JOLIET – The winner of the city’s 2014 Big Tree Contest also is a survivor, one of the few American elms to live through the epidemic that all but wiped out the species here in the 1960s.
The winner, an 81-foot-tall specimen, stands in the side yard of Catherine Comfort’s home at 401 Catherine St. in Joliet.
“I’d have to give my husband, Frank, credit,” Comfort said. “He took very good care of that tree.”
Friday is Arbor Day, a day on which Americans are asked to reflect on the value of trees in their lives. The elm still standing in the Comforts’ yard is an example of how one family’s care and attention preserved a tree otherwise largely gone from the American landscape.
The Comforts’ tree was one of only six American elms entered in the contest, according to Jim Teiber, Joliet’s arborist.
In the past, the city’s big tree contests have featured more numerous species, such as burr oaks, sycamores, sugar maples and silver maples. But the 2014 contest focused on the American elm, the huge, vase-shaped trees whose vast canopies once covered a large portion of the city.
“We have a few left out there that I pay attention to, but there’s not a whole lot of them left in our parkways,” Teiber said.
American elms were common in Joliet when Comfort was younger.
“We moved to the house in 1958, and it was just a tiny tree then,” Comfort said.
Elms covered the parkways along Glenwood Avenue and Catherine Street back then, she said. But most died during the late 1960s, when the Dutch elm disease ravaged trees across the Midwest.
“We went to visit my mother and father one weekend, and by the time we got back the city had removed all the elm trees [on the parkway],” Comfort said. “But this one was in our side yard, and it was saved.”
The fungal disease, spread by elm bark beetles, will still kill any American elm left untreated, Teiber said.
“You can keep them alive as long as you treat them, but you have to stay committed,” Teiber said. “If you treat the fungus before it gets started, you have a good chance of saving the tree.”
The Comforts were able to save their tree by having it treated every two or three years. In recent years, Comfort said she wondered if it was worth continuing the $600 treatments.
“I said to my sons ‘I don’t know if I should keep doing it,’” Comfort said. “But they said ‘Oh my God, mother, dad loved that tree. Do it.’”
This is the eighth time the city has held the contest, in conjunction with Arbor Day. But while Arbor Day focuses on the planting of new trees, the Big Tree Contest highlights adult trees.
“We want people to realize that these large, established trees are impossible to replace,” said Rita Renwick, conservation chair for the Will County chapter of the Illinois Audubon Society. “People need to value trees in the urban forest.”
Renwick recalled when American elms covered many of the streets around her home in Joliet. After they died out, many were eventually replaced by ash trees, which are now succumbing to the emerald ash borer. The city estimates it has lost about 10,000 ash trees so far.
“Trees add to our quality of life by giving us shade, creating oxygen, providing a home for birds and squirrels, and creating ever-changing leaf colors,” Renwick noted. “People don’t always think about that until the big tree is gone.”
Whether it was small or large, the Comforts always have appreciated their American elm.
“I was always thankful it was there,” Comfort said. “I really enjoy it.”
By the numbers
Statistics on the winner of the 2014 City of Joliet’s Big American Elm Tree Contest:
• Height: 81 feet, with an average crown of 73 feet
• Circumference: 154 inches, or 12 feet, 10 inches
• Points: 253 (points are a method of ranking big trees)
• Age: 70 to 80 years (estimated)
• Location: 401 Catherine St.
• Number of contest entries: 6