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Dutch elm disease

Dutch elm disease is a fungal disease of Elm trees. It has been accidentally introduced into America and Europe, where it has devastated native populations of elms.

The causative agent is a fungus, Ophiostoma ulmi, spread by a bark beetle as the vector for infection. The fungus blocks the water conducting vessels within the tree; the first symptom of infection is usually an upper branch of the tree with leaves starting to wither and yellow in summer, months before the normal autumnal leaf shedding. This progessively spreads to the rest of the tree, with further dieback of branches. Eventually, the roots die, starved of nutrients from the leaves.

Often, not all the roots die: the roots may put up small suckers. These may grow up for some years into small elm trees, but after a decade or so the new trunks becme large enough to support the bark beetles, and with their inevitable arrival the fungus returns, and the new tree dies.

Dutch Elm disease in America

The disease was first reported in the United States in 1920, with the beetles believed to have arrived in a shipment of furniture. The disease spread slowly from New England westward and southward, reaching the Chicago area by 1960 and Minneapolis by 1970.


The first fungicide used for treatment of Dutch Elm Disease was Lignasan BLP (Carbendazim phosphate) was introduced in the 1970s. This had to be injected into the base of the tree using specialized equipment, and was never especially effective. It is still sold under the name "Elm Fungicide." Arbotect (thiabendazole hypophosphite) became available some years later, and is somewhat more effective. Either product must be injected every year or two to provide ongoing control; the disease generally cannot be eradicated once a tree is infected.

Alamo (propiconazole) has become available more recently and shows some promise.

Treatment of diseased trees is costly and at best will prolong the life of the tree, perhaps by as many as five or ten years. It is usually only justified when a tree has unusual symbolic value or occupies a particularly important place in the landscape..

Dutch Elm Disease in Britain

In Britain, Dutch Elm disease arrived in the early 1970s; by 1973 the epidemic was killing elms throughout the country, removing one of the most distinctive english countryside trees (see the example of an English Elm in John Constable's painting The Hay Wain). Thirty years after the epidemic, the magnificent specimen trees are long gone. The elm still hangs on in the hedgerows; though these sucker grown survivals rarely reach more than fifteen feet tall before succumbing to a new attack of the fungus.

Interestingly, though the devastating epidemic came in the 1970s, there is this curious passage in Richard Jefferies' 1883 book, Nature near London:

There is something wrong with elm trees. In the early part of this summer, not long after the leaves were fairly out upon them, here and there a branch appeared as if it had been touched with red-hot iron and burnt up, all the leaves withered and browned on the boughs. First one tree was thus affected, then another, then a third, till, looking round the fields, it seemed as if every fourth or fifth tree had thus been burnt. [...] Upon mentioning this I found that it had been noticed in elm avenues and groups a hundred miles distant, so that it is not a local circumstance.