Chronicles of the Sacramento Elms
by Chris Fenstermaker, Volunteer and Guest Blogger
March 28, 2018
Sacramento, the City of Trees. Our streets canopied by that signature
tree. The stately…“birch”? The
stately…“poplar”? No, stately only comes to mind to describe the elm! The elm marched across the American landscape
in the 1800’s as town squares embraced English-style rectangular brick building
designs and cultural centerpiece trees like elms. Elms have come to represent
the finest arboreal visage of our urban centers.
Politicians and poets, among others, have praised the elm
for its contribution to our cities’ environment: “We walk in the shade of its
lofty, spreading dome” (Thoreau); “We had rather walk beneath an avenue of elms
than inspect the noblest cathedral that art ever accomplished” (H. W.
Beecher). A stately tree, indeed.
As a practical matter, the spreading dome of the elm and
other trees in downtown areas have played a significant role in lowering
surface temperatures. The state gardener at Capitol Park had this to say in an
August 1927 Sacramento Bee article: “The tree-lined streets of Sacramento are
certainly a blessing to her citizens, while visitors are delighted with the beauty
and comfort of these trees on summer days.
One of the favorite shade trees is the elm.”
Sadly, “disease” is another word we associate with the
elm. Dutch elm disease (DED) appeared in
Sacramento in 1990, after first appearing in the Bay Area 20 years
earlier. A fungus spread by elm bark
beetles as well as root grafts (the fungus can be spread by root-to-root
contact between trees), DED has wreaked havoc on Sacramento’s elm population. Along with the aging and death of 100+ year
old elms, the signature tree of the capital city has been reduced from an
estimated 25,000 elms (public trees) to approximately 2,000 – still more than
any other city in California, but clearly an alarming loss.
This loss triggered a community-wide response – concerned
citizens, city and state agencies, and businesses all banded together to tackle
DED. The Sacramento Tree Foundation led this effort by creating the Save the
Elms Program (STEP) in 1995 and enlisted volunteers to monitor the health of
the city’s elms. For three years, STEP volunteers helped identify public elm
trees that had signs of DED and reported this information to the City of
Sacramento before state budget cuts put an early end to the program.
Since the 90’s, Sacramento has continued to lose elms to
DED, a problem only exasperated by many years of drought. However, conversations
between the City of Sacramento, nationally recognized arborists, and the
Sacramento Tree Foundation sparked a new energy in saving these stately trees. Through our renewed Save the Elms Program (STEP) sponsored by the City of Sacramento, we continue to train volunteers as citizen scientists who can help us identify early signs of DED in our community. Click here to learn more about the steps you can take to become a guardian of these beloved icons of Sacramento.