Here in the northern spring lands our eyes are presently filled to bursting with blooming displays of cherry, apple, pear, black thorn and magnolia trees. It’s easy to forget that all trees have their floral season, one way or another. Some tree flowers are so inconspicuously green, are so very small, or flowering at the end of winter when we’re least about, it’s easy to overlook them. This is certainly true of the early spring flowers that preceded this branchy display of green-winged fruits, discovered last week, sprawling over the perimeter fence on Windmill Hill.
Its ID took a bit of tracking down. I’d got it in my head that it was some kind of hornbeam. But it isn’t. It’s a Wych Elm sapling, Ulmus glabra. This, I further discover, is Britain’s only native elm, common throughout the land as tree cover was restored after the Ice Age, but much depleted from round 7,500 years ago, when the first stone age farmers began to systematically clear the woodland for agriculture.
The so-called English Elm Ulmus procera was only introduced some 3,000 years later by our Bronze Age ancestors. This introduction may well be a reflection both of the utility of water resistant elm wood (for boats, wheels, furniture and coffins) and of its ritual significance. The tree was sacred to many peoples of Northern Europe, and in particular was thought to induce prophetic dreams.
Since the 1960s the English Elm has succumbed drastically to Dutch Elm disease – a fungal infection spread by elm bark beetles. The Wych Elm, to some extent, appears to have resistance, though it too is now a rare find in our English countryside. The decline in both species has meant a decline in the white-letter hairstreak butterfly which breeds in elm tree canopies.
But if the Wych Elm does manage to escape infection, and finds itself growing in a preferred climate of cool summers with damp air, or on a rocky hillside beside a stream, then it can reach 30 metres (100 feet) in height, while surrounding itself with a sweepingly majestic canopy.
And so what of the Wych Elm on Windmill Hill? Did some human hand plant a young sapling there, or did it grow itself from an off-chance, wind-blown seed? That it is growing entangled with the chain-link fence that surrounds the perimeter of Shadwell Quarry, suggests more happenstance than intention. On the other hand, at some time in the past, the old quarry face has been planted with a wide variety of trees – both deciduous and coniferous species. In the next photo you can see the tree-line (behind the windmill) that marks the quarry perimeter. Beyond it, the ground falls away in an alarming manner, the most recent limestone workings lying way below and filled with a deep, deep pool of turquoise water, locally dubbed ‘the Blue Lagoon’.
Anyway, note to self: remember to collect some seeds when they ripen in the summer. A Wych Elm nursery is a fine prospect.