June 2018 Plant Profile: finding the story of our George Washington Elm

Joy Spurr
Ulmus americana (but not the George Washington Elm)

Botanic Name:  Ulmus americana
Common Name:  American elm, less commonly as white elm
Accession Number:  2166-37*A
Location:  35-4E. West side of Arboretum Drive East just a few minutes walk south from the Graham Visitors Center
Family:  Ulmaceae
Range:  central and eastern North America
Size:  60-80’ tall and 40-70’ wide
Culture:  prefers moist loamy soil and full sun – tolerates urban pollution
Historical use:  popular street and park shade-trees, the majority of the American elms have succumbed to Dutch Elm Disease (a fungal disease of elm trees that is spread by elm bark beetles) and are no longer considered a viable tree to use in landscapes.

The Washington Park Arboretum has two large Ulmus americana in the collection, one of which (the “George Washington” elm) is a historic American tree. A colleague’s curiosity about the historic significance of this tree prompted me to do some research.

Although no actual records exist regarding the event, historians generally agree that George Washington took command of the Continental Army in Massachusetts in 1775 on the site of Cambridge Commons, which was surrounded by several American Elms.

Arnold Arboretum Bulletin headline

The first article I found was from a 1931 Arnold Arboretum Bulletin. Author J.G. Jack wanted to set the record straight about the Washington Elm. He was incensed that nurseries were selling American elms to the public claiming they were cuttings of the original Washington Elm because he knew the saplings were grown from cuttings taken years after the original tree’s demise in 1923 and had no provenance to the original tree.

Mr. Jack goes on to correct a false history of the tree by exposing the literary fraud of the “Dorothy Dudley Diary,” published and widely read during the first centennial in 1875. The “Diary” purports to be an eyewitness account of Washington taking command, and waxes poetic about the “wide spreading branches of the Patriarch tree” that is “200 years old.” Like many historic myths it was disseminated through popular culture and became accepted as fact.

The cover of the fraudulant pamphlet published in 1875.

Mr. Jack refers to records taken of the tree’s rings by the Cambridge Parks Department 1923. The ring measurement determined the tree was 210-220 years old, thereby making it about 70 years old in 1775. So it would have been a mature tree, but was not planted by the first pilgrims as the “Diary” claimed.

Some interesting backstory on the original tree: further reading showed that our Washington Elm has its own interesting history in which the original elm’s progeny traveled back and forth several times between Cambridge and Seattle as well as all over the United States.

 

In 1896 the historic elm in Cambridge Commons intrigued a University of Washington graduate studying at Harvard. He felt that it had special meaning to his home state and began attempting to grow saplings from cuttings of the Washington Elm. He had been corresponding with UW Professor Edmund J. Meany about his project and in 1902 wrote, “I have succeeded in my fifth attempt and now have a true scion of the Washington Elm, which I am sending you this morning by express. I sincerely hope that this tree will reach you safely and will grow for the next 200 years within the sacred precincts of the University of Washington.” Meany planted the scion near Lewis Hall and apparently students affectionately nicknamed this tree “George.”

Old postcard of the original “George Washington” Elm

In 1923 the Washington Elm in Cambridge Common fell, finally succumbing to old age and disease. Parks Department records there had noted its decaying limbs were a safety concern for some time before it fell. After the tree fell and was measured and dated, one thousand cuttings were taken, propagated and distributed among each of the states to perpetuate the historic tree by planting its new saplings in parks and on the capitol grounds.

In 1932 cuttings were propagated from the UW Washington Elm and sent to Cambridge to be planted on the Common near the site of original tree. Cuttings from the UW elm were also sent to be planted on the capitol grounds in both Washington, D.C. and Olympia, Washington.

And this is where our “George Washington” elm enters the picture, shortly after the Arboretum was established in 1934. Our tree was accessioned into the Washington Park Arboretum collection in 1937 – the sapling was propagated from the UW Drug Garden (now the Medicinal Herb Garden) which indicates that it was a sapling grown from the UW Washington Elm, which was grown from a true cutting of the original Cambridge tree in the early 1900s.

Historic Accession Card

There are a couple more plot-twists in the history of the Washington Elm tree. When the UW campus tree died in 1963, it was replaced by a sapling grown from cuttings of the Cambridge Common tree – which was grown from Meany’s UW tree (that had just died), which in turn was grown from the original tree.

That’s the complicated story of how an old elm tree inspired so many people to keep track of it and work to ensure its legacy was extended through the years by propagating more that 1,000 cuttings and by sharing these new trees among the states to commemorate the beginnings of America’s independence.

Thanks to UW Botanic Garden’s Curator of Living Collections, Ray Larson, for forwarding me some great information links.

References

http://arnoldia.arboretum.harvard.edu/pdf/articles/1931-5–the-cambridge-washington-elm.pdf
http://www.arthurleej.com/a-pioneering.html
http://www.washelli.com/the-george-washington-elm/
https://facilities.uw.edu/blog/posts/2016/10/07/george-washington-tree-splits
https://www.apsnet.org/edcenter/intropp/lessons/fungi/ascomycetes/Pages/DutchElm.aspx