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Elm Genus: Ulmus An article from "The Trees Of Old England" by Leo H.Grindon
Elm Genus: Ulmus by Leo Hartley Grindon; Previously a Lecturer on Botany at the Royal School of Medicine, Manchester. Author of "Life: its Nature, Varieties, and Phenomena;" "British and Garden Botany;" " The Little Things of Nature;" "Echoes in Plant and Flower Life," and others.
Elm Genus: Ulmus A Sketch of the aspects, associations and uses of Elm Genus: Ulmus which constitute the forests and give effect to the scenery of Great Britain.
Whether the elm be truly an ancient Briton, or a tree originally from south-eastern Europe, is an open question. Like the chestnut and several others, it has been a resident in our island from time immemorial; there is reason to believe, nevertheless, that it is not one of those trees which, with the oak and the pine, can claim to be absolutely indigenous that is to say, growing upon British soil as one of the original gifts of nature, instead of owing its importation to the hand of man. The subject to which this question forms an opening is one of the most curious and interesting that botanists and physical geographers have to consider. It involves not only the natural laws and the accidental processes by which plants have been diffused over the face of the earth, but the problem of the primitive seats of particular species. Looking at the ancient forests and the immortal meadows, at the lilies that brighten the quiet pools and river-inlets, far away in the most secret solitudes of the country; or at the saxifrages that sprinkle the mountain-slopes with their beautiful stars of gold or delicately speckled white, we think most naturally that these things, or at all events that the plants which were their ancestors and progenitors, have occupied these self-same spots ever since the beginning. And doubtless this is true of very many of the forms of life that surround us. But very many others have as certainly been derived from localities more or less distant. Migration has been no less steady on the part of plants, sometimes as the result of natural causes, sometimes under the influence of man, and this, upon his part, either knowingly or unconsciously, migration, we say, has been no less steady on the part of plants than emigration has been with our own species. The colonising of new lands in ancient times and in modern ones has in every age had its silent but energetic parallel among plants. Such migration is still in progress, and perhaps more vigorously than ever before: it would seem that whatever man does, the unconscious portion of living nature does likewise that whichever of the two takes the initiative, the other cannot choose but follow suit.
Numbers of our common English weeds have, by the accidents of commerce, been conveyed of late years to distant countries, and in several cases have established disastrous empire; many pretty flowers, on the other hand, have also travelled in the wake of civilization. In certain localities in our own island, where once were only brambles and hedge-nettles, now we see the quaint blossoms of the American touch-me-not, or the golden quadrangles of the evening-primrose. Even in our conservatories there are many similar instances of the wonderful love of travel that pertains to plants. Among the orchids of the tropics frequently springs up that most sweet and tender little trefoil, the sleepy yellow oxalis of the Mauritius; and in one hothouse, at least, that might be named, comes up every year, unsown and of its own amiable accord, that beautiful blue-spiked G-ymnostachyum which has been dedicated, in its second name, to Mr. Cuming. A large book might be written upon the subject of these curious wanderings; another upon the confraternity that has been instituted among the different countries of the earth by the deliberate transfer of their productions from one to the other. How much does Europe owe to Asia! How much to America! How largely in turn does the new world stand indebted to the old! The walnut and the lilac came first from Persia; the camellia is from Japan; the vine from the shores of the Caspian. Wheat and barley are from the same opulent part of south-western Asia which tradition declares to have been the birthplace of the human family; cucumbers and melons ripened their first fruits beneath the sun of India; rosemary seems aboriginal to the northern shores of the Mediterranean. Extending our survey to America, we find that for the inestimable potato we must thank Brazil; the same great region has enriched our gardens with countless flowers of the rarest beauty; the ancient world has sent hither, in beautiful recompense, two of the most valuable of plants those, namely, which yield coffee and rice. These are but two or three instances out of a thousand that might be cited; the narration of all would run abreast of the history of human enterprise, and, at the same moment, of nature's fair docility a quality we should never forget or overlook. For what would the world have been had trees and plants and flowers sullenly refused to grow except in the very spots where they were first deposited? Everywhere the soil gives willing nutriment; and though the inclemencies and the