Part 1: 1900s -1950

Elms as a link to the past; impatience and emotion replant the Yard

The hardest part about examining the history of the trees in Harvard Yard is figuring out when to begin. For me, the modern history begins with the story of the Class Day Tree. This was an American elm that stood between Hollis and Holden Chapel. The long tradition held that on class day, the graduating men would scale the tree to retrieve flowers that had been fastened to the branches. This activity was the highlight of the class day ceremony for most graduates.

Class Day Tree circa 1911 (Harvard Archives)


The trees in the yard were in a terrible state. There was a call to action in 1914 in which the university decided to replant the Yard. The real question in this was deciding which type of trees to use. The elms were valued for their fast rate of growth and their vase-shaped form. Other types of trees would not be as susceptible to the leopard moths. There was intense debate between the alumni and members of the university on this matter. Reports by Guy Lowell and Professor R.T. Fisher in 1914 and 1915 respectively recommended against an elm monoculture and for the planting of small trees as replacements. Lowell viewed the red oak as the ideal tree because of its fast growth rate and high canopy. The alumni, however, had different ideas. A large number of those who wrote the Harvard Alumni Bulletin called for large (20-25 foot) elms to replace the dying ones.

(See a photo montage of an elm from during transplantation)


Another view of the Yard shortly after the elm plantings (Harvard Archives)









Class Day Tree circa 1886 (Harvard Archives)

But around 1909, the leopard moth blight began attacking elms all around Cambridge . The elms started to die branch by branch. The main method of attack was cutting off infected branches before the larvae could spread. However, this method proved to be ineffective in controlling the destruction of the elms. In addition, it created mangled trees that were quite undesirable. Finally by 1911, the Class Day Tree was one of those mangled skeletons. The loss of this important tree prompted calls for action from both within and outside the university.


View of Holworthy Hall, circa 1914. The diseased elms are cleared. (Harvard Archives)

View of Yard circa 1915 with large elms planted (Harvard Archives)

In the end, the alumni won. The combination of impatience and sentimentalism were too much for the experts to combat. The main trees used in the replanting around 1915 were elms. To prevent a complete monoculture on “expert advice,” English elms were also planted along with the American elms. The small victory men like Lowell and Fisher achieved were the planting of dozens of small red oaks in 1911 before the intense alumni pressure began. The red oaks that survived the few years after planting still survive today in the Yard. The same cannot be said for the elms. Shortly after the major elm planting, Europeans began to notice a strange disease that was claiming thousands of elm trees. It soon would find its way across the Atlantic . Who knew that the Yard would have to endure another devastating attack on its elms?


Go to Part 2: 1950s - 1980s - Dutch elm disease and an uncertain future for Harvard trees

Also, even though the hurricane of 1938 did not affect the Yard as adversely as the blight to the elms, there were still many trees that fell. This page shows some images of the aftermath of that storm.


General Information about Trees on Harvard Property. HUB 3848, Harvard University Archives.

Shaw, Jonathan. “Every Tree Doomed.” Harvard Magazine . July/Aug 1994. 46-53


Created by Ryan Lynch

Last updated February 28, 2007