About a week or so ago my wife and I noticed a large part of our giant elm tree appeared to be dying. We immediately feared Dutch Elm Disease, and after meeting with two different arborists this past week we found out that was their diagnosis also. Neither of them gave much hope of saving the tree.

view from back yard

Dutch elm disease (DED)  is a fungus disease spread by the elm bark beetle. Infected trees wilt and turn brown in summer, usually starting in the upper part of the tree. It spread fast in this one, almost before our very eyes. The tree leafed out normally this spring, but now in mid summer over 50% of the limbs are brown and withered. Part of the bark on the trunk is peeling off, and the insect damage is visible.

One arborist told us it is possible the beetles have been working on the tree for some time. Last year it had a lot of broken limbs from the ice storm that winter. We had them trimmed back by a tree trimming service, but that damage and the trimming stressed the tree and opened it up to insects.

view from across the road

We also have another big elm tree that appears to be symptom free at the present time. We are going to take a proactive approach with it. Since the disease is spread by insects, we are going to treat it with Imidacloprid, applied as a soil drench. That will kill any beetles that try to feed on the tree. We also have the option of treating it with a fungicide. I am reluctant to use any chemicals in the garden, and Imidacloprid is not without controversy, since it has been linked to a decline in bee populations. However that was when the chemical was used on crops pollinated and visited by bees. Elm trees are wind-pollinated and unlikely to be visited by bees. It’s a tough call.

mulberry tree on left, healthy elm on right

As a result of this unfolding drama, for the last few days I have been in a wistful, philosophical mood. At first I am saddened by the demise of the giant tree that has stood in this place for perhaps a century. How many children have played under it? How many people besides my wife and I have enjoyed its shape and form? How many have been cooled by its shade? Am I the only one to have placed my hand on its massive trunk (130″ around) and told it how much it was admired and appreciated? Is it even appropriate to grieve the loss of a tree?

trunk of diseased elm tree

But then I also realize that it is the nature of trees and people to grow, live, and then die. All of the trees at Happy Acres will die someday. We just didn’t expect this one would depart so soon.

As if to illustrate the circle of life, when we were walking around with one of the arborists we spied this young elm seedling hiding out beneath a weigela shrub. Even as one tree is dying, another has taken root. Life goes on.

young elm seedling

I found myself drawn today to one of the better known parts of the Book of Ecclesiastes, the part that Pete Seeger turned into the song “Turn! Turn! Turn!”. The words there seem to sum up my feelings about the elm tree and its passing, as well as my own time on this earth.

“To every thing there is a season, and a time to every purpose under the heaven:

A time to be born, and a time to die; a time to plant, and a time to pluck up that which is planted;

A time to kill, and a time to heal; a time to break down, and a time to build up;

A time to weep, and a time to laugh; a time to mourn, and a time to dance;

A time to cast away stones, and a time to gather stones together; a time to embrace, and a time to refrain from embracing;

A time to get, and a time to lose; a time to keep, and a time to cast away;

A time to rend, and a time to sew; a time to keep silence, and a time to speak;

A time to love, and a time to hate; a time of war, and a time of peace.”

Much of Ecclesiastes is dark and depressing to me, but I find these words comforting. We spent two hours this morning weeding and harvesting at the church garden. It was tiring work, but also soothing to my psyche. It’s all part of the rhythm of the seasons of life.

I bid you all peace, and if you love your trees, please give them a big hug while you still can.

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8 Responses to Seasons

  1. Meredith says:

    A beautiful post on impermanence, Villager. Yes, it is appropriate to mourn a tree — but you likely could have guessed I would say that. I am glad you told it of your appreciation while you could.

    I hope you can save the other tree, and I understand how torn you must be feeling.

    Sorry for your loss.

  2. meemsnyc says:

    I’m sorry about your elm tree. We have a tree on our property that is losing leaves like crazy. Hope it’s just the drought and not a bug eating it.

  3. A sensitive man is a rarity. When my eyes stop misting over, I’m going to go hug a tree.

  4. oh, so sorry to read about your beautiful tree. Herbie, the oldest elm in Yarmouth, a town close-by, just had to be cut down due to Dutch Elm. the entire town rallied around saving it, but sadly, they couldn’t. the bright spot is that several local craftspeople turned the usable wood into tables, cutting boards and other mementos of Herbie.

  5. Angela says:

    I am so sorry to read about your elm tree. I hope that the remedy you are using will bring it back to health, or is it meant as a way to stop the spread of the disease to the other elm tree?

    We have been losing a lot of trees here too, and it is so sad. They are Monterrey Pines, a species with a very restricted habitat in the wild, but used a lot horticulturaly. And they are dying, all over the world, attacked by the pine pitch canker. And there is not much that can be done for these trees. Every drought year pines die in droves here in the neighborhood. We’ve lost four of them.

    Totally appropriate to mourn the loss of a tree, in my mind, specially a grand old tree like your elm.

  6. I remember in the 1970s, living in England, when Dutch Elm Disease ripped through our area. All of the elm trees surrounding our middle school died as a result and had to be removed. It was heartbreaking. I’m so sorry your old friend has fallen victim to this disease. Your right, life begins anew, but it’s understandable to feel a sense of loss. Can any of the wood from this tree be salvaged? Perhaps you could find a craftsman to make a permanent memento of this tree? A nice chair for your greenhouse? Regardless, I hope your efforts to save its neighbor are successful, and that the new seedling grows strong and healthy for another 100 years.

  7. I’m sorry about your tree. Dutch elm disease has been a big problem all over Indiana. This weekend, I went down to see friends in Kentucky. On my way back, I stopped at a rest stop. There was a DNR person there. I struck up a conversation with her and she was there inspecting tree for Dutch elms’ disease. She said that it’s a huge problem, especially in the south part of the state.

  8. Alison says:

    Sorry to hear about your loss. We lost a small elm very suddenly and unexpectedly last year, our first year in our Vermont retirement home, and were told by the experts that the significant large “signature”elms in our field would undoubtedly also succumb to the disease. We said goodbye to them last fall , and an artist friend painted pictures. This spring they burst into leaf and look perfectly normal. Who can tell what the future will bring?

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