Group working to save rare species of Elm

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A small group of passionate people have banded together to identify and protect a dwindling species of Elm tree, possibly the largest of which is found in Merrickville. The majestic Rock Elm in Merrickville, dubbed the “Merrickville Monster”, towers high over the canopy of trees on the property of the Percival House mansion on Main Street. It is one of only a few Rock Elm left in the area, and it is by far the largest. According to a blog post written by local biologist and artist Aleta Karstad, the tree stood 92 feet high and 3.5 feet in diameter in 2014, making it possibly the largest living Rock Elm in Canada, and maybe the world. “It is almost certainly over 150 years old, and may well be in excess of this, given its impressive dimensions, balding bark, and the tendency of Rock Elms to survive as understory trees for decades before claiming a place in the canopy,” she writes.

Owen Clarkin is one of the people working on identifying and preserving Rock Elm like the one in Merrickville. He says that Rock Elm used to be prolific in the area and were a huge source of hard wood sent to England in the mid to late 19th century to build ships and other products. Through over-foresting, and the influx of Dutch Elm Disease, the Rock Elm has become scarce. Owen says that, because of the spread of the disease, Elms fell off the list of trees to plant for reforestation, and the Rock Elm has gradually slipped through the cracks. “Foresters don’t know it exists,” he says.

Owen, along with about twelve other people, are documenting the Rock Elm that are left, in an effort to help the species re-establish itself in the area. “The end goal is to help conserve the species and re-establish it as a tree of relevance,” says Owen, who plants and grows Rock Elm in his yard. “Ultimately it is the conservation of a species.”

He believes that education and awareness are the group’s key mandates. They hope to engage the public and inform them about the traits of these rare trees, so they can identify and protect them. There is already an organization called the Elm Recovery Project, run by the University of Guelph, that is working at re-establishing the Rock Elm’s cousin, the American Elm, in Ontario. However, they are not addressing the Rock Elm (or the other type of Elm, the Slippery Elm) in their work.

Rock Elms grow upright, have leaves with veins that are close together, and have corky, twisted branches. They can be easily identified in the winter, when the buds on the twigs are pointy and yellow. To help with tree identification, Owen runs a group on Facebook where anyone can get help identifying trees. It is the largest tree identification group online, with almost 30,000 members.

Merrickville resident, Michael Whittaker, is on his own personal crusade to get the Rock Elm in Merrickville protected and recognized for its historical significance. Through his research on Roger Stevens, he learned that Rock Elm from the area were used in the construction of the Titanic at Harland & Wolff shipyard in Belfast, Northern Ireland. Michael hopes to get the tree recognized through Forests Ontario, or the Ontario Heritage Trust, and to garner support from Merrickville-Wolford Council for the protection of the magnificent tree, which holds such great significance Merrickville’s history.

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