In twenty years, Dutch Elm disease (DED) changed the English landscape that it had taken centuries to make. The elm tree was big, rough and rugged. A specimen tree could grow to 45 metres. Now, fifty years after DED, only a few protected colonies remain. Those who never saw it won’t miss it, but those who knew it feel there’s something missing from their countryside.

I grew up on the margin of London, and as child learned the names of trees. Elms fringed our school and I became familiar with their corky bark and their asymmetrical saw-toothed leaves.

A fine specimen of English elm. (Know Your Broadleaves, HMSO, 1975)
Herbert Edlin of the Forestry Commission described the English elm in 1968, before DED had taken hold:

“The English elm has a magnificent habit of growth, which cannot be matched elsewhere; it adds an individual note to the landscape of England’s vales. The trunk is stout and erect, growing far taller than any associated tree, and from it there extend great billowing clouds of foliage, borne on distinct branch groups. Growth is rapid, and elms are rightly planted, preserved or encourage ed to grow from suckers along the hedgerows as a profitable source of timber. Records for height are 141 feet [43 metres] and for girth 25 feet [7.6 metres], though today no tree taller than 122 feet [37.2 metres] can be found, this stands at Youngsbury near Ware in Hertfordshire.”

In Sylva Britannica, Jacob Strutt (1784-1867) placed elms second in precedence only to oaks. Of the ancient elm in the village of Crawley (above) he reflects that it is –

“an inexhaustible source of pleasure to the train of village children who cluster like bees around it; trying their infant strength and courage in climbing its mimic precipices, whilst their parents recall, in their pastimes, the feelings of their own childhood; when, like them, they disported under the same boughs.” 

Crawley is now under the Gatwick flight path.

The Wych elm is quite different from the English elm. There are many hybrids, including the Dutch elm. The disease is not named after the Dutch elm but after the country where it was identified; it particularly affects the English elm. The tendency to hybridise means that there are local forms, given names like Huntingdon elm and Cornish elm. A confusing tree.

The English elm produces few fertile seeds and propagates by suckers, from which most in our landscape have been cultivated; they are local clones of a local variety. Few elms are truly wild. Both the appearance of the elm and its place in the landscape are products of human activity. Landscape is not natural, it is stage managed and carefully constructed.

It makes a noble subject for the landscape painter. Cuyp’s River Landscape (top picture) shows a clump of half a dozen elms and cattle resting in their shade. (National Gallery).

Constable loved and studied English elms. His painting of Dedham Lock and Mill (V&A) (below) shows them in all their roughness, irregularity and grandeur.

Paul Nash, for whom the landscape was numinous and full of significance, was bound to paint An Avenue of Elms (below).

What made me think of elms in the landscape were the remnants of elms all around us. DED kills the crown but not its roots. Except for the Wych elm, which reproduces only by seed, they throw up suckers that continue until they’re knocked back by the disease. They rarely die completely and the rootstock survives. I keep a lookout for them, and in my home town of St Albans there are several hedges and small trees.

Elms growing to 11 metres (centre of picture), Lady Spencer Grove, St Albans

Elm leaves and trunk, Lady Spencer Grove, St Albans 
Elm cropped to make a useful hedge, King Harry Lane, St Albans
Oliver Watson, the ecologist, takes an unsentimental and scientific view of trees. He wrote to The Times after the Great Storm of 1987 to tell people that it wasn’t such a tragedy because it culled the weakest trees. To those who complain about their favourite wood being coppiced, he says that woods were planted as crops and that the end of economic coppicing means they’re not being properly managed. He says that there have been repeated waves of DED throughout history and the trees have eventually acquired immunity. That will happen again, though it may take centuries.

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