January 23, 2021

Country diary: this familiar English tree has life in it yet

Goyt valley, Derbyshire: Wych elms have been pleasingly resilient to the fungal infection that has decimated populations across Europe, and this area boasts hundreds

My interest in elm trees was piqued this spring when someone happened to mention on social media that there were probably no more than 100 mature examples left in England.

This instantly had the whiff of urban legend because just that week I had chanced upon a grove of 19 wych elms in a lesser known part of the Derbyshire Dales national nature reserve called Hay Dale. Admittedly those few trees are a remnant of a much larger stand, which has, in turn, been ravaged by Dutch elm disease. It is this fungal infection that has devastated European and American elms, especially after the late 1960s, since when an estimated 25m have been killed in Britain alone.

As a consequence I’ve never witnessed an older landscape where elms were abundant, as depicted, for instance, in Constable’s painting The Cornfield. For me the word “elm” largely conjures Norfolk hedgerows, where suckering plants thrive for 10 to 20 years then succumb to the Scolytus beetles that spread the fatal fungus. Yet we should note that, despite this recurrent pattern among individual elm saplings, the species itself survives and even flourishes in these circumstances.

So far across an area that extends at least from the Goyt to the Wye valleys I have found many hundreds of wych elms, Ulmus glabra, the species least susceptible to the infection.

One of the pleasures of these encounters is to see how their trunks and branches are so knobbly and irregularly thickened with epicormic growth (shoots arising from dormant buds in bark). The gnarled bosses are whiskery with adventitious leafy twigs growing straight out of the boll, or furred with mosses and patterned by lichen. There is one glorious old elm in the Goyt whose entire armature of branches and trunks is smothered in leaf growth or ferns, so that the whole ent-like beast is a photosynthesising surface.

Equally wonderful are the papery lemony-green wings with their red-centred seeds that were strewn across the April paths like confetti for a spring wedding. Most satisfying, however, is the realisation that the obituary notices for this most characteristic of English trees have so far been greatly exaggerated.