Stories from the Barn
A hive of activity in the Hampshire downlands
The Elm Tree
The elm tree once largely unnoticed, left gaps in our tree lines and hedgerows as they succumbed to Dutch Elm Disease.
Towards the end of the 1970’s it became apparent that many of the trees that were part of the canopy of British woodlands were Elm trees. The Elm tree was fast disappearing and leaving conspicuous gaps in our native countryside.
Today Ash Die Back disease is having a similar effect. Pre-emptive cutting down of Ash trees that are suffering from the disease, opens up new landscapes.
The shock of losing an entire stock of a native tree brought great sadness to the British people. What once had largely gone unnoticed now left first yellow, then a grey stroke on the landscape. Shaded village greens, shadowy narrow lanes, small clumps of woodland, were lost. So what was the history of the Elm in British natural history and landscape and what did its loss mean?
How much did we love the Elm tree?
Not very much if folklore has anything to tell us. It was considered a tree of ill omen. In times when people used to sleep and rest under the shade of trees, the elm tree had a reputation for losing its boughs a little too readily. As well as that, that the wood was no good for burning.
‘Elm logs like smouldering flax, no flame to be seen’
A log of wood that generates little heat or flame was useless for the cottager whose need for fire for warmth and to cook upon. In the green the wood also has an unpleasant smell and to some, caused irritation to the eyes.
Putting the elm tree to use.
With its dense, crossed and twisted grain, the elm wood could not be cleft. Thus elms were grown close to where they were needed or worked in the woodland. The elm wood must be sawn and so was used for jobs where the wood must not be split. Wheelwrights used it to make the hubs of wooden wheels, hollowed to take the axle pin.
However to the carpenter the elm tree provided the timber for making furniture and coffins. Elm wood is strong and durable. The grain is tight and resistant to water and so excellent for building boats. However many everyday items needed to resist water. From water pipes to cheese moulds, to weather boarding and wheelbarrows, the elm served a purpose. Water wheels were routinely made from elm. Canal builders relied upon elm wood to build the locks and lock gates. It was common to find stands of elm alongside canals. Many old houses have floorboards made from elm.
An elm coffin.
Maybe the reason the tree was linked to death was to do with it being the wood of choice for making coffins. The wood was cheaper and lighter than oak and as we know resistant to water. The carpenter needed planks of elm to work with, not an easy thing to achieve. Saw pits were dug in woodlands and timber yards grew around them. Elm wood needed to be worked within the year or it would weaken. With one man atop the trunk and another underneath in the pit, they worked hard to saw through the dense twisted grain. Each coffin plank or board was one and three quarter inches thick and it took two men one week to plank one tree. Coffin production employed a lot of men in C19th Britain.
The elm tree was absorbed into British literature and art.
The elm tree was a family member of our British culture. Tricky to deal with at times, messy, unpredictable, taken for granted but well loved. Another post will be dedicated to the role of the elm tree in literature and art but it was widely used to portray a very distinct sense of place and Britishness.
From Edward Thomas to Betjeman, from Tennyson to John Clare, all wrote lines about the elm tree in their poetry.
The moan of doves in immemorial elms
And mummering on innumerable bees
Tennyson ‘The Princess’
The green elm with one great bough of gold
Lets leaves into the grass slip, one by one.
Edward Thomas ‘October’
John Constable litters his landscapes with elms. His favourite inspiration, Dedham Vale was full of elm, in hedgerows, pollarded or full grown. The drooping lobed shape of the elm give so many of Constable’s landscapes their character. His capture of the great elms at Old Hall Park East Bergholt, beautifully capture the elm tree.
The Common or English Elm.
The elm tree belongs to the genus Ulmus of which there are about thirty species. The species found in Britain have caused many difficulties to the taxonomist and hybrids are a frequent occurrence. The English elm U. procera, was confined to the south of England and its appearance pre-dated the Roman invasion. Such is the variety of elms that in Britain could be found, the Wych Elm, the Cornish Elm, the Huntingdon elm and others.
The English elm has the classic elm shape shape, a tall tree with an outline of branches and leaves looking like a billowing cloud. They could stand over a hundred feet tall. What was striking is the picture it portrayed in lowland fields. It wasn’t a typical woodland tree but more likely found in hedgerows and field margins. Alas the English elm sustained the heaviest losses to Dutch Elm Disease.
Dutch Elm Disease.
Several species of elm tree were devastated by the accidental introduction of the fungus O. novo-ulmi. (There is another fungus involved in the spread, O. ulmi but most cases are spread by the former). The elm bark beetle carries the fungus from tree to tree.
The disease began to strike in the 1960’s but it was the English elm that took the hardest blow. The English elm is the favourite elm tree for the beetle to feed upon and so was most susceptible. The old towering trees died first. However because the single root system can produce several trees, if any survived, then young elms can sprout. They rarely make it into tall trees though as the beetle quickly finds them out.
There is no cure but vigilance and quick action has managed to keep safe some old stands of the elm tree.