Wednesday, May 20, 2015

Camperdown Elm

This is unusual. It's a mature elm tree, which is noteworthy in this era of Dutch elm disease, but it also has an strange growth habit; the trunk is seen on the right and the tree is growing along a bent bole towards the left of the picture.
Elms are unusual in another way. Despite producing prodigious keys (seeds) (see right hand photo) they only rarely germinate. Consequently reproduction is largely vegetative by a process known a suckering. This leads to the formation of clones, with genetically identical trees growing in close proximity. It also makes taxonomy a nightmare, a bit like it is with dandelions and brambles.
In the past each village had its 'own' elm trees, subtly different from those in the village down the road. There is an excellent chapter on elms in Rackham's (god rest his soul) book The History of the Countryside. In the introduction he says "They are the most complex and difficult trees in western Europe, and the most intimately linked to human affairs. Oak and hazel have played at least as great a part in shaping civilization, but have not themselves been shaped by civilization as have elms."
People, even people living around Brighton and Eastbourne, believe that all mature elm trees were wiped out during the Dutch Elm disease massacre of the 1960s and 70s. In fact the radical actions of the local authorities in these districts, felling and burning affected trees at the first whiff of trouble, has preserved the English elms. The commonest tree in central Brighton is the English elm!
This specimen is growing in Jevington churchyard. My wife commented on it's unusual shape and I got (over) excited about it being an elm. I'm guessing it is likely to be a weeping elm, Ulmus glabra 'Camperdownii', which will have been created from the original tree discovered in the Camperdown estate near Dundee. It is not an English elm, but a cultivar of wych elm.

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