Photo Gallery | Protecting an Elm tree in Pittsfield

Video | An elm tree in Brattlebrook Park is protected from Dutch Elm Disease by Elm Watch.

PITTSFIELD — It's been a while since Priscilla Rafuse would play in Brattle Brook Park under the giant American elm tree.

She grew up on Dillon Street with the tree behind her house. Back then her last name was Fisher. She used to paint pictures of it or hang out with her dad in its shade. It was always in the background as she grew older, running through the park with her friends.


Even though she moved away in 1979, Rafuse still has fond memories of the tree. So from her home on Cape Cod, where she still has a photograph of the tree hanging on a wall, she recently donated about $800 to Elm Watch for a medical procedure to prevent the tree from becoming infected with Dutch elm disease.

"I want that tree to outlive me," Rafuse said.

So Wednesday morning, specialists with the Haupt Tree Co. inserted more than 90 taps at the base of the tree and injected about 60 gallons of a specialized treatment that traveled throughout the tree on a dry, windy day.

Dutch elm disease hit the northeastern U.S., after having ravaged Europe, in the early 1930s. At the time, there were roughly 77 million elms tree in North America. By 1989, more than 75 percent had been lost to the disease, which is spread by the elm bark beetle.

But not this tree.

According to Tom Zetterstrom, founding director of the nonprofit group Elm Watch, this elm is between 150 and 160 years old, meaning it was probably a sapling during the Civil War. But because it was located on a farm, with few other elm trees nearby, it was not infected. It is still unaffected by the disease.

Rafuse said she paid to inject the tree once before, about 30 years ago. She happened to have recently come into some extra cash, and her first thought was to give the tree another treatment.

"I was amazed it was still alive," she said.

Zetterstrom said that today the tree has a diameter of 50 inches and is still in good shape. He noted that because of the dry, hot weather, the tree was thirsty, and actually absorbed the treatment fairly quickly. Through its vessels, the medicine was pumped throughout the tree's structure, all the way through the top-most branches and leaves.

He said the treatment is supposed to last three years, after which the tree should get another dose.

"This elm is the iconic tree of Brattle Brook Park," Zetterstrom said. "There are only a half a dozen other significant elms left in Pittsfield, if that. And I believe this is Pittsfield's champion elm — the largest one in town."

George Wislocki, the founding director of Berkshire Natural Resources Council, said the tree is "an enigma — an amazing tree in just perfect condition."

His first project on the Berkshire Natural Resources Council was to take over the former Brattle Brook Farm and turn it over to the city as park land, eventually becoming known as Brattle Brook Park. He remembers when the elms started dying.

"It was devastating," Wislocki said. "By the 1950s there were only a few stragglers left. Today they are rare. Trees in this condition are few and far between. If you like trees and you come across a tree like this, it's a great pleasure."

Steve Thode prepares the elm tree in Brattle Brook Park for injection to prevent Dutch Elm Disease on Wednesday.
Steve Thode prepares the elm tree in Brattle Brook Park for injection to prevent Dutch Elm Disease on Wednesday. (Ben Garver — The Berkshire Eagle |

Rafuse is glad to know the tree stands a better chance after the treatment. And she hopes the community will recognize the Brattle Brook Park elm for what it is – a heritage tree worthy of preservation.

"I'm hoping the people of Pittsfield will take good care of it," Rafuse said.