Requiem for a Heavyweight: Sandy Fells an Elm

A very old, very large elm tree in a Sands Point garden is uprooted by Sandy

We had a Siberian elm in a garden up in Sands Point that I surmise was planted not in the previous century but the one before that.  Siberian elm was introduced to the U.S. in the 1860's for its hardiness and fast growth in a variety of moisture regimes and habitats, including droughts and cold winters. It is resistant to Dutch elm disease but my client's blew over and was fully uprooted by the gales from the east of Frankenstorm Sandy.

The Siberian elm is Ulmus pumila.  "Pumila" is an specific epithet meaning small, which I have always assumed refers to its leaves.  When I was first studying the names of trees, I learned to distinguish between U. pumila (which is really a junk tree, if for no other reason than for the hundreds of seedlings that annually germinate)  and U. parvifolia (which, confusingly, means little-leaf).  The latter has interesting exfoliating bark and is often used for bonsai.

Despite its girth -- and its spongy roots (like Wistaria and black locust, spades tend to bounce off them rather than readily slicing through) -- we blithely planted under it and near it.  American holly and eastern white pine had plenty of room under its capacious crown, but we also sneaked in, very close in on its trunk, a variegated English ivy called Hedera helix 'Gold Heart' and an even prettier rose, a single yellow shrub rose that grows wild in China.  It bears the name Rosa hugonis, after 19th c. missionary Hugh Scanlan, who sent seeds from China to Kew Gardens.

Both flourished, the ivy beautifully decorating and contrapuntally complementing with its sinuous vines and cheery foliage the massive, muscular, furrowed gray trunkage, and the Father Hugo rose jauntily proclaiming its self-sufficient eminence nearly a month before its coddled, conceited cousins in the rose garden.  For years was I proud of these two, emblematic of a sense that anything is possible -- and both required practically no care -- but three or four years ago the rose started to show signs of dieback, I believe because the elm's roots were greedily reasserting themselves, and we yanked the dead remnant out for good a couple years ago.  The ivy's demise was more sudden; we looked up one day last April, way up, and were gobsmacked by it's complete lack of leaves.

That the loss of these two dainty yet sturdy stalwarts will in time be mistakenly associated with the toppling of the behemoth is inevitable I suppose, but the Siberian elm did of course do plenty damage to neighbors in its swath:  a gray birch was bent over incapable of rescue; a sourwood (Oxydendrum arboreum) and a mountain laurel were leveled but a Katsura tree (Cercidiphyllum japonicum) was merely topped, the better for it in its crown nicely reduced to manageable scale; a wide stand of oakleaf hydrangea was sheared and shorn by the fall and by the tree workers cutting and clearing the elm; likewise a grove of self-seeded Japanese maples; and a freshly divided and transplanted drift of yellow-variegated hosta were trampled, but they and the maples and the hydrangea we expect will recover.

I would have liked to have been there when the trunk was cut up -- to count the rings!  But at least I got a couple photos that evoke (to me at least) the paintings of Franz Kline, and I hadn't ever seen that mossy side of the trunk in the low rays of winter sunlight.

Dom's in Port did a great job grinding into a couple yards of fine mulch the stump and roots -- and now there are new capabilities in that part of the garden:  much more sun and I am thinking of sourcing and collecting together for planting the various pastel shades of orange and yellow and peachy-pink varieties of deciduous Exbury azaleas that enjoy plenty sun -- a dozen or so related colors that will harmonize and dazzle in future May's.

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