‘The elm in general is the fittest of all trees for these [pleasure ground] plantations’ – John Rutter’s words, not mine. Yet elm, once so common, is now overlooked, a mystery and lost.
If the advent on our shores of Dutch Elm Disease in the 1970’s generated a surge of interest in a field-based approach to garden history, by and large the elm had been killed, felled and removed before anyone got round to recording it.
Elm was not invariably present in parks, but there are parts of the country where it is very much the dominant. It is also regional in the distribution of its species. Ulmus media tends to be found in the south-east and midlands, U.glabra in Wales, the North of England and Scotland, and U.carpinifolia in East Anglia. In addition to these there are varieties and hybrids of elm, such as Huntingdon and Cornish, which were planted ornamentally. This crude sketch of its national distribution must itself be subdivided in the case of U.carpinifolia, which generally spreads vegetatively, and which in its homeland of Cambridgeshire, had established distinct clones in each village.
If we have no records of what type was used where in parkland, we must fall back on the authorities. They regarded it as a workhorse of a tree, particularly for browse (for which the trees were shredded), and for house-wood. It also provided ship’s timber, and was prized for its resistance to water (hence its use in water-pipes and drains). It had great associative power, with the village and with the church as well, above all with the church at Stoke Poges and it had great ornamental value, particularly as an avenue tree because, as Gilpin observed, ‘when it meets with a soil it loves, rises higher than the generality of trees’.
The loudest complaints about elm come not from the tree itself, which was generally admired, but from its treatment by shredding, which I believe I have discussed elsewhere. So Thomas Hale thought it an ‘ornament to an Estate’, only advising when it was grown singly or in clumps ‘not to lop it up so close, but to leave some large Branches’.
Elm, and particularly shredded elm, did however have its place in the classical gardens of Pliny and hence of Robert Castell. It was the tree for high hedges such as the 40’ hedges at Kensington Palace, such management itself a form of shredding, and it was the tree beloved of Vergil and Theocritus for the training of vines (which again could only have worked satisfactorily on shredded trees).
Surely too the trees that Thomas Barrett planted at Belhus had had their side branches shredded, or he would never have been able to plant in 1748 ‘above 200 Elms ye least of them above 20 foot high & many of them 30 … in ye grove behind my house where there were any spots thin of trees’.
Elm could also be coppiced, however I never saw any sign of it – perhaps because it readily suckers, as we know from the after-effects of Dutch Elm Disease, and, when coppiced, it may have tended to put up thickets of shoots from its roots so making the woodland hard to manage.
Ah but I realise that this little heap of knowledge has neither asked a question of Elm, nor answered one. It is a subject I shall return to on another occasion.