English elms were once a very common sight in the countryside of Europe, North America and Asia. However, this majestic tree was devastated by Dutch elm disease, a fungal infection that claimed an estimated 25 million trees in Britain alone. Sadly this iconic tree has now all but disappeared from the landscape. It will be remembered on rich farmland soils and parklands throughout the country, it is also a classic hedgerow tree of English lowlands. Mature English elms can grow to over 30 metres tall, producing a fine wood that has great strength and durability. They are deciduous trees that lose their leaves in the winter and the small winged seeds are dispersed by the wind in autumn.
Scientific name: Ulmus procera
Beetles carry a fungus that spelled the demise of millions of trees.
English elms were once one of Britain's most characteristic trees, used for making anything from boats and furniture to water pipes and coffins. Then, in the late 20th century, elms were devastated by a fungus that was accidentally introduced on a shipment of elm tree logs from North America. It spread throughout the country via elm bark beetles and killed an estimated 25 million trees changing the British landscape forever. Saplings grown from a single elm that survived the disease are now being studied by experts at Kew Gardens, in the hope that the secret of its survival can be identified and the species brought back.
The following habitats are found across the English elm distribution range. Find out more about these environments, what it takes to live there and what else inhabits them.
Discover what these behaviours are and how different plants and animals use them.
Additional data source: Animal Diversity Web
Ulmus procera Salisb., the English, Common, or more lately Atinian, Elm was, before the advent of Dutch elm disease, the commonest field elm in southern England, though not native there, and one of the largest and fastest-growing deciduous trees in Europe. R. H. Richens had noted that there are elm-populations in north-west Spain, in northern Portugal and on the Mediterranean coast of France that "closely resemble the English Elm" and appear to be "trees of long standing" in those regions rather than recent introductions.Augustine Henry had earlier noted that the English Elms planted extensively in the Royal Park at Aranjuez from the late 16th century onwards, specimens said to have been introduced from England by Philip II and "differing in no respects from the English Elm in England", behaved as native trees in Spain and "produced every year fertile seed in great abundance". He suggested that the tree "may be a true native of Spain, indigenous in the alluvial plains of the great rivers, now almost completely deforested".
Richens believed that English Elm was a particular clone of the variable species Ulmus minor, referring to it as Ulmus minor var. vulgaris. A 2004 survey of genetic diversity in Spain, Italy and the UK confirmed that English Elms are indeed genetically identical, clones of a single tree, the Atinian Elm once widely used for training vines, and brought to the British Isles by Romans for the purpose of supporting and training vines. Thus, despite its name, the origin of the tree is widely believed to be Italy, although it is possible it hailed from what is now Turkey, where it is still used in the cultivation of raisins.
Dr Max Coleman of the Royal Botanic Garden, Edinburgh writes (2009): "The advent of DNA fingerprinting has shed considerable light on the question. A number of studies have now shown that the distinctive forms that Melville elevated to species and Richens lumped together as field elm are single clones, all genetically identical, that have been propagated by vegetative means such as cuttings or root suckers. This means that enigmatic British elms such as ... English Elm have turned out to be single clones of field elm." Since clones cannot pollinate identical clones, it follows that the fertile seed that Henry gathered from the English Elms at Aranjuez must have resulted from natural hybridisation with local elms, probably U. minor. At higher altitudes in Spain, he added, such as in Madrid and Toledo, the introduced English Elm did not set fertile seed.
Most current taxonomies, however, do not list English Elm under the heading "Ulmus minor var.".
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