Racing to Revive Our Embattled Elms

Writer Richard Wolkomir went in search of the scientists who have devoted their life's work to saving the most beloved of the nation's trees, the American elm. At a National Arboretum facility in the suburbs of Washington, D.C., Wolkomir caught up with U.S. Department of Agriculture researcher Denny Townsend.

Townsend, a plant geneticist who has labored 20 years to resuscitate the American elm, and his colleagues agree that they just may have hit the dendrologic jackpot. After two decades of cloning elms and--in a good cause--injecting their saplings with the fungus that causes Dutch elm disease, these USDA scientists have found not one but two American elm strains that resist the disease.

For towns and cities across America, this is heartening news indeed. The deadly elm-disease fungus, a scourge that originated in Europe, began infecting American trees in 1930. By 1980, the fungus had killed, at least according to some estimates, 77 million American elms. Almost overnight, the graceful trees that created arching green bowers over countless towns had been felled.

Today Townsend has finally discovered two strains, christened New Harmony and Valley Forge, that may well make all those Elm Streets across America once again live up to their names. By the year 2000, a number of retail nurseries should have these remarkable saplings for sale.

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