September 15, 2022

Historic Trees: Provo’s One-of-a-Kind Ulmus Americana

Written by TreeUtah
The weeping elm in Provo The weeping elm in Provo Photo courtesy of the Utah FFSL

On the ground of the historic Utah County Courthouse, there’s a tree unlike any other in the world, an individual that stands out among an already-rare species.

The Ulmus Americana, also known as the American Elm or Water Elm, is a species of elm native to the Americas, naturally occurring in a region that encompasses almost the entirety of the eastern half of the United States. Although it’s a hardy tree that can withstand temperatures both high and low (as low as even -44’F), the species is currently listed as endangered. Due to logging and the spread of Dutch elm disease (DED), the majority of the population has been wiped out. Fortunately, progress has been made in developing practices to prevent the spread of DED to clustered and individual elms, including a vaccine. Researchers have also begun developing hybrid cultivars that are resistant to DED. While the Ulmus Americana population might not ever return to what it once was, their future is looking more stable. These innovations in tree protection will help our community protect one of Utah’s great treasures – the wholly unique Ulmus Americana on the grounds of the Utah County Courthouse in Provo. While the Ulmus Americana is already rare, this individual tree in Provo possesses qualities that are entirely unique to itself.

Shortly after the completion of the Utah County Courthouse in 1926, two county employees, Roni Christopherson and Elmer Pulley, were tasked with purchasing trees to be planted on the courthouse grounds. In their search for the right trees, Roni and Elmer went all the way up to a nursery in Ogden, where the owner gifted this special tree to the pair. Although the identity of the nursery owner is unknown, Roni and Elmer took note of his description of the tree’s origin – he had created the tree through experimentation, grafting budding willow trees to the body of an Ulmus Americana and in the end creating a lone, entirely unique tree that he called a Weeping American Elm. While technically an Ulmus Americana, this particular tree grows in a fashion that no other does. Its branches spread out into a twisting tabletop – sort of like a skinny octopus doing a headstand – and they’re so heavy they have to be supported by metal beams to protect them from their own weight. Throughout its 96-year history, the county has done all it can to keep this unique, beautiful tree healthy and kempt for generations well into the future to enjoy.