Siberian elm: Santa Fe’s saga of love and hate

Siberian elms at Cathedral Park in 2017. Luis Sánchez Saturno/New Mexican file photo

Woe the poor Siberian elm. It is the invasive species poster tree in Santa Fe.

It prohibits virtually any growth beneath its canopy, sucks up water wherever it takes root, which can be virtually anywhere, and spews a carpet of floaty seeds once a year.

They crack sidewalks and house foundations and are darn near impossible to kill. A stump scored and poisoned will grow back as a fat shrub within a year or two. Nobody ever waters one, but apparently the high desert of Northern New Mexico feels just right to the robust Asian import.

This summer and fall they have been spectacular. In years of drought they look pathetic, with their skinny leaves all ragged and pale. Maybe it was the deep snowpack from last winter, but they are still full and deep green in the middle of October.

Some have a love/hate relationship with the politically incorrect tree. In our neighborhood of Barrio La Canada, we had two in the backyard. One was truly majestic, rising four times higher than our home with limbs thicker than my trunk, which is pretty thick. The other was the overgrown bush-style elm, sprawling as wide as it was tall, which was tall enough for my 10-year old son to build the coolest tree house in the neighborhood with a 16-foot fireman’s pole from the platform.

The majestic backyard brother of the treehouse elm taught us a valuable lesson when one of its old limbs crashed into the neighbors’ property, fortunately missing the house next door, since we learned responsibility for any damage was rooted in our property.

One suspects the elm seeds came down the Santa Fe Trail from back east accompanied by pioneer boosterism. It can grow anywhere! The perfect shade trees! Indeed, a few years back a blurb appeared in The New Mexican’s “100 Years Ago Today” feature, where town leaders were congratulating themselves on the virtual eradication of those nasty native cottonwood trees whose annual seed-spew was measured in feet, unlike the tidy carpet of elm seeds.

It’s probably no coincidence that some of the most beautiful specimens of the deciduous giants are the carefully maintained grove on the federal courthouse property downtown.

They seem to be particularly adept at thriving along roadsides, getting plenty of water from pavement runoff. In areas that get mowed regularly, they thrive just outside the mow-line.

In Eldorado, there appears to be an ad hoc group of elm lovers who lovingly prune the scruffy lower branches of street-side pioneers, sculpting them into classic back-East elm shapes. They put orange cones up at the edge of the road and get after them with loppers and saws. Elm lovers united!

Other unwelcome Asian imports are equally politically incorrect. The pale-leafed Russian olive is a nasty, spiky, root-shooting conqueror that can take over a wetland. Ever notice the lagunita on the north side of I-25 just before the La Cienega exit? Of course you haven’t, because an impenetrable wall of old growth olives surrounds the natural pond.

On the other hand, our big backyard specimen in Eldorado draws tons of birds who love the dry fruit, especially long-traveling robins.

If it can grow in our water-stressed environment, then it can be appreciated.

Kim Shanahan is a longtime Santa Fe builder and former executive officer of the Santa Fe Area Home Builders Association.

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(2) comments

Dan Frazier

There was an excellent article about Siberian Elms in 2017 (though I disagree with some of the disparaging comments from Parks Director Richard Thompson). The trees are valuable and should not be destroyed indiscriminately.

Jack Hunter

Just cut one down... They are and environmental catastrophe in a desert... An assault on the water table. We should be eradicating them in Eldorado along with Russian Olives not pruning them.

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