Dear Readers, whenever I go to Marylebone High Street (almost always to visit Daunt Books, easily my favourite bookshop in the world), I always pause to check up on the Marylebone High Street Elm. This tree is designated as a ‘Great Tree of London’, and so it should be – the Dutch elm outbreak in the 1970s put paid to most of the elms not only in London, but in the UK, so this tree is a real survivor. It is a Huntingdon Elm (Ulmus x hollandica ‘Vegeta’), a natural hybrid between the wych elm and the field elm that was once common across the east of England, but is now extremely rare as a mature tree, especially in London and environs. ‘Nine Elms’ (now home of the US Embassy) was named for its trees, and Seven Sisters was also named after 9 elm trees that used to grow there, plus there are hundreds of street names with ‘Elm’ in them. That a plant that is so much part of our history could be wiped out in less than a decade is a stern warning to us about lapses in biosecurity, especially with the shadow of ash dieback about to destroy another iconic tree. The bonfire of regulations that is currently promised will no doubt make things even worse.
But still, the Marylebone Elm is doing extremely well, providing passersby with some much-needed shade, and growing a little every year. Long may it thrive, in spite of the cars and taxis swooshing past, climate change, drought and flood.
To see elms in all their glory it’s well worth a visit to Brighton, which has managed not only to hold onto many of its street elms, but also has the National Elm collection. Brighton’s location, between the South Downs and the sea, and the rigorous attention of its arborists, has managed to protect the trees when so many others were lost.
This was the tree often seen in Constable’s paintings. The loss of mature elms must have been heartbreaking for those who knew the countryside well. Carol Ann Duffy sums it up beautifully in her poem ‘The English Elms’.
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.