The Return of the English Elm

During the summers of 1970s, the English countryside would in parts turn to autumn. Across the fields from my school, mighty trees yellowed and browned and the leaves would fall off. The skeletons that emerged were all that remained of the English Elm, wiped out by a fungus-carrying beetle that had made its way across the Atlantic in logs from North America.

Some 25 million trees died in that decade and in the immediate years that followed, leaving seemingly irreplaceable gaps in the patchworks fields and hedgerows of lowland England. The English Elm, immortalised by artist John Constable, that most magnificent of trees that billowed upwards like a cloud, was gone forever – or so it seemed.

Thanks however to some far sighted folk who realised that the English Elm and many other Elm hybrids had survived largely for geographic reasons in a part of East Sussex, to this day it is possible to see the last mature English Elms in the country. One in the grounds of Brighton Pavilion was planted in the year of American independence, and is today a hollow, but still live, giant.

And when I came to live to New York I was surprised and cheered in equal measure that to discover some magnificent examples of the English Elm surviving in Manhattan, the most famous being ‘Hangman’s Elm’ in Washington Square. This tree had been planted by an earlier settler at what had been known as Herring Farm. Years later, it is said that the tree came to be used as a Gibbet, although it seems more likely that a nearby burial ground somehow contributed to the macabre name.

I thought of all this today as it was announced that two hundred and fifty schools in Britain, including my daughters will be receiving young disease resistant Elm trees to plant. The children will measure their progress over time, and the hope is that these nurseries for children will provide nurseries for trees.

They will most likely be hybrid Elms, since the English Elm is curiously susceptible to disease, largely because it is descended from one original root stock brought over by the Romans to train their vines. I’ve been busy planting some of these trees over at Scotsgrove Mill, where my Aunt lives. I’ve also planted a couple of English Elms that a friend of mine from Brighton assures me are disease resistant.

I will have to wait at least twenty years until I know whether they are which is a something of a call. But I can’t think of anything more pleasurable than watching a tree that one has planted slowly grow outwards and upwards.

To be able to point to such a tree when out walking with friends or family has to be one of life’s greatest treats and privileges. Here is hoping my Elms survive.

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