Trees, featuring the American Elm

Trees are sanctuaries, said Herman Hesse and probably a lot of other people. When I was thirteen, we stopped mobile living and bought a house with a small wood behind it that was perfectly timed for the onslaught of adolescence. I fled to those trees—Florida pine, hickory, and scrub palm, for solace, for solitude. Trees have a calming effect.

American Elm in winter, City Park, 2024

An American Elm grew at the edge of the alley when we bought our Denver house. It had never been cared for, had forked into two large trunks, one of them slanted sharply. Still, the arborist said it was the healthiest elm he’d seen in a long time. We treated and trimmed it for years. Once a contractor came through the alley, cutting branches away from power lines, and offered to take out the tree altogether. “Why?” I asked. “Because it’s an elm,” he replied. I declined.

Dutch Elm disease decimated the American Elm throughout the country. There were about 200,000 of them in Denver and around 3,800 were left when the Dutch Elm pandemic ended in the 1980s. Those that did best were isolated from others of their kind, as ours was. Perhaps there’s a lesson in that? An early autumn snowstorm when the elm was in full yellowing leaf brought down enough of it that the rest couldn’t be saved. I miss the shelter it provided from the alley, the shade it gave the yard.

The elm in autumn, over Ferril Lake

City Park has one of my favorite elms. No other trees are nearby so it was able to grow the vase-like way elms prefer to grow, its branches high and wide and bowing toward the ground like willows. I heard elms were related to willows, because of that dipping, but my cursory research indicates they are not. Elms have a tribe of their own, the Ulmaceae. The American Elm can live more than 200 years.

Created on the rolling hills of treeless plains, City Park was a place of prairie grasses, where bison grazed. Native trees, like cottonwood and hackberry, hugged creeks. The likes of blue spruce and aspen were happier higher and cooler than here. My Denver neighborhood, on the eastern side of the city, was part of that treeless plain. Our Victorian house sits in the middle of the three-block gentle downslope of one of its long hills.

The park was established in 1882, fed with the manmade Denver Ditch and planted with all manner of trees, native and imported. City Park now has over 3,000 trees representing hundreds of species. The Wych Elm, purportedly grown from a scion of a tree by Shakespeare’s grave, was planted in 1916, on the day of The Bard’s death 300 years before. That tree survived Dutch Elm disease and vandalism and looks its age. There’s a Lilac row, a crabapple collection, the Yoshima Cherry Groves and any number of American Elms, native to the Eastern U.S.

American Elm, summer

My favorite, rooted by Ferril Lake, is nearly perfect in my view. A tree planted by the water will thrive. Like a tree planted by the water, we shall not be moved. A line from the Bible. A song once sung on picket lines. I walk City Park often, have photographed this elm in all seasons over decades, my eye particularly fond of the cascading fall of its full leaf branches over a view of the lake. I suppose it must be well over 100 by now.

The ill-chosen maple we planted on our parking strip died a few years ago of drought and heat, despite the sprinkler system. This year I applied and have been approved for another tree on the parking strip. The tree lawn, some call it. Our new tree will be a Prairie Stature oak, more tolerant of our increasingly hot, dry summers and cold hardy as well.

We have aged into the last quarter of our lives, the last quarter of being stewards of this house and yard. Like the elm, oaks are slow-growing trees. If it survives our changing climate, this one won’t reach full size before we’re gone. We’ll plant it in an act of blind faith, for children not yet born.

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8 Responses to Trees, featuring the American Elm

  1. normando1 says:

    Beautiful. Thanks for the reminder.

  2. deb r. says:

    Loved reading this by the pool in the desert in Skoura, Morocco, Pat. There is a wonderful garden at this little hotel, with a variety of trees: date palms, pomegranate, olive, almond (all blooming now). Growing up, I used to caddy for my dad at Park Hill Golf course and loved the thick elm trees there, all gone.

  3. What a lovely piece, Pat! When I was a kid in Northwest Denver, from roughly age 8 to 17, I lived at 4945 Elm Court. We had a huge elm tree in the back yard that cooled us in summer and produced a massive amount of leaves that were usually all down by Halloween. Especially good for raking into big piles and rolling around in. I loved that half-damp fragrance and the crackle of the dry leaves on top of the piles. Of course, I had to give up that pointless and joyful activity by the time I turned 13, because … well, what would girls think of me if they saw me acting like a little kid?

  4. Bob Jaeger says:

    Beautiful! Thanks, Pat. A solar panel guy I spoke to a couple days ago asked if I’d be willing to trim the old pine tree in my front yard. My immediate answer was “NO.”

  5. Gregg says:

    That City Park elm tree is really really beautiful.

  6. Denise says:

    I so enjoy your blog. Thank you, Pat.
    This post takes me back to my Denver days, living on Birch Street where we had 2 big elms on our “tree lawn” /parking strip. We, too, nursed them tirelessly, giving them injections and deep root watering. They survived, at least during our tenure.
    Have you read “Finding the Mother Tree”? It gave me all the more appreciation of trees.

  7. Michael Stipek says:

    Hi, Pat and Phil,

    I too, planted a maple – a Norway maple that was given to me by the Tree People (sic?) back in 1981 or 82. I thought it would survive our seasons, because, well, it’s a “Norway” maple! Unfortunately, is brittle, has lost many branches, large and small. We’re hoping for a few more years out of it….
    One of the hardiest trees to survive in drought conditions is the Linden, whether the Large Leaf or the Small Leaf variety. I planted the Small Leaf in our backyard in 1992, because it’s supposed to be no bigger than 30 ft. in diameter. Well, it’s 60 feet and still growing. In the Spring it puts out blossoms so fragrant they remind one of lilacs in full bloom. The shade is dense and it trans-evaporates so well in high heat, it’s almost like being under an air conditioner outside. Many trees around the metro area, especially along sidewalks and such have been planted with Lindens.
    Trees have been sacred to humanity since before the Druids. We would do well to continue worshiping their wonderful abundance on our planet.

  8. dubrava says:

    Such wonderful tree and specifically elm memories evoked here! Thank you all for that and for patience with my slow response this time. Life intrudes, as is its wont.

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