This is the story of two Elm trees or Ulmus americana. They shared the land currently known as Bayne Park in common; but one is of the past and one is of the present. To begin our journey let’s travel back in time to learn about one of the Bellevue Borough’s best-known and most treasured landmarks shown towering over three-story homes in the below photograph.
When the Declaration of Independence was signed in 1776, a majestic American Elm was standing atop a hill high above a river valley on land that would one day become known as Bellevue. As the years passed, it continued growing into a graceful, stately shape, with branches spreading like fountains and its leaves glowing golden in the Autumn sunlight.
Andrew Bayne was one of the original landowners in the area, and he gave each of his daughters property on which to live. His daughter Amanda was given the property we now know as Bayne Park, and her Architect husband James Madison Balph designed a beautiful home for them to live in- which is now known as Bayne Library.
The book Bellevue Centennial 1867-1967 shares poetically on page thirteen, “The old Elm trees on the Balph estate stood like sentinels over the life of the borough. Flocks of doves lived in those branches and on a hot dry summer’s day, their solemn cooing aroused emotions and vague wonderings in many a youth’s heart.”
Admired as prominent shade and street trees in the urban landscape, American Elms began suffering in the 1930’s due to a fungus, Ceratocystis ulmi, that causes Dutch Elm Disease. It entered the United States through infested wood imported from Europe. European and Native Elm Bark Beetles transferred the fungus to healthy trees as they fed on branches in the upper part of the tree. The fungus could also be transmitted by root grafts between trees.
Matthew Arnold laments the loss of the Elms in his poem Rugby Chapel, “…and the elms, / Fade into dimness apace, / Silent.”
Dutch Elm Disease taught us the importance of planting a variety of trees, as opposed to rows of the same tree, to make it more difficult for diseases and pests to transfer from tree to tree.
Over time the other Elms on the property had met their fate, one lone Elm remained on the property. This Elm became known as the Lone Sentinel. It was designated a Historic Elm by the Elm Research Institute of New Hampshire in 1978, and the Pennsylvania Big Tree Commission recognized it as the largest American Elm in the State.
At the landing of the original grand staircase in Bayne Library visitors are met with the warm glow of a stained glass window designed by Nick Parrendo of Hunt Stained Glass Studios. It was donated to the library by the O’Hare family to honor the memory of Bellevue residents, Mary and Harry O’Hare. The “O” shaped center medallion stands for O’Hare and it surrounds a tree representing the Lone Sentinel. The twelve leaves around the perimeter of the window signify Mary, Harry, and their ten children who grew up playing beneath the Lone Sentinel’s generous shade.
When one of the largest limbs of the Lone Sentinel crashed to the ground during a storm, a professional was called in to examine the tree. Extensive decay was revealed, and for safety reasons the difficult decision was made to cut it down in 1998. All was not lost, some of the wood remains as Robert Fonzi used some branches to craft some benches and a table which can still be found in Bayne Library.
Although the Lone Sentinal is no longer here, it lives on in many ways. One of my favorites is through the young Elm tree currently growing in Bayne Park in roughly the same area where the Lone Sentinel once proudly stood.
Elms are known visually for their tall straight trunks and furrowed bark. The green leaves are double-serrated. Notice that the leaf is asymmetrical at the base of the leaf where it meets the stem. The leaves grow in an alternating pattern along the twigs.
Elm seeds are flat and encased in a samara which is a papery wing. Typically, when the samaras fall most seeds disperse within three-hundred feet, but some may be carried as far as a quarter of a mile in favorable wind conditions. Small birds delight in dining on these seeds.
Discreet clusters of flowers (as seen in the bottom left of this botanical drawing from 1819) appear in the spring. The tiny flowers with brown bases form in clusters near the branch tips. The buds, flowers, and seeds are eaten by squirrels, mice, and opossum.
Penn’s woods, 1682-1982 : the oldest trees in Pennsylvania, New Jersey, Delaware, and Eastern Shore, Maryland edited by Halberd W. Wertz and M. Joy Callender features the Lone Sentinel estimating its age to be 300 or more years and recording a measurement of the trunk at chest height at 19′-7″.
One of the most eye-opening books on trees is The Hidden Life of Trees by Peter Wohlleben. Within the book he explains a research study that found when caterpillars feast on the leaf of an Elm, the trees detect the caterpillar saliva and release a chemical signal into the air that attracts parasitic wasps. The wasps lay their eggs inside the caterpillars, and the wasp larvae that emerges from the eggs eats the caterpillars from the inside out.
The Giving Tree by Shel Silverstein was read at the dedication of the stained glass window and reportedly there was not a dry eye amid the participants.
Learn more about all the Trees of Bayne Park and explore our Interactive Bayne Park Tree Map to see the locations, photographs, and names of over a dozen different species of trees. Be sure to also visit our Treesources page to learn about local trees, caring for trees, and more.
Written by Linda, Spring 2020