The state tree of North Dakota is the American elm. At one time it was a beautiful presence in virtually every small American town, gracing parks and beautifying the streets. Unfortunately this tree is extremely susceptible to a type of fungus known as Dutch elm disease, which destroyed many of the American elm trees that people had come to love. Formerly shady streets became bare of trees and parks suffered as the trees died.
Before the fungus reached America’s shores, the state tree of North Dakota was highly valued as a shade tree. Its popularity was enhanced by its hardiness, fast growth habit and stress resistance. Then the fungus hitched a ride to American shores in 1930 in a batch of European logs, setting off the mass death of American elms. The disease has since spread to both coasts of the country and infected trees in 41 states.
The rate of die-off was a cause of great concern by the 1940s, just as the American elm was adopted as the state tree of North Dakota. Massachusetts, too, adopted this elm as its state tree around the same time. North Dakota passed legislation in favor of making the American elm its state tree in 1947. Scientists know that a beetle spreads the fungus, which came originally from Asia. Starting in Ohio, it spread rapidly westward.
A few new varieties of American elm were brought to market in the mid-1990s, bred especially to be resistant to the fungus that killed so many elms decades earlier. A few of these promising varieties are named New Harmony and Valley Forge. An older variety named Princeton also possesses good resistance.
The state tree of North Dakota can grow to 100 feet (30.48 meters) with a 70 foot (21.33 meters) spread. Its leaves turn various colors in the fall, varying from gold to brown, before falling off. Its scientific name is Ulmus americana and it is also known by the names Florida elm, water elm, white elm and soft elm. Early settlers loved the American elm as much as their modern counterparts, calling the tree “the lady of the forest.” Birds and deer sustain themselves with food from the tree, and its wood is used to make furniture, crates and boxes.