Dear Readers, it saddens me that so many people living in the UK have never seen a truly mature ‘English’ elm (Ulmus procera). Although the tree always had a melancholy reputation (it had a habit of dropping branches without warning, and was a popular wood for making coffins) it seemed such a part of the English landscape, and featured in the paintings of Constable. Actually, the elm was probably introduced by Bronze Age farmers, but we loved it none the less, and thought that it would always be here. But like so many things, we didn’t notice it until it was gone, which was what happened in the 1960’s when Dutch Elm disease arrived, in the form of some Canadian timber intended for use in the small boat industry. This is a fungal disease spread by burrowing beetles: the tree responds to the fungus by plugging up its own veins to prevent the infection, but this also prevents the tree from receiving nutrients and water, and so it eventually dies. Over 25 million trees died in England alone, and France lost 90 percent of its elms. Today, you can see young elms in hedgerows, as the roots aren’t affected and can send up suckers which will reach approximately two metres tall before the fungus kicks in, but mature elms are extremely rare: there is a fabulous specimen on Marylebone High Street, and Brighton is an elm ‘hotspot’, with 15,000 elms: this is partly due to the relative geographical isolation of the town (which is between the English Channel and the South Downs) and partly because a very close eye is kept on the trees, with remedial cutting and pruning occurring at the first sight of any problems.
Which brings me to these trees, reflected in the glass of the Salvation Army building on Queen Victoria Street.
The first thing to say is that these are not straightforward elms: they are New Horizon elms, a cultivar produced by scientists in Wisconsin. They crossed a Japanese elm tree (Ulmus davidiana var Japonica) with a Siberian elm tree (Ulmus pumilla) to produce a tree which rates 5 out of 5 for Dutch Elm disease resistance. In tests, the saplings apparently develop portly trunks in relationship to their height, but these trees seem very elegant to me. It does appear that they are all bending away from the building, which is probably because that wall of glass is preventing the crown from growing symmetrically. Let’s hope that they don’t all topple over.
Despite being named ‘Best New Plant Variety’ by Horticulture Week in 2005, New Horizon has had mixed fortunes in the UK. It appears to grow very slowly compared to other cultivars, and to dislike heavy, water-logged soil (of which London has a profusion). However, it has withstood flooding (just as well I suspect), and in 2017 a group of New Horizon elms in Vauxhall were found to be hosting a population of the white-letter hairstreak ((Satyrium w-album), an endangered butterfly that is completely reliant on the elm tree: the caterpillars feed on the flowers, leaves and fruit, they pupate in a crevice in the bark, and then the adults feed on honeydew secreted by aphids at the top of the tree . When the elms started to die, the butterfly had nowhere to go. What a wonderful thing it would be if the Vauxhall butterflies ‘found’ this little grove and started to use it! You would have to use binoculars to see them, however, as they rarely descend to human height.
I was unsure about how to identify an elm, but there are a couple of useful signs. The first is that the base of the leaves is asymmetrical, and the leaves themselves are heavily veined, a bit like those of hornbeam.
And how about those seeds? They look positively edible, though I wouldn’t advise it.
And finally, here are the flowers of an elm tree. In mature trees they are very high up, and so they are unlikely to attract much attention.
So, given half a chance maybe one day these trees will elbow the surrounding buildings out of the way, and achieve the massive girth and advanced years of some European elms. One that survived for an estimated 650 years (until it finally succumbed) was the Biscarrose Elm in France, and what a venerable elm it was.
I couldn’t leave my morning in the City, however, without visiting the swamp cypress in the Cleary Gardens that I wrote about a few weeks ago. When I last saw it it was lime green. Look at it now! It was glowing in the early winter sun. I was so pleased to have caught it before it sheds its needles, and even more pleased when I spotted an enormous queen bumblebee feeding on the ivy. Having been so frustrated at the lack of natural space in my immediate surroundings, it is such a delight to realise that, if I wander a little further, there is more than enough to keep me happy.
Photo One by 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
Photo Two by By Stavast22 – Own work, CC BY-SA 4.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=77651882
Photo Three by By Ptelea – Own work, CC BY-SA 4.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=39179918
Photo Four By No machine-readable author provided. Ptelea assumed (based on copyright claims). – No machine-readable source provided. Own work assumed (based on copyright claims)., Public Domain, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=864952
I remember the elm trees. and the devastation when the disease took hold and we lost them. There’s a coastal town in Maine – Castine – that has many surviving elm trees As in Europe, the disease took so many elms in the US – an estimated 77 million. Castine’s trees managed to escape that fate perhaps for some of the same reasons at the Brighton elms. The disease is said to have been carried to the United States by bark beetles on a shipment of logs imported from the Netherlands by an Ohio furniture company.
One of the perils of global trade seems to be that when we import natural materials, we are sometimes accidentally importing whole ecosystems, eh – in the UK we have ash dieback, something else that arrived via garden centres and tree nurseries….
The swamp cypress pictures are lovely to look at.
Almost an elegy for the elm, but not quite. I found the story of their demise most interesting to read – I’m ashamed to say that tho’ being in my 60s I don’t remember them going. What I do remember is the place names associated with them. My grandparents lived in Elms Road, a friend’s parents lived in Elmfield Road, and we ourselves live on the windy salty Northumberland coast at a place called Elmbank. How on earth did the elms survive those elemental conditions, I wonder – and yet succumb to those sneaky burrowing beetles …?
I used to live in Elmbridge Drive, Eastcote, Middlesex.
Love the pictures of ‘Swampy’ and those of the Elm flowers and seeds. I miss them so very much and wish that I could see them once again in their grandeur.
Those Ivy flowers look so much paler than my yellowish ones.
I’m not sure that I’ve ever seen an elm, or if I have, I wasn’t aware of it. Was just reading about a strain in Boxworth that is resistant to the disease in a Richard Mabey book last night.
The modern cultivars of elm are useful shade trees, but are not much like the trees that they replace. The ‘Chinese’ elm is completely different from the weirdly sculptural original. (Chinese elm survives Dutch Elm Disease, but is not planted because it is a vector.) Dutch Elm Disease was not as devastating in our region as it was elsewhere, perhaps because elms were not so common. Many of the old American elms that were planted as street trees in San Jose survived, and are now succumbing to their age rather than to Dutch Elm Disease. They really were grand.
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