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Into the Garden: Historic elms get a dose of medicine

CHARLESTON, W.Va. -- Mark Double, a research associate in the West Virginia University Department of Plant Pathology, has traveled to Charleston's West Side every three years since 1984 on a mission to vanquish a terrible disease.

"It's been close to 30 years that we've been doing this," Double said, as he bent over a large canister and filled it with water to mix with the fungicide he had carefully measured.

"This is like a flu shot, to prevent the disease."

The disease is Dutch elm disease and Double's "patients" are the massive elm trees surrounding the historic Glenwood Estate, a grand old home run by the Historic Glenwood Foundation. The house, an oasis at the corner of Park Avenue and Orchard Street across from Stonewall Jackson Middle School, was built in the mid-19th century for James Madison Laidley, a lawyer and politician from Parkersburg. Other residents included George Summers II and Lucy Quarrier, great-granddaughter of George Summers.

Originally, there were 16 elms on the grounds of Glenwood.

"We lost one in the back, No. 16, back in 1984," explained Kemp Winfree, vice president and operating officer of the foundation and the estate. That's when the preventative plan was put into place.

"We haven't lost any one since," Double said, smiling. Twelve elms remain on the property; a few have succumbed to storm damage and other issues not related to Dutch elm disease.

According to Wikipedia, Dutch elm disease is caused by a member of the sac fungi category affecting elm trees, and is spread by the elm bark beetle. Although believed to be originally native to Asia, the disease has been accidentally introduced into America and Europe, where it has devastated native populations of elms, which had not had the opportunity to evolve resistance to the disease. The name refers to its identification in the Netherlands by a Dutch phytopathologist in 1921; the disease is not specific to the Dutch elm hybrid.

Double said the disease spreads through the roots and is carried by beetles. In North America, the beetles that carry the disease are the native elm bark beetle, the European elm bark beetle, and the banded elm bark beetle.

Accompanying Double was Clark Haynes, retired from the Department of Agriculture Plant Industries Division and a former classmate of Double's at WVU. Haynes is an expert on forest health and was a major contributor to an important document, "West Virginia Statewide Forest Resource Strategy," prepared by the West Virginia Division of Forestry in June 2010.

Haynes said the elms are "precocious seeders," but that it is important to keep the large ones healthy.

The fungicide used is called Arbotect by Syngenta. Although it costs $417 a gallon and they need four gallons (totaling $1,668) to take care of the 12 trees, Winfree sees it as a good investment. He knows that the trees are integral to the historic beauty of the property. The cost is part of the operating cost of Glenwood controlled by the Historic Glenwood Foundation board of directors.

"I don't want anything to happen to the elms under my watch," Winfree said. His grandchildren, Isaac, William and Malia, were fascinated by the process and darted around the property retrieving information for their grandfather and chatting with Double.

The process takes two days. The amount of chemical used depends on the diameter of the tree. A series of small holes are drilled into the base of the tree, and a series of tubes with small emitters are placed in the holes. The chemical is pumped slowly into the tree.

One application of Arbotect by infusion protects the entire canopy for three growing seasons.

Reach Sara Busse at sara.busse@wvgazette.com or 304-348-1249.


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