Iowa’s Largest American Elm Is Gone
by Mark Rouw

        A few months ago, I received a call from the owner of the state champion American elm who lives in Folletts, a small town in Clinton County. The news was not what I wanted to hear. John Bernauer reported that the tree was down.

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I first found the big elm around 1985. If I remember correctly, the trunk then measured 15’10”. Even though it was not yet a champion, I was very impressed with this elm. I remember that the tree stood out prominently and could be viewed from a considerable distance from the highway west of town. When I found the tree still standing in 2010, I was elated. Since I had not seen the tree for twenty five years, I assumed it had probably died long ago from DED. Despite having lost one of its four main limbs recently, it still looked impressive. I wish I had checked on this tree before the huge limb was lost. I’m curious to know just how great the crown spread would have been. I wish I had taken photographs of it before the damage!

I updated the dimensions when I visited the tree in May of 2010. I found it to have a trunk circumference of 18’4”, a height of 80’, and an average crown spread of 98’, for a total of 342.5 points. The total points are determined by using a system devised by the American Forestry Association back in 1940. Each inch of circumference equals one point, every foot of height equals one point, and the average crown spread measured in feet is divided by four. All of the points are added together to arrive at the index, or total points. Since I started looking for big trees in the early 1970’s, I have only found three elms that were larger than this tree. One had a circumference of 23’ and the other two exceeded 20’. These three elms were lost to DED.

The Folletts Elm withstood the first wave of DED, and the subsequent waves, only to meet its demise in a storm. In 2010 the tree still looked good from a distance, but a closer inspection revealed a couple of worrisome problems. It had a large wound that occurred when the big limb split away from the trunk, and it had another issue that would prove to be even more serious. When John called me recently, I was very disappointed, but not surprised, to learn the tree was down. A split between two of the three main limbs that was visible in 2010 indicated a poor future.

When I talked to John, he expressed an interest in trying to preserve a piece of the elm. I told him I thought it would be great if a cross section could be cut from the trunk and preserved. Perhaps fifteen or twenty feet of the trunk remains standing, so the opportunity to save a cross section from this magnificent tree is still possible. However, some obstacles will have to be overcome to achieve this goal. How far down into the trunk does the split extend? The first large limb that was lost ripped away part of the outside of the trunk all the way down to about four feet above the ground. To get a complete cross section, it may be necessary to cut it at about three feet, which gets into the basal flare. The diameter here may be close to seven feet! Does anyone have a saw large enough that would be willing to donate their time and effort?

I’m always saddened when I learn one of my favorite big trees has been lost. The disappointment is moderated when another comparable big tree is found. Hopefully there is another huge elm out there just waiting to be discovered.