The Rise and Fall of Two Great Trees

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The American elm and the American chestnut are two magnificent trees whose twin histories reflect a rise to prominence and a tragic demise due to fungal disease.


Eric Rutkow, author of “American Canopy: Trees, Forests and the Making of a Nation” (Scribner, 2012), will talk about the two trees in his lecture to the Connecticut Horticultural Society on January 17 at 7:30 p.m. at Emanuel Synagogue in West Hartford. Everyone is welcome.


A graduate of Yale University and Harvard Law School who is pursuing his doctorate in American history at Yale, Rutkow chose the American elm (Ulmus americana) and American chestnut (Castanea dentata) for his talk because of historical parallels the trees share and because they claimed opposite ends of the functional spectrum in society.


The elm is a spectacularly beautiful tree whose magical form – winding limbs and arched, vase-like canopy – lined countless streets and sidewalks by the 20th century, defining the look of the American city. The tree’s purpose then was almost entirely aesthetic.


The chestnut was the workhorse tree of the eastern United States and integral to the national economy. “Wood fencing, rail ties, telegraph poles, furniture – there was nothing this tree couldn’t do when it came to American needs,” Rutkow says.


Both trees succumbed to fungal disease, and what fascinates him is the length to which people have gone to protect and preserve them. In New Haven, a.k.a. Elm City, arborists with giant syringes can be seen inoculating elms, while enormous effort has been dedicated to breeding blight-resistant American chestnut trees. Such undertakings offer hope that the two trees will persist in the American landscape, he says.


Eric Rutkow’s talk to the Connecticut Horticultural Society will be Thursday, Jan. 17, 7:30 p.m., at Emanuel Synagogue, 160 Mohegan Dr., West Hartford. Fee: $10, nonmembers; free to CHS members. Visit www.cthort.org.


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