MINNEAPOLIS — A 200-year-old American elm tree stood condemned, finally succumbing, it seemed, to the disease that has killed off hundreds of thousands of other elms in Minnesota.
The tree, one of the few old elms left in the Twin Cities, towered over a small channel of Minneapolis' Lake of the Isles long before Minnesota was a state. Somehow it survived untreated as Dutch elm disease spread over the last 50 years from neighborhood to neighborhood. Its trunk, wide enough to walk through, bent into an oval as it grew and squeezed between a sidewalk and two-lane road built around it.
But, at last, foresters found Dutch elm disease — a fatal fungal infection spread by beetles — in the tree this fall. They planned to cut it down Oct. 1.
Then Kyla Wahlstrom stepped in.
Wahlstrom, who's lived in the neighborhood for 42 years, saw the spray-painted red stripe around the trunk — the telltale marking of a tree destined to be cut down — while walking her 11-month-old retriever. She had lost some of her own trees to the disease, but none that were this tall, this old or this remarkable.
With a circumference of 16 feet, Wahlstrom estimated the elm was likely between 195 and 225 years old.
"Think of all the things it's seen and lived through," Wahlstrom said. "All the hard winters and droughts. It was here when Minnesota was just a territory."
Wahlstrom, a retired professor at the University of Minnesota, said she learned long ago not to take things at face value. If the tree was to be cut down, she wanted to know exactly why there was no other option.
She talked to the city foresters who found the disease, then to several other professionals and experts. She learned that while the disease is a certain death sentence when it makes it to a tree's roots or main trunk, the tree can survive if the infection is only within its branches.
Wahlstrom had the tree retested. Sure enough, the disease had not yet spread to the trunk.