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February 15, 1996

Tree loses battle with Dutch elm disease

Dutch elm disease first appeared in the U.S. in Ohio in 1930. Since that time, the deadly fungus has spread to virtually every area of the nation where elms are found.

And now it has struck again at Pitt.

For the past five years, Facilities Management has been battling to control the spread of Dutch elm disease through the giant American elm that stands along the athletic walk on the Forbes Avenue side of Heinz Memorial Chapel.

Since there is no cure for the disease, however, all the applications of fungicides and fertilizer, watering and pruning undertaken by Pitt grounds crews were destined to end in failure and the tree to die.

Last summer, the elm finally succumbed to the disease and now, according to Senior Grounds Manager Ed Gruber, Facilities Management has no choice but to cut it down before the fatal fungus spreads to two other elms on the Cathedral of Learning grounds.

"We gave it all the tender loving care we could and we were able to keep it alive until last summer, when it just seemed to succumb," Gruber said. "What happens is, the fungus blocks up the vascular tissues in the tree and everything above that block dies." Actually, the elm has had quite a long life for an urban tree. Gruber says it was planted as a mature tree 20-25 feet tall and with an 8- to 10-inch trunk shortly before Heinz Chapel was dedicated in 1938. He estimates that the tree is 70-80 years old.

Because of stress from pollution, trees in an urban setting have an average life span of only 40-60 years, according to Gruber, who for 15 years before he came to Pitt in 1991 worked for Davy Tree, one of the oldest tree services in the country.

At one time, the Cathedral lawn was dotted with elms. A photograph in Gruber's files of Heinz Chapel in the late 1930s shows eight elm trees in the background. Today, only two of those trees are still alive. All of the others were killed by Dutch elm disease.

The two remaining trees are doing fine at the moment, according to Gruber, which is why Facilities Management plans to cut down the dead tree as soon as possible. Dutch elm disease is spread by the elm bark beetle, which becomes active in early spring when the trees bloom.

"That is why it is imperative that we get this tree down as soon as we can so it [the disease] doesn't spread," Gruber said.

Because of liability concerns and the tree's size, Facilities Management plans to hire a professional tree service to take down the elm, probably by early March.

Since the University is always losing trees, and always will, Facilities Management has decided to begin promoting the planting, by individuals or groups, of dedicated trees on campus.

Three such trees have been planted during the past two years. One was planted by the friends of a deceased priest and another by the sorority sisters and friends of a Pitt student who died. The third tree was planted by the Allegheny County Funeral Directors Association in memory of deceased county residents.

"Pretty much anyone can dedicate a tree, but we're mainly offering it to the University community," Gruber said. "With budgets' being tight, it can become a living memorial." According to Gruber, it costs $500-$600 to purchase a tree with a 3- to 4-inch trunk and have it planted with a dedication plaque.

Pitt currently has almost 600 trees on the lower campus and 200 – 300 at other locations, according to Gruber. An inventory management plan was recently developed to manage that "forest," which includes 50 – 60 trees planted over the past four years.

Most of the trees on campus are oak, sycamore, Bradford pear, ginkgo and little leaf lindens. As one protection against disease, recent plantings have tried to diversify the University's tree population by introducing several varieties of maple, ash and flowering trees.

–Mike Sajna

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