerous flooding.”