Nightmare on Elm Streets

Long before we became known as America’s Farm-to-Fork Capital, Sacramentans beamed with pride at the moniker the City of Trees. But one of the trees responsible for that label is disappearing at an alarming rate. Here’s why we need to stem the losses before it’s too late.


TT.S. Eliot famously began his epic poem The Waste Land with the now oft-quoted words “April is the cruelest month,” but far less quoted is the rest of that sentence, which ends with the words “stirring dull roots with spring rain.”

When it comes to Sacramento’s tree population, we can only hope the dull roots of our city’s elms are so lucky this spring. Our current drought, epic in scope itself, has taken a dramatic toll on the very trees that have come to define our region for a century or more, back when city planners planted many thousands of them to provide much-needed summertime shade in the days before air-conditioning.

One of the many problems associated with the drought that has been ravaging our state for years is that it is exacerbating an even more pernicious threat to our region’s most majestic trees in the form of the three words that strike fear into arborists everywhere—Dutch elm disease (yes, the acronym is DED).

The disease, which can kill a towering elm that predates The Great Depression in eight to 12 weeks flat, is even more deadly when trees are “drought stressed”—a condition in which trees’ immune systems are compromised due to insufficient water access. DED is bad enough on its own, having felled literally millions of trees as it spread across the country throughout much of the 20th century, arriving at Sacramento’s doorstep like a very unwanted house guest in 1990, and continuing its path of destruction to this very day.

In Minneapolis alone, it killed 20,000 elms in a single year in the 1970s, soon after DED reached the Twin Cities. At its peak, Minneapolis had over 200,000 elms. Now the number has dropped to below 30,000 and falling.

Since DED reached our front door, Sacramento has waged a constant battle against the dreaded disease, losing dozens of our oldest trees every year. In the 1970s, a study showed a population of about 19,000 elms in the city, and we’re now down to an estimated 8,000, according to Sacramento city arborist Kevin Hocker. The ones most susceptible to DED are our American and English elms, which comprises about half our elms.

Most of them are concentrated in the heart of the city—downtown, midtown, East Sacramento, Land Park, Southside Park, Curtis Park and, naturally Elmhurst, the leafy neighborhood whose name is taken from Old English and means “a grove of elms.”

But why are we so concerned about elms when we have so many different types of trees here? According to Ray Tretheway, former Sacramento city councilman and current executive director of the Sacramento Tree Foundation, the elm is Sacramento’s signature tree. “For over a century our elms have been the defining tree lining the streets of Sacramento,” he says. “Today, their trunks on our sidewalks rival [those of] redwood trees in our coastal forests. [They] have been the dominant, most influential and visible of Sacramento’s trees. They represent a remarkable [legacy] spanning generations.”

In fact, elms are among Sacramento’s oldest trees, with some likely planted as early as the 1850s. Many of today’s elms were planted 80 to 100 years ago during a massive beautification effort on the part of the city, and rise as high as 130 feet, casting welcome shade when we need it the most.

 “It’s a generational loss when those big trees go away,” says arborist Marianne Waindle. “You can’t replace that kind of size in a generation or, in some cases, a lifetime.”

In 1932, noted landscape architect Grace Tabor proposed planting 10 million new trees in America to celebrate the bicentennial of George Washington’s birth. One of the five trees she recommended was the American elm. She wrote: “One of the easiest trees to transplant from the woods to wherever a splendid and long-lived specimen is needed, is the American elm. Its great height at maturity, which is above a hundred feet, piles up a delightful shade beneath its spreading top, even though this top is so open and airy that through it, glimpses of the sky are revealed. And the upward swing of its thoroughbred frame gives area beneath abundant light and the air circulation so important to hot-weather comfort. Thus the shade of elms is never gloom, no matter how thick they stand.”

No wonder early Sacramentans planted so many of them.

Tretheway warns that once these trees are gone, “the essence of midtown and downtown will change,” and the tree canopy that has shaped our natural skyline for generations will be visibly altered forever.

In other words, lose them, and we lose part of our identity.

And now is the perfect time to redouble our efforts to keep them alive as long as possible. That’s because in April—the same month in which we celebrate National Arbor Day—the tiny elm bark beetle that spreads Dutch elm disease emerges from hibernation and begins infecting its victims.

While there is no cure for DED, there are steps that we can take to prevent it.

As it happens, April is also the month in which World Immunization Week falls. Amazingly, as the national debate on vaccinations reaches a boiling point in the wake of a surprise measles outbreak, it may be tree “vaccinations” that is one of several weapons we can use to save our elms.

Depending on whom you ask, as well as the type of product you use and the size of the tree, a fungicidal injection can cost as little as $100 per tree, or as much as $1,000, to protect it from DED for two to three years.

For years, Tretheway has been trying to figure out ways to immunize more of our region’s elms from DED. Currently, the city is using insecticides to try to kill the beetles before the disease is spread, but no city money is being spent on injections that can help fortify trees against DED.

But some other cities are spending a considerable amount.

In 2005, lawmakers in Evanston, Ill., which had also lost thousands of elms to DED dating back to the 1950s, voted to invest $858,000 to inoculate 3,000 elms. They are now spending between $700,000 and $800,000 per three-year cycle and have dramatically reduced tree loss due to DED. The investment has paid off both in terms of civic pride—and economics. Inoculating trees with a fungicide every few years costs them a few hundred dollars per tree, whereas removing trees destroyed by DED was costing them over $3,000 per tree.

And some groups in Sacramento are taking matters into their own hands, albeit on a small scale. Marianne Waindle, an arborist who lives in Curtis Park, says her community has been raising funds for such injections for nearly a decade to inoculate about 15 elms in their neighborhood. They raise around $15,000 every few years through events like a spring home tour and a fall wine tasting event. And so far, it’s working­­­—none of these vaccinated trees have fallen to disease. “It’s a generational loss when those big trees go away,” she says. “You can’t replace that kind of size in a generation or, in some cases, a lifetime.”

There are other arborists who believe vaccination isn’t the answer, or at least not the only answer. Another weapon in the war against DED is called “root graft breakage,” where the roots of trees in close proximity have fused together and need to be separated. In the case of DED, if one tree is infected, the disease can be passed from one tree to the next through the roots, systematically killing every elm on a street. Separating the roots by digging into the soil and severing the connections also requires a substantial investment, but some believe it’s a cheaper method and lasts longer than inoculations. Some believe both approaches are necessary.

Regardless of which tactic is best, one thing is for certain: The city and neighborhood associations, as well as individuals and private companies, need to come together to figure out how to preserve the legacy that our forefathers created. Before they took action in the late 1800s, Sacramento was known as the City of Plains, precisely for its lack of trees. It’s critical that we recognize what we have before we lose it.

At a moment in time that we are embracing one of our intrinsic natural advantages—agriculture—we can’t afford to become complacent about another. Being the City of Trees may not sound as cool as being the Farm-to-Fork Capital to some, but with climate change heating up the earth and increased auto emissions polluting our atmosphere, urban canopies are, in fact, cooler than ever.

Yes, we’re planting new trees every year to replace the grand dames of our urban forest, but none will reach the height nor majesty of our current crop of elms in our lifetimes. With proper care, these existing elms can live up to 200 years or longer. But without our help, we could lose them all well before then. Reportedly, we have more of these extraordinary elms than any other city in the western United States, and these are the very trees upon which our City of Trees moniker was built. We need to do whatever we can to save them—and we need to do it quickly.

To borrow another line from T.S. Eliot’s The Waste Land, “Hurry up, please, it’s time.”