Putting elms back on Elm St.

Johnny Elmseed may soon be to the American elm what Johnny Appleseed was to the apple tree. Johnny Elmseed, however, is not an American folk hero, but the title of a major grass-roots project being mounted here by the Elm Research Institute (ERI). The institute hopes to save the elegant Ulmus americanus, as well as replant elms in backyards and along the nation's elmless Elm Streets.

The idea is to locate and record every living elm in the country to ensure preventive treatment against Dutch elm disease, and to replace every lost elm with a live, healthy seedling. Anyone spotting a large American elm tree and sending the address to the ERI will receive a free elm seedling. Anyone locating and providing the institute with a residential lot number as well will get two free seedlings.

Most important, says John Hansel, the institute's founder, ''this is a statement of renewal of faith in the species.''

The Elm Research Institute, a nonprofit research and educational organization headquartered in a converted red-brick woolen mill in Harrisville, N.H., was established by Mr. Hansel in 1964 to raise and administer funds for financing research and saving the American elm from extinction. As Mr. Hansel says, ''The seeds of research were there, they just needed to be nurtured by private funds.''

Grants, sales of seedlings and fungicide, and annual dues of $15 from some 2, 000 members have funded almost $2 million in research grants to various universities.

According to data collected by the institute on more than 25,000 trees treated preventively by volunteers (known as ''conscientious injectors'') across the United States over a three-year period, more than 99 percent remain healthy.

Gerald Gregory, however, of the US Forest Service Laboratory in Delaware, Ohio, says the results of this research may be misleading. ''Injecting a number of trees scattered over a large area makes it difficult to apply statistics. The results may look good or bad,'' Dr. Gregory says. ''But if the material is applied properly (and he suggests using larger amounts of fungicide), there may be some benefit,'' he adds. Dr. Gregory does commend the ERI's efforts in ''educating people and getting support.''

Hansel says educating the public about caring for elms is the most difficult part of the whole operation. ''But once you find a few people who truly love elms,'' he says, ''they collect volunteers. Then it takes very little skill, and little effort, and you end up with a lot of community spirit.''

For years the Dutch have been falsely blamed for the blight. It first reached the United States in the late 1920s and early '30s in European elm logs to be used for furniture veneer. It was called Dutch elm disease because a Dutchman discovered in 1921 that the wilting, yellow leaves were caused by a parasitic fungus deposited by a beetle - and not by World War I bombs as some scientists had suggested.

The most successful treatment tried in the '40s was DDT. But the adverse environmental effects of DDT and its eventual banning forced researchers to look for new ways to combat the beetles.

The idea of ''systemic injection'' - injecting trees once a year with a fungicide - was developed by the ERI and the University of Wisconsin in the early '70s, aided by Canadian researchers.

The process is simple and relatively inexpensive: Each June, before the elm beetle's emergence from the bark, a fungicide (approved seven years ago by the Environmental Proctection Agency) is injected under low pressure at the base of the tree through a series of plastic tubes. The fungicide is sucked up through the tree and goes to work against the fungus. The cost of fungicide and renting the equipment through the ERI is under $30 - ''much less than the $1,500 cost of removing the trees,'' Hansel points out.

Not everyone is as confident, however, of the systemic injection technique's success. ''Under certain conditions, the treatment seems to be effective,'' says Art Schipper of the US Forest Service in Washington.

''But continuing boring of holes and injecting fungicides into the elms does cause damage,'' Mr. Schipper adds. ''Over a repeated number of years it may kill , or at least damage healthy trees.''

Hansel stresses, however, that the Elm Institute's program is not a ''cure'' for Dutch elm disease. It is a preventive treatment that may be applied at the grass-roots level instead of waiting for cities or towns to fund more effective maintenance programs.

And he adds that research has not stopped toward finding an elm able to withstand the blight - with the traditional American elm shape that once turned Main Street, USA, into a tunnel of green leaves. ''It's just a matter of time, say five to eight years, before we get young resistant trees out in massive numbers.''

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