The Elm: A Return to Burlingame

Camperdown elm in Washington Park, from Trees of Burlingame pamphlet, 1977

Elm trees line today's Cambridge Drive. Photo © Danica Hodge

When John McLaren planted rows of eucalyptus trees in the 1870s, they were interspersed among elm trees and were meant to help the elms thrive. Who would have predicted that a century later, the elm would be the threatened species and the eucalpytus dominant?

The elms that McLaren planted simply didn’t thrive. Some suspect that they were the victim of the eucalyptus themselves, which tended to take a larger share of the water and nutrients available. Later, Dutch elm disease, a fungal disease, began to wipe out elm trees across the country, and Burlingame was no exception.

This disease, known as Ceratocystis ulmi, came from Europe. Spreading from New England to the Midwest, the disease killed about 90 percent of the elms in those regions over decades. By 1975, it was identified in Northern California.

There is no control over the disease itself, but inoculation is attempted through control of the disease’s carrier, the bark beetle. The bark beetle can fly three miles and travel an indefinite distance by traveling on motor vehicles, so containment is difficult. Furthermore, by the time the disease is discovered, the damage has already been done to individual trees.

For 25 years, a quarantine prevented any new elms from entering the state. That quarantine was lifted in the late 1990s after Burlingame began testing of some newly developed disease-tolerant elms trees on El Camino. The Dutch Elm Research Area was developed on El Camino Real, at the northernmost border of the city at Rosedale.

In 2001, the city removed an American Elm that had resided in Washington Park for approximately 130 years. The tree had fallen victim to Dutch elm disease, a fact which was first noticed in 1980. City officials tried vigilantly to save it by spraying it annually with treatments, and it appeared reasonably healthy through the mid-1990s. However, it had continued to decay until it became a hazard to the public. At the time, Parks and Recreation Director Randy Schwarz said, “It really is a significant tree to us. It is a shame we are losing it.” Disease-tolerant trees, including elms, continued to be planted in Washington Park and other parts of Burlingame.

The Elms of the Northern Burlingame

Since the 1920s and 1930s, the Gate neighborhood of northern Burlingame (Oxford and Cambridge roads) featured the beautiful elms. But those trees succumbed to the disease, and as they died, the city replaced them with liquidambers. But the neighborhood missed its elms. Working with the city’s Parks Department and the Beautification Commission, residents came together to make a plan and raise funds for replanting elms.

The first batch to arrive was a group of 12 American elms bred to resist Dutch elm disease. Another 20 trees, hybrid Chinese and European elms, arrived soon after. The neighborhood raised $1,600 for the project while the city chipped in $400. Today, the saplings grow strong and tall, a beautiful symbol of public and private partnership.