It seems to have been a bad summer for the elm across southern England. Wherever there is elm, there are the tell-tale signs of attack by the elm bark beetle with shriveled brown leaves and bent-over branches standing out against the green hedge background. From being green and healthy-looking in May and June, during July and August the elm gradually fell victim to the fungus the beetle carries.
To try to stop the fungus spreading, the tree blocks the vessels within the wood that carry water and nutrient, causing tissues to die. So, just when the elm was fighting back, it’s had another knock, and the cycle of attack – recovery – attack – recovery … continues.
However, as Mark Cocker has pointed out in his review of Fiona Stafford’s book: The Long, Long Life of Trees, this is not so much a story of decline, as of survival. We have not seen the last of the elm, although our use of it is now not what it once was. Elm wood is strong, durable and resistant to water. Traditionally it was used to make furniture, floorboards, boats, wheel hubs, water pipes, troughs, coffins and lavatory seats. Odd then, perhaps, that it has a reputation for not generating much heat as this old rhyme reminds us:
Apple wood will scent your room,
with incense-like perfume;
Oak and maple, if dry and old,
keep away the winter’s cold;
Ash wood wet or ash wood dry,
a king will warm his slippers by; but
Elm burns like the graveyard mould,
even the very flames are cold!
The Long, Long Life of Trees, Fiona Stafford; ISBN: 9780300207330; Yale University Press, 2016