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23 May 2024

Field Notes: Tree of hope

Mandy Haggith reveals the wonders of wych elm – a native ‘rainforest’ tree with a unique mythology that is the focus of a community project on and around land we care for at Quinag.

Elm project - Chris Puddephatt

Elms grew, the story goes, in response to the tragically beautiful music of the Greek hero Orpheus, the wondrous harper. He had followed his wife Eurydice down into the depths of the Earth after her death, where he enchanted Hades and Persephone, the god and goddess of the underworld, to allow him to return her to the land of the living.

But he failed to follow their instruction not to look back at her as they made their way up into the light and she was lost forever. Heartbroken, and destined to live the rest of his life without her, Orpheus played a grieving love song and a grove of elms sprang up to soothe him.

This legend of Orpheus is one of many folk tales featuring elms offering solace to mourners. The elm, deeply rooted into the subsoil, has long stood as a symbol of the ambivalence and mystery of the end of our lives, wherever we go afterwards, and the ability of love and art to enable even someone who has passed from this world to live on in our hearts and in nature.

Rainforest trees

Elms grow throughout the northern hemisphere. We may think of them as temperate woodland trees, but the diversity of the elm family (Ulmacea) is actually greatest in the subtropics. The family consists of 56 species – 13 of which are tropical – and while they show great variation around the world, one thing they have in common is a dislike of dry conditions. Elms are rainforest trees, with our native wych elm (Ulmus glabra) often found in moist hollows, ravines and beside rivers or lochs.

One of my favourite wych elms grows in the Traligill, a Norse name meaning ‘glen of the trolls’, in Assynt. It is found by following the impressively steep gorge up from Loch Assynt to a place where the water bubbles up out of the ground from a spring.

Beyond this point, the river valley is dry, the rocks exposed. Here, a huge elm, its magnificent trunk festooned with mosses, lichens, polypody ferns and fungi, grows horizontally out of the rock, many metres up the sheer wall of the ravine in perfect defiance of the laws of physics.

Beneath the tree’s stretched canopy, it’s possible to imagine hearing trolls grumbling and hammering, hissing and muttering, all busy and bad-tempered. Those who don’t believe in trolls can simply marvel at how the tree’s roots plunge into an underworld riddled with limestone caverns, where the tree takes advantage of the dark network of cracks and crannies to supply it with all the moisture and support that it needs. Out in the light, the result is a lush green profusion of its living community: a grand gathering of epiphytes.

Holding on

Despite its apparently dry, rocky context, everything about this elm declares it to be a rainforest tree – and one mythically linked to the need to find hope after loss. What better symbol could there possibly be for the lost rainforests of western Britain?

Yet, inexplicably, in all of the texts produced by the Rainforest Alliance and the otherwise wonderful book by Guy Shrubsole, The Lost Rainforests of Britain, elms are mentioned only in throwaway references to their demise from Dutch elm disease. One authority, Colin Tudge, in his Secret Life of Trees, even writes about their ‘extinction’.

But hold on, elms are not extinct. Yes, they have suffered immensely (in some places up to 99 per cent fatality) from Ophiostoma novo-ulmi, a fungal disease spread by elm bark beetles, but Dutch elm disease has not taken them all. In fact, in Assynt, they are largely untouched by the disease, with many trees still thriving on crags, shading rivers and gracing areas of woodland.

Quick off the mark

In spring, their flowers emerge almost as early as hazel catkins and they are already busy fruiting by the time rowans get around to thinking about flowering. They then spend the summer swathed in a great green gown of lush foliage. They are early to bed in autumn to make up for their early rise, with their leaves starting to golden by August; when they drop, they rot away rapidly.

In fact, everything about elms is quick – their seeds germinate immediately in June and their seedlings are ready for planting out the following spring. They grow fast as saplings and can be mature enough to reproduce in their teens. Elms are also a favoured Bonsai species because they respond to the constrained-roots, heavy-pruning regime by appearing ancient and contorted much faster than any other species.

It is this speed that lends them to woodland restoration: a key species as lost woods are replanted and linked with remaining fragments of rainforest. Yet elms have been largely given up on and have rarely been included in native woodland planting schemes. If they’ll just die of Dutch elm disease, why bother planting them, seems to be the thinking.

Community action

The counter to that is that we need hope and elm embodies this. Here in Assynt, with the support of the John Muir Trust and Scottish Forestry, Culag Community Woodland Trust is running a project involving the community in events to celebrate existing elms and to plant new ones.

Assnyt Elms project events 2

We’ve been growing elms from local provenance seed in the community tree nursery at Little Assynt (pictured above) and are one of the sites for an exciting project at the Royal Botanic Garden Edinburgh which involves breeding potentially resilient seedlings from elms that have survived multiple waves of Dutch elm disease.

The trees that grow on and survive the disease will spread resistance among the wider population. Growing and spreading wych elm, and encouraging natural regeneration around existing seed sources, helps to maintain and increase its genetic diversity.

Living elms are hosts to a whole community of other species – bryophytes, fungi, insects and birds – and those that die of natural causes contribute invaluable deadwood to the ecosystem. For these reasons and more, it’s important not to give up on elm.

Muirburn - Kevin Lelland

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