An unplanned happy moment in a pandemic

No, I am not talking about Covid-19 but another pandemic that sweep across Great Britain. That pandemic was Dutch elm disease. This now infamous tree disease has killed millions of elm trees in the UK over the last 40 years. It’s changed parts of our landscape forever and it’s still spreading north.

Dutch elm disease is a serious disease of elms caused by the fungus Ophiostoma novo-ulmi. It is a type of disease known as a vascular wilt because the fungus blocks the vascular (water transport) system, causing the branches to wilt and die. It is spread by elm bark beetles. Damage is usually seen in summer and early autumn.

I planted a golden elm Ulmus glabra ‘Lutescens’ about 20 years ago and had assumed that as it had survived for so long it might be immune.

Then last July the tell tale symptoms of the disease appears and within weeks the tree was dead!

The dead tree as it now looks.

Then last week an email appeared in my in box from one of our local plant nurseries, Goscote Nurseries. They had 100 Elm trees to give away. Apparently they had been micro propagated from existing elm trees that were resistant to Dutch Elm Disease and were now ready for planting out.

How could I resist this offer and yesterday I planted a Wych Elm Ulmus glabra in our wild flower meadow.

Taller than I expected. Of course there is no guarantee but if it survives then it is putting back a classic British tree.

This Wych Elm is the actual tree that my tree was micro propagated from. It will be a few years before my tree reaches this size.

The following is taken from Cumbria’s Top Trees


by Ann Sandell, 24 October

After Dutch Elm Disease swept through Britain and Europe in the 1970s and 80s huge gaping holes, like pulled teeth, appeared in the countryside. For such a magnificent tree to be lost to large swathes of the countryside was a biodiversity and landscape tragedy. So how lucky is Kirkby Stephen to have a proud, magnificent wych elm in its midst? Standing proud and alone on Tarn Lane, the tree is a wonderful example of spirited resistance against a formidable foe. Resistant to Dutch Elm Disease, its special seeds have been harvested to produce new saplings to regenerate the species elsewhere. It is a wily old wych indeed.

This development heartens Ann Sandell, Chairman of Kirkby Stephen & District Walkers. ‘Whilst other veteran trees may be older or taller this is a warm friendly tree as it leans away from the prevailing western winds sheltering the stock fence gate,’ she says. ‘I often lead walks this way and we have made and published an adventure walk using this under-used route to introduce children to the area and this magnificent tree.’ People often ask how you can tell wych elm and the traditional English elm apart. One of the best ways is this: wych elm, when mature, have long lower branches which droop down where as the English elm forms a very distinctive handle shape.

There used to be a tarn near Tarn Lane but it was drained many years ago for sheep grazing. One reminder is a small door built into a boundary wall to enable ducks to waddle through and reach the water.

Although all elms are associated with melancholy and death – because the trees can drop dead branches without warning and the timber was the preferred choice for coffins – they are great for wildlife, particularly insects. Many birds eat the seeds and the leaves provide food for the caterpillars of many moths, including the peppered, light emerald and white spotted pinion moths. Caterpillars of the white letter hairstreak butterfly need elms and the species has declined dramatically since Dutch elm disease arrived in the UK.

Tree Facts
Wych elm (Ulmus glabra)

Height 10.33m, Girth 5.32m


Trunk health:
Roots exposed, Canker

Find the tree:
From Kirkby Stephen large public (free) car park. Take the footpath with the school on your right, until the land falls lower where the former tarn was located. The tree is located in the left hand corner of the walls, next to a gate.

There is not much I can add to that and if I am in the area I will certainly visit the parent of our tree.


8 thoughts on “An unplanned happy moment in a pandemic

  1. I’m sorry to hear the disease has reached your shores. My home state of Pennsylvania has lost many of our Elms. They were often planted in elegant rows at schools. My alma mater, The Pennsylvania State University had a beautiful allee of Elms. Keep us informed on the tree’s progress.

    Liked by 1 person

  2. Wow, I had always figured that the disease had gone through Europe before it arrived here. I was not aware that it was such a problem more recently in its history. It was not such a major problem in California as it was in the East, because elms were never as common as they are elsewhere. A few massive trees succumbed to it in San Jose, but they were so old and deteriorated, that they would have succumbed to structural deficiency within a few years if they had not succumbed to the disease first. Chinese elms became popular while the disease was still killing American elms in the Midwest, but then became unavailable in the 1980s, when they were identified as a vector of the disease. (It seems silly in a region where the only elms are not susceptible to the disease anyway.) The Drake elm was supposed to be a resistant substitute for the Chinese elm, but is nothing like it. Unfortunately, the Drake elm became too common for its own good. Landscape designers bragged about how it was resistant to the disease, and used it in many situation where other trees would have been better. I realize that it is resistant to the disease, but so are all the maples and oaks!

    Liked by 1 person

  3. An uplifting post – the disease has indeed horribly changed the British landscape. Lets hope that those micropropagated plants and your tree are the beginnings of a comeback! In my childhood home in Scotland there was a row of elms bordering the lane up from the main road. All gone now – but I did a teenage painting of the lane that I framed and put on the wall here, in my new home, as a sort of (weak) memorial! So, was interested to read that ‘it’s still spreading north’. ‘My’ elms were in Perthshire – I guess they must have died about 20 years ago?

    Liked by 1 person

  4. Pingback: Wild flower meadow project (May 2021) | Glebe House Garden

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