We're All Going On An Elm Hunt

15th April 2011

Few of us under the age of 50 are likely to remember the days when elms dominated the countryside, but ‘Ulmus Londinium’, a new campaign from the Conservation Foundation, aims to remind us of the forgotten contribution that they have made to London’s heritage, and to encourage us to locate specimens within the M25…

Jack Watkins reports.

Ted Green, one of Britain’s foremost tree authorities and a co-founder of the Ancient Tree Forum, was lamenting the impact of Dutch elm disease on our landscape when I interviewed him recently. The deadly fungus, carried by bark beetle, swept through the land like a forest fire in the 1970s, destroying something like 25 million elms. “Britain had such an incredible treescape,” remembered Ted, “most of it being elms. And then they all went within ten years. They were such beautiful trees. If only I could have taken better pictures, but now they have all gone.”

Ted’s point was that those of us from later generations had no idea of the visual impact of these graceful trees, with their dense, drooping canopies – but his emphasis was on elms in the countryside, where they were widely planted by farmers as hedgerow trees after the Enclosure Acts of the 17th and 18th centuries. Their ubiquity is apparent from their presence in the paintings of George Stubbs and John Constable, in the poems of John Clare and in the essays of the Victorian nature writer Richard Jefferies. But what of elms as trees of towns and suburbs?

Visit the Sussex seaside resorts of Brighton and Eastbourne and you will find that they are a favoured species of residential avenues. They survive because, aided by the protective barriers of the English Channel and the South Downs, the local authorities acted swiftly to eradicate trees showing signs of Dutch elm disease to prevent its spread. But according to the Conservation Foundation, mature elms can also be found within London’s M25 orbital ring, and it has this March launched a new campaign, Ulmus Londinium, to try to find out how many there are and to map them. The public is being encouraged to come forward with information on known trees and enter details on an interactive map set up in association with the Natural History Museum. Next year, the Foundation is celebrating its thirtieth anniversary and, in the same year as the Queen’s Jubilee, it plans to mark the event by offering young elms to communities with ‘elm’ in their street or area names.

The scheme dovetails with the charity’s Great Elm Experiment, launched last year, which has witnessed something in the region of 400 young trees – propagated from healthy elms of at least 60 years of age, sourced across England and known to have withstood the Dutch elm scourge – distributed for planting in school grounds. It’s a brave bid on their part to restore at least a fragment of our lost elmscape – and experiment is the right word for it. “All we know,” says David Shreeve, co-counder of the charity in 1982 with David Bellamy, and now its director, “is that the parent trees have resisted Dutch elm disease or recovered from it, or simply been in the right place for the disease to have missed them.” Just one year into the experiment, it’s far too early to judge its success, of course, but there is still plenty of room for hope. “We’ve had reports of a few losses thanks to over-enthusiastic workmen who’ve put the strimmer too close, but none of any succumbing to disease.” David reports.

He says that they came up with the idea of a London campaign a year ago. “It was the International Year of Biodiversity when we began to think about it, and we realized that the capital has a biodiverse elm population for various reasons. There are over 40 species of elm, each with its own peculiarities. There’s a fantastic Siberian elm in Hyde Park (north of the Serpentine, and midway between it and Speakers’ Corner), for instance. At the top of Marylebone High Street, there’s a huge Dutch Elm. Then there are the Autumn Sapporo Golds which originated in Japan and were developed in Wisconsin.”

It was the success in garnering press attention of an initiative to plant a number of Sapporo Autumn Gold elms when David was working in public relations in the late 1970s that spurred him on to forming the Foundation. “Someone came into our office in Kensington Gore the other day and said there was one out the back here. It’s now a really large street tree, planted about thirty years ago. We’re finding that, because of the publicity we gave elms from these ‘novelty’ plantings we did, local authorities started getting hold of the Sapporo Autumn Golds and planting them.”

The other element of the campaign is to highlight the part that elms have played in London’s heritage. Hollowed-out elms were used in the past, for instance, as wooden pipes to transport the capital’s water supplies. Resistance to water also meant that elm was used on river furniture, and for canal and dock gates. “We felt it was a chance for young people whose grandparents tell them ‘I remember elms, but there are none left’ to say: ‘Well, actually there are’. Already we’ve had lots of calls about them since we launched Ulmus Londinium. Several have been discovered in Barn Elms, one has been reported in Holland Park, and another in Westminster, so with luck, we’re going to be in for some surprises. One of the things we’d like to be able to do by the end is to set up an elm trail, starting in South Kensington, working through the London parks, and ending at the three elms that stand right outside St Paul’s Cathedral.”

The holy grail, of course, would be to discover the distinctive vase-shaped English elms (Ulmus procera) of beloved memory, but the tendency of most elms to hybridise makes the identification of individual species particularly tricky. David says spring is a fine time to attempt to find elms (regardless of which species) because of the distinctive reddish flowers which emerge before the leaves – typified by asymmetrical bases and serrated edges – open in May. What better way to mark the long-awaited arrival of spring than to embark on your very own elm hunt?

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