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The English elm

by Lucy Hart, head gardener

The English elm Ulmus procera was once inseparable from the English landscape, and Fulham Palace was no exception. It is a deciduous, British native large tree and can grow to 35 metres tall. Full-sized trees are attractive and majestic, and in the past they governed the English countryside. They were also planted as an ornamental tree and have a number of subspecies and hybrids.

The English elm was once a common sight at Fulham Palace, with many specimens. Even today we still find many young trees and seedlings, no doubt relatives of the large specimens that once dominated the grounds.

The trees weren’t just found outside, timbers have been found in the great hall and west wing of the house. The timber is particularly good as it is strong and able to resist strains which cause other timbers to split (although it is classed as a soft-hardwood).

Oak timbers have also been found within the original building works of the house and dated to 1493 in the lofts and 1495 in the wooden entrance to the Tudor Courtyard. Elm, however, is very difficult to date due to the irregular arrangement of its tree rings, but we can confidently date the elm timbers as the same as the oak because the materials were used in tandem.

Sadly in 1970s an aggressive form of Dutch elm disease devastated elm populations across the British Isles. The name refers to the fact the early research work was carried out in the Netherlands, not that the disease was from there. It has been estimated the disease has killed more than 80% of our elm trees. Fungal spores are spread by elm bark beetles and death is caused by the tree’s water vessels become blocked. All the native elms; English elm U. procera, smooth leaved elm U. minor and wych elm U. glabra are all susceptible to the disease.

As part of our landscape project supported by the National Lottery Heritage Fund we have planted two new elm trees back into our grounds. It is important that elms are represented in our garden because they were a key part of our historic landscape. We have planted two resistant elms called Ulmus ‘New horizon’ from the new Restista series, bred for their resistance to Dutch elm disease. Ulmus ‘New horizon’ is a hybrid cultivar and bred in America. Its parents are U. davidiana var. japonica and U. pumila. The trees will both be planted in our ‘paddock’ area by the main drive which, in the long term, will focus on British native species whilst Bishop Compton’s more exotic plantings sit on the other side of the grounds.

The English elm’s story is somewhat sad and unfortunately not an isolated tale, for other British native trees species are also succumbing to pests and diseases. However it is a great feeling to be able to plant something back and I look forward to seeing them establish and flourish.