Bring Back the English Elms says John Welton

Since Dutch Elm Disease wiped more than 25 million - over 90 per cent – of the UK’s native elms off the map during the 1930s and 70s, conservationists have been trying to replant these iconic and much-mourned landmarks with disease  resistant  replacements wherever possible.

Many such plantings have proved a success, evading the virulent DED fungal attack which can kill an elm within a few months. Dutch Elm Disease is spread by a bark-dwelling beetle and results in a fungus which chokes the channels transporting water and nutrients inside the tree trunk. But in the main, these new-generation trees have been non-native hybrids, grown from seeds of healthy parent trees as far away as Japan and Siberia. Unfortunately time has shown these trees do not capture the grace, beauty and size of our English Elms.

The current project, by the Conservation Foundation, has instead used seeds gathered from surviving native British Elms, aged 60 years and over, which have shown natural resistance to the disease. Now more than 10,000 saplings nurtured from those seeds are ready, waiting in a small Bedfordshire nursery for their chance to take part in the great English Elm Comeback. They are being offered to schools, parks and gardens throughout the country. Once replanted, the charity co-founded 30 years ago by botanist David Bellamy and David Shreeve, will closely monitor each specimen to check for any signs of disease.

"The saplings are naturally more of a mixture and are more likely to be closely related to the native Wych Elm (Ulmus glabra) as this is more easily propagated by seed. The true English Elm or Ulmus minor vulgaris is only successfully propagated by suckers or cutting,” says Dulwich Society Trees Committee member John Welton, who is passionate about Elms and their re-introduction. “English Elms with their graceful form, deep green leaves and as they get older, their craggy grey bark are wonderful, magnificent trees and as part of our heritage, well worth restoring as near to the original as possible. The pure English Elm are highly vulnerable to Dutch Elm Disease unlike these native hybrids that have come from trees having proven their resistance to disease over time, these are our best hope!.”

There used to be a lot of English Elms in Dulwich, many of them captured by the cameras of Dulwich Society members. The relics of an old tree line still exists in the Gallery Road hedgerow, and the faint traces of a former avenue can be glimpsed from Love Walk. But regenerated growth continually falls victim to disease when the shoots reach a certain age.

Hopefully, sites will be found in Dulwich for some of the new saplings. “These saplings will need to go in suitable long term positions, ideally with plenty of general visibility for amenity value“ adds John. “A hybrid related to the Wych Elm can grow to 80 to 100 feet or more with its beautiful narrow waist, deep green leaves, lovely glowing yellow Autumn colour and glorious crown.”

If you have records of Dulwich’s English Elm heritage and can suggest suitable sites for re-introductions, please contact the Society with your pictures and ideas.