URCA student researches, creates campus display for largest elm tree in Illinois

One biology student has worked throughout the spring semester to give a long-gone elm tree new life.

Senior biological sciences and German major Emma Kuester researched the history and myth behind the largest elm tree on record in Illinois. Kuester created a photo illustration display for the tree, which located on campus property. The display can be found in Science Building West. Photo by Kari Williams

Senior biological sciences and German major Emma Kuester researched the history of the largest elm tree on record in Illinois that has its roots on the SIUE campus.

The hope, according to Kuester, is to display SIUE’s section of the tree in Science Building West in the future. The current display, which is in Science Building West, features photo illustrations of the tree, along with facts and photographs Kuester discovered this semester. Two other sections of the tree are located at the Illinois State Museum and the Madison County Historical Museum.

“We have the slab, and it was in the fourth floor of the biology department. They moved it whenever they were remodeling the [old science] building, and they want to do something with it,” Kuester said, “but in order to do something with it, they need to know more about it.”

Biological sciences professor Elizabeth Esselman hired Kuester as her Undergraduate Research and Creative Activities (URCA) student for the project. Kuester took Esselman’s plants anatomy class, after which Esselman said she thought Kuester “would be good” for the project.

Kuester studied old newspaper articles and files from the Madison County History Museum in addition to viewing the two other slabs with Esselman and SIUE librarian Matthew Paris.

“We all went up to the Illinois State Museum to look at their slab and how they displayed it,” Kuester said, “and what we could do, and how we could incorporate how they used the information into our presentation of it, but they [focused more on] invasive species… and didn’t actually focus on the history of the tree, which considering it was local and on SIUE property, we wanted to make sure we focused on that local history behind it.”

In her research, Kuester said she did not find much about the history of the tree itself, but rather local myths about the tree.

“The way [elm trees] grow is they grow in a very vase-like structure so they have a huge canopy, and this one was like [a] 124-feet dimension of the canopy, and so it was really shady,” Kuester said. “One of the myths was that 100 Indians used to hide in the boughs.”

Kuester’s favorite part of the project was viewing the different tree trunk displays.

“It was interesting to see that aspect of it, and there were bullets in the tree trunk that they took out and it was interesting being able to debunk the myth and/or add to it because our particular slab only has nails in it,” Kuester said.

Another myth, according to Kuester, came from a “very artfully written piece” explaining how an Indian chief gave his life for the tree. She also discovered that Girls Scouts tried to save the tree in the ’60s, along with the Madison County History Society trying – unsuccessfully – to get the tree recognition as a national landmark.

“There wasn’t enough reason to make that tree a landmark,” Kuester said, “and also that it was going to die soon because shortly after those discussions –  about a year after, two years after those letters were sent to each other – the tree was considered too infected to keep standing, which is why they cut it down.”

The tree, according to Esselman, was on the campus in the early ’60s near Stadium Drive and Polk Road and was cut down because it had Dutch elm disease (DED), a non-native disease initiated by the elm bark beetle.

When Dutch elm disease came to the U.S., Esselman said it “wiped a whole bunch of [elm trees] out.” Other trees have been affected by ash borer and Chestnut Blight, and Esselman said Dutch elm disease was “one of the first big losses of tree.”

The tree, according to Esselman, tells people about “losses of our native trees to these exotic pests that are coming in and wrecking and killing these trees.”

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