WATERVILLE — The giant blue spruce tree in Castonguay Square downtown, long used as a Christmas tree to help usher in the holidays, is no longer there.

City workers early Tuesday morning cut the tree down, as about half of it was diseased, according to Parks and Recreation Director Matt Skehan.

“Half of the tree had been infected with spruce needle cast disease,” Skehan said Tuesday. “It just hadn’t recovered, really, over the last few years. It served its useful life, I think, in Castonguay Square. It was quite overgrown with multiple tips and was listing to the west.”

Public works and parks and recreation workers were cleaning up the debris from the tree just before 9 a.m., after having cut it down about 7 a.m., he said.

“It dropped perfectly,” Skehan said. “It just came right down.”

For years the 40-foot-tall tree perched between Common Street and City Hall had been adorned with Christmas lights during the holiday season. The lights were officially turned on the day after Thanksgiving, after the Parade of Lights and the opening of Kringleville, an evening event that draws thousands of people downtown to help usher in the season.

Skehan said another tree will be placed in the square for that purpose this year.

“We’ll either do a cut tree — either from Quarry Road and prop it up or maybe a synthetic. We’ll make it look nice. People will be happy, I think,” Skehan said.

The tree’s age could not be determined immediately Tuesday.

Mayor Nick Isgro said Tuesday he prefers that a real tree be put there. “I think our plan for this year is to have a temporary Christmas tree because it is a little late in the season and next year we will be looking at replacing it with a new community tree that will be planted,” he said.

Isgro said he has had experience with blue spruce trees on his own property that he had to cut down.

“I know this was one of those things that had been a long time coming,” he said of the tree in Castonguay Square.

City Manager Michael Roy said the biggest benefit to taking the spruce tree down is that it allows what he thinks is the city’s largest elm tree, in Castonguay Square, to be more visible, particularly from Main Street.

“We nicknamed her ‘Ellie the Elm,’ and we believe she’s been growing since before the American Civil War,” Roy said.

For many years, Waterville has been known as the Elm City. Years ago, though, disease ravaged many of the city’s elm trees. “There’s no better public square to have an Elm tree like that than Castonguay Square,” Roy said of the large elm.

Mark Huard, who has been involved in helping to plan for the annual holiday parade, was surprised Tuesday to hear about the tree’s demise.

“I feel bad that it is gone because it’s such a tradition and everyone gathers around it for the tree-lighting,” said Huard, of Winslow. “Hopefully, something can be put up in its place.”

Skehan said deciding to take the tree down was difficult for all involved.

“I’d like people to know it wasn’t an easy decision,” he said. “None of us took it lightly. We got feedback from others. We came to a strong consensus that it needed to come down.”

Skehan said four or five years ago a friend who works for the Asplundh Tree Expert Co. noticed that the blue spruce was diseased. In order to maintain the tree, the city would have to spray it annually, according to Skehan.

“For maintenance, for cost, it just didn’t make sense,” he said.

The disease caused the tree to be unsightly, he added. “We like to think of Castonguay Square as one of our most beautiful, prized areas in the city. It didn’t look good because of the disease.”

Before the start of the holiday season, Fire Department workers would put the lights up. For years they could wrap them horizontally around the tree, but in recent years, they could not. City officials and others just weren’t happy with the way it looked as a Christmas tree, according to Skehan.

“We want to be proud of something down there,” he said.

Officials thought about planting a live tree in the square this fall to replace it but decided to wait until spring, he said.

The University of Maine Cooperative Extension website says needle cast disease, or Rhizosphaera kalkhoffii, “is a fungus that can cause extensive defoliation of spruce and fir, especially where the trees are grown out of their natural range.” Successive years of defoliation can lead to the tree’s death, according to the site. Symptoms include needles turning brown or purple in late summer, with browning continuing throughout the winter and needles being cast a year or more after infection.

“In general, the disease tends to begin in the lower portion of the tree and work its way up,” the site states. “In the spring, needles that were infected the previous year will show rows of tiny black dots on the underside. These are the spore-bearing structures (pycnidia) emerging from the stomata and may be capped with a whitish waxy plug.”

Amy Calder — 861-9247

[email protected]

Twitter: @AmyCalder17


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