On the Autumn Symphony of 2018 and the Revival of the Wych Elm

No two autumns are exactly alike, and maybe no two person’s either – much depends on where you live and where you went – but for me this one has been very distinctive – a lovely, long, slow-moving symphony of an autumn.  The first movement opened on the Lake District fells in early September when already the deer-grass and the cotton-grass were beginning to turn (every stem banded with subtle colours), patches of bracken were turning tawny, and yellows, scarlets and coppers were appearing among the leaves of the bilberries (which fruited so early this year).

Ennerdale – the First Movement begins

Mid-September on the fringes of the Highlands in Perthshire saw the gold of the turning birches joining the expanding palette of the bracken and the sedges.

Perthshire  (note dead birches drowned by beavers)

By late September the leaves of brambles and rosebay in lowland Northumberland were beginning to glow as crimson as the heavily-berried hawthorns, and the hills were all in russet.

The second and third movements in October were unusual – the arrangement of the instruments atypical, with some stalwarts making only a brief contribution this year and some lesser contributors thrusting themselves forward for attention.  For a glorious week early in the month the country lanes were incandescent with the greeny gold of ash, which disappeared almost overnight so the naked trees loomed there like a memento mori as the other players took their turns.

A lane of Ash – like driving through a crisp white wine

That was the second movement.  After a long dry summer like this, the Swedish whitebeams (much loved by local authorities in Northumberland as street trees and for pit-heap reclamation schemes) normally give a few days of golden glory, lighting up even the dourest of council estates.  This year they and the rowans were stripped of most of their leaves by tree-toppling and branch-felling gales that ripped through Northumberland in late September and so could make no more than a token effort.  Many of those other landscaping stalwarts, the Norway maples, suffered the same fate, although some did contribute their New England scarlet right through the month – one of the advantages of having a tree flora with cultivars and varieties from many places is the phenological variation they bring.  Thus, most of the limes (all hybrids in this part of the world) flared and faded quite early in October, while others were still making brave contributions well into November.  However beech and birch, reliable as ever, played their parts right through this mellow third movement while never giving us the dramatic heights they are capable of.

So I thought we were set up for a slow, fading fourth movement in November.  But no, this autumn saved its best for last.  Almost overnight it seemed that every remaining leaf on every broadleaved tree and shrub burst into an effulgence of golds and yellows and ambers.

The view from my study – how am I supposed to concentrate!

Species that are normally only minor players in the autumn symphony were given their chance to shine in a glorious finale and took it in style.  Wych elm, sallow, hazel and hornbeam lit up the woods, glowing on the foggiest of days as if lit from within.

Wych Elm
Goat Willow
Hornbeam

Decked out in gold as they were, it made me appreciate just how significant a part wych elms still play in the ancient valley woodlands of Northumberland.  In the 1960s and ‘70s we had fears that Dutch Elm Disease was going to erase all the elms from the British landscape.  The disease did have a big impact of course, although not as severe a one up here as it did in southern Britain.  This was because the southern elms were clonal species, and in many areas suckering elm clones were the main hedgerow trees, and once one died the rest were sure to follow.  Wych elm, on the other hand, relies on sexual reproduction.  Also, it is more of a woodland than a hedgerow tree, so although it was far and away the commonest elm in the north, it wasn’t as prominent in our landscapes. Nevertheless, the big open-grown wych elms we did have all disappeared. There used to be two monsters close by where I grew up, and one of the signs of spring was when the flowers turned their great spreading crowns bruise-purple in March.  Each had a mass of epicormics twigs like a gigantic bird’s nests at its base, tempting places to hide in when playing hide-and-seek, but not wise ones if you were wearing shorts – books hardly ever tell you this, but elm leaves sting, not as much as nettles but it’s not pleasant when they get you on the tender skin behind the knees.

Wych Elm leaves – not quite as innocent as they look

In the Blyth valley woodlands wych elm was one of the commonest trees, many of them coppiced long before, and after a slow start Dutch elm disease ripped through these in the ‘80s leaving the valley sides dominated by stark crowns of dead stems.  In the part of the valley that is included within the Plessey Woods Country Park there were, of course, safety fears, so many of these wych elms were felled.  Then, panicking at the spectre of their woodland turning into a perpetual bramble thicket, the County Council decided to replace the wych elms with new trees, and so out came the tree tubes.  Many of their ash, oak and beech occupants, now ten or more metres tall, are still sporting their split and tattered tuley tube jackets, like Incredible Hulks on a rampage.

Grrr – let me out!

The wych elms did not, as it happens, die.  Generally Dutch elm disease prunes its victims back to the base rather than killing them, and in a little while new stems thrust up towards the sunlight.  Many of these new stems were cut back in their turn once their bark was thick enough to host the beetles that spread the fungus that causes the disease.  However as the years have gone by more and more of these stems seem to be getting away with it – just how many was brought home to me by this year’s late autumn colours.  Once more the multiple stems of the wych elms are a major feature of the Blyth valley woodlands, albeit as yet much skinnier than before.   Together with the ash, oak and beech (both planted and self-sown) they have suppressed the brambles in the country park, and elsewhere in the valley they fight it out with the hazel for the honour of being the principal component of the understorey shrub layer.  Some are even in the process of becoming decent sized trees once more.  It is good to see such resilience.

In the Wych Wood

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