top of page

How to Save an Elm Tree

©Erna Buffie

A little over a year ago, I was sitting in my living room, mindlessly scrolling through an endless supply of news sites, when I suddenly heard a loud crack, followed by a deafening boom. Oh my God, I thought. There’s been an accident. Somebody’s been hurt.

So I leapt off the couch, rushed to the front window and this what I saw:

A massive Elm bough, some 20 to 30 centimetres in diameter at its widest point had been ripped off a tree on the west side of the street by high winds, and now lay half on the street, half on the sidewalk, its leaves still shaking from its precipitous fall.

Just to set the scene, I live in Wolseley, and our small residential block features a well-attended church, an apartment block, as well as multi and single-family dwellings, so the west side of the street is usually packed with parked cars.

Thankfully, on that particular day, there were no vehicles or people crushed under a hardwood projectile that weighed in at around 360 pounds, give or take.

Now, some of you may know where I’m headed with this, but just in case you don’t, this is precisely what happens in a city that prunes its trees every 25 to 31 years. And it’s an event that occurred on an epic scale during the devasting October 2019 snowstorm that resulted in thousands of downed branches and the loss or damage of more than 30,000 trees.

But lethal bough collapse, whether due to windstorms or heavy autumn snow, isn’t the only liability associated with unpruned elm trees. Lack of pruning can also spell death.

That’s because Dutch Elm Disease (DED), a nasty fungal predator, establishes itself first, not in the trunk of a tree, but in its branches as it’s carried upward with the flow of water. A healthy elm will respond by forming a plug in its water cells to try and stop the spread, but if an infected branch isn’t immediately pruned the disease will eventually move on to attack every part of the tree, including its roots.

What you’re left with is a dead tree standing. We have a number of leafless elms in Wolesley as I’m sure some of you have in your neighbourhood. Elm trees that stand stark, without a hint of green, in the relentless heat of the summer sun.

© Joe Bryska Winnipeg Free Press

It’s heartbreaking to see, and even more heartbreaking when the tree is finally taken down. Worse still, once DED has reached its roots, it can infect nearby trees through the root connections they use to share resources like water and nutrients.

Thankfully, our mayor and most city councillors have committed to establish a best practice seven-year pruning cycle for our public trees. But don’t hold your breath - that may take some time to implement.

So, what do we do in the meantime?

One thing you can do is monitor the elm on your boulevard or backyard during spring and early summer. If you see yellowing or dying leaves on one of its boughs, it could be a signal the branch is infected with DED. To check if it is, call 311 and ask the city to test the tree. If the disease hasn’t spread, get the infected branch pruned as quickly as possible. If the test shows the DED is systemic, the tree will need to be removed.

If it turns out your Elm is healthy there are also preventative measures you can take to ensure it stays that way, by hiring an arborist to apply a protective fungicide root injection. But bear in mind, the injection only protects the tree for three years, so it will need to be treated again.

Sounds easy enough, but there is one caveat – the cost. These treatments aren’t cheap, and many people simply can’t afford them. The price tag for pruning can run upwards of $1000 depending on tree size and the amount of trimming needed, while fungicide injections can cost $500.

So for those who can’t afford to pay, here are a few things you can do. Ask the city to test your tree, and whether it’s healthy or infected with DED, send an email to your councillor requesting service. If the entire tree is infected ask that it be quickly removed so it doesn’t spread to adjacent trees. If it’s still more or less healthy, ask your councillor if the city will pay for the tree to be promptly pruned and treated with fungicide and quote the estimated cost.

You may not like the response, but at very least you’ll be alerting your councillor about the need to quickly establish a 7-year pruning cycle and better funding for disease prevention programs.

Just by doing that, you’ll have done your part to help protect and maintain one of this city’s most valuable natural assets.

©Erna Buffie


bottom of page