George Washington assumed command of the Continental Army under an Ulmus Americana Elm tree in Cambridge, Mass., on July 3, 1775. The tree died in October 1923, but foresighted botanists made sure its legacy lived on at universities across the United States, including the campus at Northern Arizona University in Flagstaff.
The botanists, realizing the tree’s historical significance, took grafts of the famous elm.These tree clippings were mailed out by the Harvard University Arboretum in 1931 to universities in every state to be planted on the 200th anniversary of Washington’s birthday.
One of these was planted at the Arizona State Teachers College – now NAU – during a celebration planned and sponsored by the National Society Daughters of the American Revolution (DAR) Coconino chapter on Arbor Day, April 22, 1931. This hearty tree is one of the few survivors of this nationwide planting, as most have succumbed to Dutch elm disease.
The plaque placed at the base of the sapling stated: “Under the forebearer of this American elm, George Washington assumed command of the Continental Army at Cambridge, Massachusetts on July 3, 1775.”
Other foliage was later planted near the elm, including the McCormick rose, named for Margaret McCormick, wife of the second Arizona territorial Gov. Richard McCormick. The elm planting became the first of what is now an annual tree planting by college authorities. The tree is part of the school’s arboretum walk that celebrates many historic and interesting plants on campus.
The famous elm has thrived, but the plaque was stolen in a fraternity prank. When NAU renovation plans threatened to destroy the tree in the 1980s, NAU Forestry professor Donald E. Wommack realized the tree’s heritage and began grafting efforts to preserve the elm. He also endeavored to create cuttings resistant to the deadly Dutch elm virus.
NAU Greenhouse Manager Bradford Blake joined Wommack’s salvation efforts, which eventually caught the attention of the DAR Agua Fria chapter. The Coconino chapter was dormant during this time. On May 8, 1987, the group held a ceremony to replace the plaque.
On April 15, 1992, an elm sapling, successfully grafted from the NAU elm, traveled to Washington, D.C., destined to be planted at DAR headquarters. The planting and dedication of this tree occurred during the 101st DAR Continental Congress. Wommack and Blake were awarded the prestigious DAR Medal of Conservation in November 1991 for their preservation efforts.
Twenty years later, this D.C. tree is a healthy 50 feet tall. A plaque telling its story is planned for next year.
Today, the NAU tree is entering middle age and is being weakened by the insects.
DAR’s Coconino Chapter is again working with Blake to ensure preservation of the tree. Funds are being raised to hire an arborist to remove the insects. Once the tree has regained strength, grafts will be taken to ensure the lineage of the historic elm lives on for future generations.
- S.D. Olberding. Photo courtesy of the author.