The elm is a sad tree in many ways, both because of devastating disease and some depressing folklore. It’s an unhappy plant.
My first memories of it are unfailingly cheerful, however: it was the very first tree I learned to name. We had them on our doorstep, you see, four elms planted in a row at the end of the garden. I loved them, especially in winter, when the bare twigs formed a beautiful lattice-work. They reminded me of stained-glass windows framing the sky beyond. In spring I awaited the bursting of the leaf-buds, eyeing them hopefully on my way to school each day. When we studied Browning’s poem Home Thoughts from Abroad, I immediately understood his joy at seeing the first unfurling elm leaves. Of course, I did – I looked for them, too.
Later I made friends with a large spreading elm precariously perched on the river bank (it and me both). We even moored our boat to one of its chunky arms for a while. Its leaves turned a wonderful shade of autumnal yellow, so the river swam gold with them – a last gasp of colour before winter set in. I loved it. In my teenage years there were pollard elms planted across the road from our house, so I could look into their topmost branches from upstairs windows. They felt like friends, too. So, you see, from an early age I was familiar with the rough surface and elegant asymmetrical shape of elm leaves.
Elms blossom in winter. The flowers are tiny and a startling wine-red if you can get close enough. And then follows a false foliage – the winged fruits are pale green and leaf-like. I loved them too, the first fruits of the year in February.
Needless to say, all those elms I knew are long gone, victims of the dreaded elm disease. Our old garden was built over, and the space our elms occupied is now under somebody’s driveway. The great elm by the river was felled and left a gap in the landscape that has never been filled. The elms-across-the-road are nothing but a memory. I have no way, now, of knowing what species these long-lost elms were, but I suspect by their general shapes, that the garden trees were English elm and the great tree by the river was a wych elm.
And these days? Well, I could take you to the remains of an old (possibly ancient) English elm hedge not far from my home. I still get to see the lattice of twigs, the wine-red flowers and the pale fruits. I still get to touch the rough leaves. But the trees are small; they die off and regrow from the base over and over. A sort of elm ground-hog day. There is always a lot of dead wood. But in my memory live magnificent elms, full of verve and life. Breath-taking beings in the landscape. I count myself fortunate to have known them.
My illustrated, magical, nature-inspired tales The Herbarium, The Chesil Apothecary and Dropwort Hall are available from www.veneficiapublications.com