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Distributed October 23, 2003
Contact Mark Nickel

Watson Institute’s trademark elm has Dutch elm disease, will be removed

The American elm tree outside the Thayer Street entrance to the Watson Institute has been found to have Dutch elm disease. It will be removed by year’s end.

PROVIDENCE, R.I. — “Elmo,” the majestic American elm tree that defines the Thayer Street entrance to the new Watson Institute, has an advanced case of Dutch elm disease and must be removed to prevent the spread of disease on campus or to adjacent neighborhoods. The removal will take place before year’s end.


Elmo in winter
Elmo, one of the University’s largest American elms, was already guarding the front door when the new Watson Institute opened for occupancy. This photograph was taken in December 2001. [Photo: John Abromowski]

“We knew a mature American elm would be vulnerable, but we were determined to preserve it here at our new home,” said Thomas J. Biersteker, director of the Watson Institute. “We took great care to protect it during construction, and we retained a tree service to look after the health of this single tree. Losing Elmo has been a great disappointment.”

University grounds staff first noticed the tell-tale symptoms of Dutch elm disease – yellowed and curling leaves in the crown – when the tree leafed out last May, according to Patrick Vetere, grounds superintendent. The grounds staff immediately pruned out the diseased areas, injected the tree with medication and sent samples to a lab for testing, but the tree could not be saved. The Providence city forester examined the tree and agreed that it should be removed as soon as possible.

“Dutch elm is a vascular disease,” Vetere said. “It is carried by the circulatory system and moves rapidly throughout the tree. It’s a disease for which there is no cure.”

The elm tree, among the largest in the University’s collection, has been a dominant feature of the Watson Institute’s new home, a dramatic building designed by Rafael Viñoly and dedicated in May 2002. University officials will consult with architects and campus planners to decide how best to treat the space that will be left by the tree’s removal.

Brown University is home to more than 80 American elms, one of the largest institutional collections left in North America, according to Vetere. Each of the trees is treated twice a year and monitored closely in the spring for any signs of disease in the crown. Because Dutch elm disease is transmitted principally by a bark beetle, pruning of deadwood and careful removal of fallen branches are important parts of the management program.

The University will store logs from the felled tree and hopes to develop creative ideas for using the wood, in collaboration with the Rhode Island School of Design. Wood from infected elm trees may be safely stored as long as the bark has been completely removed.


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