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Champion elm dying of disease, expert says


DETROIT - The nation's largest American elm, located in a cornfield near Traverse City, Mich., is dying of Dutch elm disease, according to a leading plant scientist.

Samples from the elm, which is estimated to be at least 300 years old, were tested and the Dutch elm disease confirmed by R. Jay Stipes, professor of plant pathology at Virginia Polytechnic Institute & State University in Blacksburg, Va. The tree is known as the Buckley elm, named after the town south of Traverse City where it's located.

"I have looked at thousands of elms. I knew when I saw it," Stipes said.

One of Stipes' students who lives in Traverse City had told him about the Buckley elm. Intrigued, he went to see the tree in July when passing through Michigan.

Stipes, who has done research on Dutch elm disease for 35 years, was eager to see the 112-foot specimen in good health. Instead, he recognized the wilting symptoms of Dutch elm disease.

The fungus, spread by bark beetles, blocks the flow of water inside the trunk and branches.

"I could have wept when I got to the cornfield and saw the tree," Stipes said. From his observations and tests, Stipes concluded the disease is too advanced for treatment, and the Buckley elm will die, probably within a year.

Sandra Svec, who with her husband, George, owns the Grand Traverse County farm where the champion elm is located, said she was worried about the tree, especially because it has so few leaves this year.

"You can see through the whole tree. You never could do that before," she said.

The tree gained celebrity status in September 1997 when it became the national champion elm. Sandra Svec put a visitor's book at its base, and more than 1,000 people from the United States and elsewhere have trekked to the remote location and signed the book.

Newspapers, television stations and publications, including Smithsonian magazine, have featured the tree, which has a trunk circumference of 23 1/2 feet and a crown that is 115 feet across.

The tree will remain the national champion as long as it is alive and does not lose height to breakage or disease so another contender becomes taller, said Deborah Gangloff, executive director of American Forests.

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