In four years as an adoptive parent, Bonnie Sullivan has seen her charge shoot up to 10 feet tall. She’s about to send junior from the garden, to reclaim a place in New Haven history.
Sullivan (pictured), a 15-year-member of the Garden Club of New Haven, is one of dozens of foster “parents” of elm trees. They have been raising a new generation of elms for planting around the city.
It’s part of a Garden Club project to repopulate New Haven with elms. Working with the Proprietors of the Green, the Garden Club is giving out young elm trees to people who want to plant them in their yards, to put the elm back in The Elm City.
New Haven earned that name some two centuries ago, when James Hillhouse started the nation’s first public tree-planting campaign, making the city home to many mighty American elms. Those trees were decimated in the mid-20th century when Dutch Elm Disease hit town, carried by beetles.
Not all of the trees were killed, however. The Garden Club several years ago began an experimental project to bring the elm back, in part by collecting seeds from the surviving American elms in New Haven. The theory is that the elms that have survived have some kind of natural resistance to Dutch Elm Disease, and their progeny might be able to thrive here as well.
Under the leadership of Debbie Edwards, the Garden Club planted about 300 seedlings and placed them in the care of foster parents who have overseen their development for the past four years. The seedlings are a combination of home-grown New Haven American elms and purchased Jefferson elms, a variety that’s naturally resistant to Dutch Elm Disease. Edwards said 40 or 50 of the seedlings have now grown into trees big enough to transplant.
Most of the ready trees are between 5 and 8 feet tall, Edwards said. “And then of course there’s Bonnie’s 10-footer.”
Sullivan’s been growing her 10-footer in her plot in the community gardens in Edgerton Park. Amid her turnips, Swiss chard, and leeks, the elm has shot up to quite a height, drawing questions from her fellow gardeners in the park.
“I never thought that this would be this big,” said Sullivan, who lives across the street on Edgehill Road.
Sullivan said she’s happy to be part of the elm experiment. “I’m pretty proud of it. It’s in my vegetable garden. I think that’s hilarious.”
The elms aren’t suitable to be street trees, but are good for people’s yards, Edwards said. As each one is replanted it will be mapped by GPS so that the Garden Club can monitor its health over time, to see if the new elms can avoid Dutch Elm Disease. The project isn’t just a way to make the city greener; it’s a scientific experiment as well, Edwards said.
The elm-planting project coincides with the city’s 375th anniversary this year. It also marks the centennial of the Garden Club of America, of which the Garden Club of New Haven is one of 200 chapters.
“Every club has a tree project,” Edwards said. “Of course, we picked the elm because ... you know why.”
In a related project, the Garden Club of New Haven commissioned the creation of a 30-minute documentary about the history of the Green, narrated by native son Paul Giamatti. And the club is making two walking tours of the Green, one of which will be a cell-phone audio tour narrated by Giamatti.
As for Sullivan’s 10-footer, Edwards said it hasn’t yet been assigned to a new home. She said it will likely go in Beecher Park, near the Mitchell library.
Edwards said the club will start planting in the next two weeks and hopes to have all the elms replanted by the end of May.