English elm (Ulmus procera) - tree - October 2017
English elms were once a very common sight in the countryside of Europe, North America and Asia. However, this majestic tree was devastated by Dutch elm disease, a fungal infection that claimed an estimated 25 million trees in Britain alone. Sadly this iconic tree has now all but disappeared from the landscape. It will be remembered on rich farmland soils and parklands throughout the country, it is also a classic hedgerow tree of English lowlands. Mature English elms can grow to over 30 metres tall, producing a fine wood that has great strength and durability. They are deciduous trees that lose their leaves in the winter and the small winged seeds are dispersed by the wind in autumn. The bark is dark brown, rough and fissured. Suckers are produced freely from the base of the trunk. The twigs are short and hairy. Buds are ovoid, pointed and hairy. Leaves are round to oval, toothed with a rough, hairy surface texture (4–9cm) with very uneven bases at the leaf stalk: a familiar characteristic of all elms. English elms are hermaphrodites: they have ‘perfect’ flowers with both sexes represented in one flower. Flowers hang in tassels, dark pink to red, and are produced before the tree comes into leaf. The fruits are tiny nutlets encased in the upper part of a thin, oval-shaped, papery wing but they are rarely produced. English elm is wind pollinated. English elm is native to southern and eastern Europe. Despite its common name, it may only be native to southern England. It is thought to have been introduced by early colonisers. Full-sized trees are attractive and majestic, and in the past they dominated the English countryside on rich farmland soils. They were also planted as an ornamental tree and have a number of subspecies and hybrids. The heartwood of English elm is a dull brown colour; the sapwood is paler. Growth rings are irregular and the wood has a coarse texture. The timber is strong and able to resist strains which cause other timbers to split. The timber can produce a good decorative veneer and has been used to make furniture, chair seats, wooden wheel hubs and, because of its ability to withstand saturation, water pipes, canal barges and boat keels. The leaves were shredded and used as cattle fodder. English elm was planted extensively during the enclosure movement of the late 18th century. It became a popular hedge species due to its habit of growing and spreading from suckers. It was frequently coppiced and pollarded. Before metal was widely available, many English towns had water mains supplied from pipes made from elm wood, including Bristol, Reading, Exeter, Southampton, Hull and Liverpool. Elms used to be associated with melancholy and death, perhaps because the trees can drop dead branches without warning. Elm wood was also the preferred choice for coffins. In Lichfield it was the custom to carry elm twigs in a procession around the Cathedral Close on Ascension Day, then to throw them in the font. Many birds eat elm seeds and the leaves provide food for the caterpillars of many moths, including the peppered, light emerald and white spotted pinion moths. Caterpillars of the white letter hairstreak butterfly feed on elms and the species has declined dramatically since Dutch elm disease arrived in the UK. Bark and seed of elm were important source of food in the Europe during the famine at the beginning of the 19th century. Seed were especially prized due to high content of proteins and dietary fibers. Healthy tree can survive 200 to 300 years in the wild. Elm affected by Dutch elm disease cannot survive more than 30 years.
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