Every tree has a story, and some have more chapters than others. A handsome Jefferson Elm that graces the south lawn of Fairsted, the Frederick Law Olmsted National Historic Site, is a living chapter in a story that began in about 1810, when an American elm sapling was planted on a farm near Boston, Massachusetts. Purchased in 1883 by Frederick Law Olmsted, the property became the home and offices of the man who is widely recognized as the founder of American landscape architecture. Founded in 1857 in New York City where the building of Central Park gained the world’s attention, the firm led the way in designing parks and open spaces for over a century, designing projects for some 6,000 clients in 47 of 50 states and beyond.
The original Olmsted Elm
By the time Olmsted purchased the property, the stately tree towered above the home and likely influenced his determination to own the Brookline property. The removal of other trees led to the elm becoming the dominant feature in the pastoral landscape of sweeping lawn, borrowed views and other signature design elements of the Olmsted firm. The full story of the noble Olmsted Elm is told on the NPS site.
Fast forward 120 years or so, and the beloved tree was in serious decline, suffering from Dutch elm disease, and in danger of falling. NPS horticulturists made the tough decision to remove it on March 30, 2011, a sad day documented in a time-lapse video on the NPS site.
Because attempts to clone a healthy descendent had been unsuccessful, the elm’s National Park Service stewards determined that its successor should be a Jefferson Elm. Derived from a stately American elm that grows on the U.S. National Mall in Washington, D.C. the cultivar has proven highly resistant to Dutch elm disease. Jointly introduced in 2005 by the U. S. National Arboretum and the National Park Service, Jefferson Elm is notable for its dark green foliage, open, U-shaped branch unions, arching limbs and an upright vase shape. JFS was among the first nurseries to grow and offer it for sale, as detailed in our May 13, 2020 post that includes photos of the parent tree on the U.S. Capitol Mall.
The 2013 search for a replacement tree for the Olmsted landscape led to our nursery, when we were contacted by Scott Hyndman of NPS. There were none to be found in New England, and ours were already sold out and shipped to customers including Halka Nurseries of New Jersey. Though his bare root trees were already scheduled for planting, Chet Halka generously released a bundle of five for our donation to the Olmsted site and other NPS projects. Hyndman made a special run to New Jersey and returned with the bare root tree just in time for the April 26 community planting ceremony, documented in An Elm Returns to Fairsted.
Fast forward a decade to 2023, and the storied Jefferson Elm is alive and well and thriving, having grown to about 11-12” DBH, and already above the rooftop of the Olmsted home. It’s well cared for by NPS staff and park rangers, and this summer by interns including Christian Guerra, a student of landscape architecture at University of Massachusetts – Amherst. He led a cultural landscape tour attended by Nancy Buley, JFS Communications Director, and other visitors who appreciated the shade cast by the young elm on a hot, humid afternoon. Christian shared the tree’s story and the vital role it plays in the historic landscape.
“The National Park Service was lucky enough to acquire a Jefferson Elm – a particular cultivar, a rare species that’s able to withstand Dutch elm disease – and it’s growing nicely”, he stated.
Fairsted is a hidden gem among the National Park Service’s many historical sites. Not far from the famous Arnold Arboretum of Harvard University, it’s a great stop on the history trail for all who care about trees, landscapes, parks and livable communities.