Dear Readers, this magnificent elm tree, over 100 feet tall, was for a long time the only surviving elm tree in Westminster. It is estimated to be about 150 years old, and was probably planted as a sapling in the grounds of the parish church of St Marylebone. Unfortunately, the church was so badly damaged during bombing in World War II that it had to be demolished, so now the tree finds itself marooned on the pavement outside a tiny Garden of Rest.
As I stand under the tree and lean back to take my photo, I become aware of what an enormous organism this is, dwarfing the people under it. It has the a presence, a sense of individuality that I often recognise when I spend time with old trees. And this one is a survivor twice over, because not only did it escape the German bombs, it was also somehow bypassed by the Dutch Elm Disease of the 60’s, which killed over 25 million trees in the UK alone.
Dutch Elm Disease had been in the UK since the 1920’s, but this was a mild strain of the micro-fungus which causes the disease, and which usually just killed a couple of branches. The fungus is carried by bark beetles, who normally do only minimal damage when their grubs dig tunnels through the bark. Unfortunately, the 1960’s brought a much more dangerous strain, carried into Europe in a consignment of logs from North America. As the fungus enters the wood, the tree reacts by plugging up the xylem that brings nutrients and water to the leaves. Gradually whole sections of the plant die off, and so the leaves that bring nutrients to the rest of the plant fall, and the tree starves. Over 75% of all the elm trees in the UK died.
Elms that have been incorporated into hedgerows survived the fungus, which only really starts to impact on the tree when it grows above 5 metres. However, all over the country the giant elms, the preferred nesting trees of rooks, succumbed. Among them was the largest elm ever recorded in the UK, the Great Saling Elm, with a girth of 6.86 metres and a height of 40 metres. The elms in the paintings of John Constable are also mostly gone.
This tree has been our companion since at least classical times: the Linear B lists of military equipment found at Knossos mention that the chariots were made of elm wood, and elm was used by medieval bowmen if yew couldn’t be found. The Romans also used elm saplings as supports for their grapevines: the ancients spoke of the marriage between the elm and the vine. As Ovid put it,
‘ulmus amat vitem, vitis non deserit ulmum’ (the elm loves the vine, the vine does not desert the elm)
Elm wood was hollowed out to make many of London’s underground waterpipes, and to make lock gates on the canals. The original Tyburn Tree was a huge elm, before it was replaced with a gallows. And Seven Sisters in north London originally referred to a stand of seven elm trees, referred to in the mosaic by Hans Unger on the platform of the tube station. Carol Ann Duffy, the Poet Laureate, wrote a poem called ‘The English Elms’ about this very subject:
Seven Sisters in Tottenham,
long gone, except for their names,
were English elms.
Others stood at the edge of farms,
twinned with the shapes of clouds
like green rhymes;
or cupped the beads of the rain
in their leaf palms;
or glowered, grim giants, warning of storms.
In the hedgerows in old films,
elegiacally, they loom,
the English elms;
or find posthumous fame
in the lines of poems-
the music making elm-
for ours is a world without them…
to whom the artists came,
time after time, scumbling, paint on their fingers and thumbs;
and the woodcutters, who knew the elm was a coffin’s deadly aim;
and the mavis, her new nest unharmed in the crook of a living, wooden arm;
and boys, with ball and stumps and bat for a game;
and nursing ewes and lambs, calm under the English elms…
great, masterpiece trees,
who were overwhelmed.
To hear her read her poem, have a look at the link here.
I noticed that wire had been twisted around the trunk of the Marylebone Elm, I suspect as a support for Christmas fairy lights. This is something of an indignity, but I suspect that the tree is less perturbed than I am. I sometimes think that we treat trees with such disregard because we can’t imagine that they are living things because they are so large, and live on such a different timescale from us. Certainly, we seem to view them with all the compassion that we would extend to to a lamp post. And yet, I have cried hot tears at the callous cutting down of trees, and at the disrespect that we show them, and it seems I am not the only one: in Sheffield recently, two ladies were arrested for trying to prevent the cutting down of their local street trees, an event which commenced at 4.30 a.m. to try to avoid public outcry.Although the Dutch Elm disease problem has never gone away, there have been thousands of new plantings of the trees, including some in W1, the postcode of the Marylebone Elm . Elms are complicated trees, with many subspecies and varieties, and some have more resistance than others. Plus, as already noticed, small trees can survive as saplings or in hedges for many years. The elm is still here, under the radar, still providing nesting places for blackbirds and food for over 82 species of insects, including the white-letter hairstreak butterfly, whose caterpillar feeds only on elms. The numbers of the butterfly were much reduced by the death of their foodplant, as you might expect, but they are now fighting their way back.
The giant elm of Marylebone seems strangely out of place these days, slotted in among the buildings as if every last inch of space that it takes up is begrudged. And yet, here it still stands, a survivor of fire and destruction, and of the insidious fungus that destroyed so many of its compatriots. It reminds me of that generation of people who survived the trenches and saw untold horrors, and yet who just got on with it. And that is what living things do, given half a chance – they carry on, until they can’t. May the Marylebone Elm carry on for many years to come.
Photo One (Constable) – By John Constable – The Yorck Project: 10.000 Meisterwerke der Malerei. DVD-ROM, 2002. ISBN 3936122202. Distributed by DIRECTMEDIA Publishing GmbH., Public Domain, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=149396
Photo Three (Elm Flowers) – By Rosser1954 (Own work) [CC BY-SA 4.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/4.0)], via Wikimedia Commons
Photo Four (Elm Leaves) – By Ptelea at English Wikipedia [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons
Photo Five (White-letter hairstreak) – By Ian Kirk from Broadstone, Dorset, UK – White Letter HairstreakUploaded by tm, CC BY 2.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=30182755
I discovered many of the elm facts included in this blogpost in this article by James Coleman at The Londonist, and very informative it is too.
All other blog content copyright Vivienne Palmer. Free to use and share non-commercially, but please attribute and link back to the blog, thank you!