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(Photo courtesy of Alan Goodheart)

A LEAFY PRESENCE FALLS TO ILLNESS: Just like the offspring that was planted in 2000 when the Mercer Oak on the Princeton Battlefield fell after being struck by lightning, a descendant of the 300-year-old elm tree that once stood in Princeton Cemetery will soon take its place. The old tree, which succumbed to Dutch Elm disease and advanced age, had long been known to be somewhat immune to the disease that wiped out 90 percent of the country's elms.

Always a Stalwart In-Town Presence, Beloved Elm Finally Falls to Disease

Matthew Hersh

Princeton certainly lost one if its own last week.

As the Princeton Borough Department of Public Works slowly dismantled the American elm that had hovered over downtown Princeton for more than 300 years, passersby who had known this tree as part of the streetscape could feel that a void was quickly being created in the northwestern corner of the Princeton Cemetery.

The upstanding elm that seemed to keep protective guard over Witherspoon and Wiggins streets was also the object of daily admiration.

"It was a beautiful elm and I hate to see it go," said John Kuser, Lambert Drive resident and professor emeritus of forestry at Cook College at Rutgers. "I've known for the last year that it was going to go because it halfway went last year," he said when branches began to fall more quickly than usual.

"I looked at it and said 'uh oh, next year, maybe the whole tree'."

The official cause was complications from Dutch Elm disease, but this tree far outlived many of its kin. American elms can die as fast as six months from the time they are contaminated with the disease. In fact, more than 77 million elms were wiped out when the disease first struck the country in the early 1930s.

But there was a strain of elms, a so-called "Princeton Elm," that was surprisingly resilient toward the illness and did not succumb as quickly as its biological brethren. The ancestor of that strain was, until last week, a resident that was arguably older than the cemetery in which it lived.

But in its lifetime, this probable ancestor of the Princeton elm family spawned many offspring, often equally as resilient. The row of stately elms along Washington Road are all descendents of the cemetery elm. Those elms, planted sometime around 1920, came from seedlings planted by William Flemer Jr. of Princeton Nurseries.

But Mr. Flemer, whose plantings preceded the arrival of the elm bark beetle that ravaged a huge portion of the elm community, did not know the strength of the tree with which he was dealing. He simply saw an attractive specimen suitable for breeding.

Princeton elms can also be found in New York City, and a line of 88 elms has recently been planted along Pennsylvania Avenue near the Mall in Washington D.C. But Mr. Flemer's selection "had nothing to do with Dutch Elm Disease," Mr. Kuser said. "He selected a nice, fast-growing, straight, American Elm that was easy to propagate."

"He just happened to hit on a tree that was moderately resistant."

Descendents of the cemetery tree, the Princeton elms, have been tested by the U.S. Department of Agriculture National Arboretum as being "extremely resilient to Dutch Elm Disease, according to Roger Holloway, who grows Princeton elms at his Atlanta nursery, Riveredge Farms.

And while his trees' immune systems are board certified for their resilience, the cemetery tree, by virtue of age, has proven itself.

"That tree has only been tested by time, and it's pretty impressive that it lived to be 300 years old," he said.

The curious thing about the cemetery tree and the Washington Road elms, Mr. Holloway added is that most of the elms in the immediate area died once Dutch Elm struck, "but the Princeton Elm has been tested by time and by science."

So what is it about these trees that provides them with leafy longevity? Well, right now, Mr. Holloway said, nobody really knows. There is no concrete genetic evidence as to why these particular trees live as long as they do. "We just know that this one and a few others have become resistant. It's something in the genes.

"But the link between that big [cemetery] tree and the Princeton elms on Washington Road was a certain sequence of the DNA that's identical that maybe, by comparing the two, we could discover a marker gene that would enable us to have a more simplified test for other old, remaining elms," he said.

But often, Mr. Holloway added, those old, surviving elms were just winners of a circumstantial lottery – isolated from everything else and far from disease.

But that's harder to say about the cemetery tree, Mr. Holloway said, "because it's right in the middle of the Borough of Princeton where so many other trees have succumbed."

Mr. Holloway, unsure of the exact age of the tree, has asked that the rings on the remaining pieces of the tree be studied.

However, a new set of rings will now hover over the centuries-old graves that offer a history of Princeton. A new Princeton elm, one from the field that produced the Washington D.C. saplings, will be planted in the cemetery by the end of April, said Mr. Holloway – who will personally be on hand to see the next generation of Princeton elm plant its roots in the same spot–where it all began.

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