From Sturdy Old Survivor, a Hardier Elm
N.J. — More than 70 springs have come and gone since the first
victims succumbed, but grieving friends and brokenhearted
lovers have never stopped searching for survivors of one of the
worst ecological calamities in American history.
They stalk damp backwoods and prowl deserted country roads
looking for rare American elm trees that have somehow managed to
ward off Dutch elm disease, which spread in successive waves across
much of the country beginning in the 1930's, killing more than 77
million elms in the biological blink of an eye.
They are looking for a noble giant hiding in an overgrown field
or standing sentinel over a disappeared farm, an elm that is not
just an isolated wallflower that somehow escaped infection, but
rather a true survivor that could yield the secret to its
For Roger W. Holloway, a wholesale nursery supplier in Atlanta,
the search for super elms has become a consuming crusade that has
taken him to an unlikely place to find a survivor: an old graveyard
Five years ago, Mr. Holloway, 49, drove into Princeton through a
long allée of elms — most of them planted just before Dutch elm
arrived. The size, shape and sheer beauty of the 70-year-old trees
arching gracefully over the road convinced him this was indeed the
place to look.
Now Mr. Holloway says he is certain he has found the mother of
all those elms: a majestic giant standing in a prominent spot in
Princeton since before it became a cemetery in 1757. About 100 feet
tall, this noble elm bows gracefully over the corner of Witherspoon
and Wiggins Streets, not far from Princeton University, and shades
the grave of Dr. Thomas Wiggins (1731-1801), who donated land for
the cemetery and for whom the street is named. The tree's gnarled
base is so massive that it has crept over part of Dr. Wiggins's
grave marker and nearly swallowed the white marble tombstones of
three of his grandchildren.
Mr. Holloway believes — and others have confirmed — that this
hardy survivor in Princeton Cemetery is the progenitor of a whole
generation of disease-tolerant elms that growers have been shipping
around the country for the last few years. His thesis is supported
by tests conducted a few years ago that show that a significant
sequence of the Princeton giant's DNA is an exact match with the
trees planted along the entrance to Princeton.
"Long story short," said Joseph C. Kamalay, a molecular biologist
at the Donald Danforth Plant Science Center in St. Louis, Mo., who
performed the genetic sleuthing several years ago when he worked for
the United States Forest Service, "the cemetery tree was likely the
maternal parent of the Princeton elm, at least in the lineage,
because their chloroplast DNA is identical."
Even a disease-tolerant tree does not have total immunity. Last
year, a much younger elm half a block from the cemetery tree was
infected with Dutch elm disease. It had to be cut down, but not
before the leaves on two huge branches of the cemetery tree turned
brown, a sign of the infection. The branches were pruned, and the
tree seems to be fine.
Mr. Holloway said he did not believe that the infection had
upended his theories about the tree's ability to tolerate the
disease that has killed so many others. "Just because a tree has
some issues and has to be pruned doesn't mean the end of its life,"
The trees that Mr. Holloway has grown and sold through his
business, Riveredge Farms, have been shown in tests by the United
States National Arboretum to withstand catastrophic injections of
the fungus that causes Dutch elm disease. Two other varieties,
Valley Forge and New Harmony, are also highly tolerant, though they
are not considered to have the same classic vase shape as the
In the last few years, Princeton elms have been planted in New
York City, at the University of Oklahoma campus and in Washington,
D.C., among other places. Soon, they will also will take root on the
grounds of the White House and sprout on the pedestrian mall being
built along Pennsylvania Avenue.
Other growers are relying on the Princeton elm to revive interest
in what used to be America's favorite tree.
"Princeton is an excellent American elm," said Keith S. Warren,
director of product development at J. Frank Schmidt & Son, in
Boring, Ore., one of the largest commercial nurseries in the
country. He said that while some people still resist planting elms
for fear of disease, overall acceptance is strong and growing.
"Elms create their own atmosphere," Mr. Warren said. "They really
give a different feel to a street."
Elms are a vision of steadfastness, a dream of cathedral arches
over city streets, a memory of cool shade on a blistering summer
afternoon. For much of American history they had a devoted following
whose many members planted the sturdy giants in front yards and
along local streets from the Eastern Seaboard to the western
Then came the disease, imported in a shipment of European logs,
and the infatuation turned deadly. Because they were so well loved,
and had been planted so bountifully, elm trees turned out to be
quite vulnerable. The fungus raced from tree to tree through
intertwined roots or on the back of the peripatetic elm bark beetle.
Mr. Holloway remembers the elms from his boyhood and thought they
were gone forever until he happened to see one while flipping
through a catalog nine years ago.
The tree came from Princeton Nurseries. It used to be located in
Princeton, but as land became more valuable, the business was moved
to Allentown, N.J. Princeton University now owns most of the land
that belonged to the nursery, including the part that includes the
stunning row of elms that the nursery planted along Washington Road
in the early 1930's.
A few years ago, after Mr. Holloway started experimenting with
growing cuttings of the Princeton elm he got through the catalog, he
visited Princeton and saw the Washington Road trees himself. "I'd
never seen anything like that," he said. "It was just awesome."
Convinced that he had found elms that could resist disease, Mr.
Holloway tried to grow them from cuttings; doing so was not easy,
but it ensured that the disease tolerance of the parent would be
passed on. Failures meant the death of thousands of trees, but he
eventually perfected a method, which he declined to reveal.
Along the way, he heard stories about the origins of the
Princeton elm, and investigated its background. Several people told
him, with great certainty, that the man who headed Princeton
Nurseries at the time, William Flemer Jr., used seedlings from the
cemetery tree to develop the Princeton elm.
"That's the mother lode," Mr. Holloway said when he revisited the
tree in April. Besides its great height and girth, the tree has a
brownish-cinnamon tone common to Princeton elms.
"This tree has been here for 300 years while elm trees all around
it were dropping like flies," he said. So he checked in with Claude
G. Sutphen, 72, the third generation of his family to run Princeton
Cemetery. Mr. Sutphen confirmed that yes, he had heard the story
linking the big elm and Princeton Nurseries and did not doubt it for
"This was always a big strong tree," Mr. Sutphen said. To prove
just how long, he rummaged around his office for a few minutes and
came back with an 1854 photograph of Aaron Burr's grave.
The elm is already massive.
The final clue came from the genetic decoding. To make a case for
saving the trees during a road-widening project that was eventually
scuttled, a Princeton resident sent Mr. Kamalay, the molecular
biologist, cuttings from a dozen trees, including the Washington
Road elms, the cemetery giant, and other elms, but kept their
Mr. Kamalay prepared DNA profiles of each, then compared them.
The findings were incontrovertible. The DNA of the cemetery tree was
identical to that of the elms along Washington Road. And their DNA
matched that of the elms sold by Princeton Nurseries, which provided
the genetic stock for Mr. Holloway.
There is just one problem. The son of the man who planted the
elms more than 70 years ago said he was not sure the original came
from the cemetery tree.
"Could be," said William Flemer III, now 82, "but
if so, my father never mentioned it."
Mr. Flemer, who is retired but keeps his hand in the
running of Princeton Nurseries, recalled that his father grew a batch of
elm seedlings, and weeded out those with imperfections until just one was
left, and that became the Princeton elm.
Mr. Flemer seemed to accept the findings about the
cemetery tree, but not to embrace them. Nor did he endorse Mr. Holloway's
quest for the mother of all Princeton elms. "If he wants to say the seed
came from there, let him," Mr. Flemer said. "There's no one who's
going to naysay it."