Loss of UMaine’s scientifically, historically significant Campana elm a springboard for reinvigorating Campus Natural Heritage Endowment Fund

Editor’s note: Story updated Aug. 1.

A more than 150-year-old American elm tree at the University of Maine that was saved by pioneering research on Dutch elm disease and that inspired the establishment of a campus natural heritage fund has succumbed to rot in its trunk and will be removed from the Hitchner Hall landscape in early August.

Seeds and cuttings from the tree, known as the Campana elm, have been collected, ensuring the tree lives on, and wood that can be salvaged from the tree will be saved for possible use on campus and potential fundraising efforts for the Campus Natural Heritage Endowment Fund through the University of Maine Foundation.

Arborists have closely monitored the tree in recent years to ensure its health and the safety of the campus community. For decades, its massive limbs have been cabled together overhead to ensure stability. Through the years, historians have noted that the elm may have predated the establishment of the University of Maine in 1865.

This spring, arborists determined that the main trunk of the tree was nearly fully rotted — degradation that created compromised structural conditions and safety concerns. The assessment concluded that the tree would not survive a major wind storm and that there were no other options to sustain it. 

The UMaine campus has several elms remaining, but the Campana elm is the most prominent and oldest.

“The natural beauty of our campus landscape is one of the university’s many distinctive features,” says UMaine President Joan Ferrini-Mundy. “It is a community loss when one of our stately heritage trees is lost to natural causes, but the legacy of the Campana elm — both its scientific and historic significance — will live on and our commitment to a sustainable natural campus landscape remains steadfast.”

Native American elms once dominated the landscape and were a popular shade tree lining city and town streets. A 1922 tree survey at UMaine noted that most of the campus streets were predominantly lined with elms and maples. The Mall was originally planted with two rows of American elms, according to the University of Maine Historic Preservation Master Plan

In 1987, the last nine elms on the Mall, 60-year-old trees that had been transplanted as seedlings and grown on campus, died from Dutch elm disease and were removed to make way for young ash trees planted a decade earlier.

Dutch elm disease, a non-native, invasive fungal pathogen, was introduced in Ohio in the 1930s and spread nationwide, killing millions of trees in communities and in forests. 

Internationally recognized plant pathologist Richard Campana began his pioneering work on Dutch elm disease in the Midwest in the 1950s. He joined the UMaine community in 1958 as head of the Department of Botany and Plant Pathology. 

For more than four decades, Campana conducted research and was a sought-after expert on the disease that was decimating the iconic shade trees across the American landscape. At UMaine, he trialed different fungus-killing compounds to inject into the elm trees on campus and at different locations in Maine in an attempt to curb the rate of disease infection. In the 1970s, he and his students were attempting to save the remaining elms on campus. In 1977, an estimated 60% of them were infected with Dutch elm disease, but Campana’s team was able to keep some of them alive with the chemical injections. 

One of the successful treatments was against an early infection of Dutch elm disease in the oldest stately elm near Hitchner Hall in 1978, which was injected again in 2004. UMaine continued the elm’s treatments every three years.

The elm was named in honor of Campana in 2000, a year after initial building plans for the Hitchner Hall addition were revised to accommodate the tree following community concern that it not be lost to construction.

Campana passed away in 2005. In his obituary, his family noted that “Dick was a strong supporter of the health of the trees on the University of Maine campus,” and support of the cause in his memory could be made to the Campus Natural Heritage Endowment Fund.

The fund was established in 1999 with a $10,300 donation by UMaine professor Susan Brawley to help support the long-term care and beautification on campus, and related planning, educational and outreach programs. The Campus Beautification and Arboretum Committee administers the funds from the endowment, which now totals $53,000 with the contributions of 77 donors.

The spirit of the fund is to help support the care and enhancement of the natural environment on campus, says Brawley, a UMaine professor of plant biology in the School of Marine Sciences and cooperating professor of biological sciences in the School of Biology and Ecology. Goals include preservation of the campus landscape as a sustainable natural heritage while providing a setting for teaching and research — a living classroom and reflection of Maine.

UMaine’s campus was designated as an arboretum in 2002 with the help of then UMaine Provost Robert Kennedy, who went on to serve as university president.

The loss of the Campana elm is a springboard for renewing interest in the Campus Natural Heritage Endowment Fund and the importance of the natural landscape at UMaine. 

UMaine’s natural landscape has been a focus since the inception of the state’s land grant university. Indeed, famous landscape architect Frederick Law Olmsted, who designed Central Park in New York City, was hired to design the campus of the then Maine State College of Agriculture and Mechanic Arts in 1866. 

This year is the 200th anniversary of Olmsted’s birth

Olmsted walked over the designated land adjacent to the Stillwater River, and even in his first report to the Maine State College trustees, he reflected his appreciation of the varied natural landscape and how it should affect building placement.

The college trustees did not fully accept his campus plan, but Olmsted’s vision for landscape design carried forward in the way the campus developed, particularly in the early years. 

“The love and fame of this tree in Maine and elsewhere provide a pivotal opportunity to convert sadness into securing care of our campus for the ages,” says Brawley.

To donate to the Campus Natural Heritage Endowment Fund, go online or contact the University of Maine Foundation, umainefoundation@maine.edu.

Contact: Margaret Nagle, nagle@maine.edu