asperities of certain climates do certainly prevent the universal extension of plants, the capacity of self-adaptation to an immense variety of latitude and longitude, remains one of the most striking facts in physiology, and one of the finest illustrations of the Divine munificence. England, owing to this power of self-accommodation on the part of plants, is now the permanent flower-show of the whole world. True, it is through the ingenuity of the florist that very many plants are alone persuaded to dwell with us and to enjoy life; his success in reconciling them to their new abode comes, however, of their primitive flexibility under kind treatment. Plants, like women and chameleons, wax bright or become dim according to the light that is cast upon them; yet not alone by reason of the light, but because of the sweet reflecting mystery within. In the questioned native country of the elm-tree is involved, accordingly, no new or solitary idea; it is simply one of those which constitute the history of the interchange of hospitalities. In any case, the tree is so thoroughly rooted in Old England that now it matters little whether it be an alien or otherwise. For centuries it has been linked with many of the happiest thoughts that are the privilege of Englishmen; and as long as the glory of old family mansions and of ancestral avenues shall endure, so long will the stately elm be a household word. The great height which the elm attains,, the peculiar and gradually expanding form of the head, the grand super-columniation of the pillared branches, and the massiveness and circularity of the main stem, are qualities which adapt it more than any other for an ornament of the park and of the grounds that immediately adjoin, and more particularly still, for planting in those duplicate lines which by-and-by developed into the avenue say, rather, into the living cathedral nave; of which, let it be noted, there are no finer examples possible than in the avenues in Kensington Gardens, and that majestic one which sweeps down the slope in front of Redland Court, near Bristol, then rises again, graceful as some light boat upon the waters, every tree a tower of verdure, illustrious at every season, and when in the pride of its green summer, and slaking its mighty thirst in the drowsy sunshine, lifting up our hearts with delight and admiration. For grand old trees, such as these elms, like the stars, seem to look down into our souls, and, resting there, make them partakers of their own greatness.
Listen, too, to the inhabitants! Not always a city, but how often are these beautiful trees, the elms, the seat of a thousand birds of the dark wing! The two things seem so naturally to go together, that rooks' feathers upon the ground so black, so clean, so smooth, so glossy, with their beautiful white and slender quills seem almost a produce of the tree itself. To watch these birds sailing in their calm squadrons; to note them, too, when busy in the fields; yea, even to pick up those fragments of cast plumage, to me is an ever-recurring pleasure. And yet it is not because of the elms; I suppose there is no human being of civilized race to whom some such simple thing of nature is not a talisman, "Striking the electric chain wherewith we are darkly bound!"
Botanically, the elm is distinguished by its curious leaves, simple flowers, and remarkable fruit, or, as it would be popularly called, remarkable seed. Botanists, however, give the name of " fruit " to the ripened seed and seed-vessel of every plant without distinction. No matter whether fit to eat or not, whether hard and dry, or juicy and tempting, this portion of the plant's produce is still the "fruit," and, made thus comprehensive, the term becomes an exceedingly convenient one. The peculiarity of the leaves is that the two sides, or the portions separated by the midrib, are not only of two different sizes, as happens in the beech, but that the bases of the two sides spring from different points. A few examples of similar structure occur in other families of plants, but it is nowhere so conspicuous as in the elm. The lateral veins proceed in straight and parallel lines (sometimes forking a little), right away to the margin, as in trees of the oak-tribe; the margins are deeply and sharply serrated, and the apex runs out to a fine point. Sometimes there is a second projection, which is thrown to one side, making it appear as if we had a leaf and a half combined into a single blade. Ordinarily, the surface is rough, though in some varieties quite smooth; in autumn the whole substance changes to a uniform though rather subdued yellow, and for some time, during the year's tranquil evening, bathed in the beautiful light of the declining sun, the tree presents a cheerful though never a gorgeous spectacle.
It is early in spring, when the elm is in flower, that the eye is most attracted to its botanical traits. Often as early as Lent, and certainly by April, the twigs seem covered with hard black knots, something like ill-strung beads. Presently, in calm fore noons, when the daffodils open their golden cups, and the almond and the mezereon cover their bare branches with sweet pink bloom, reminding us of those happy little children of genius who before they have been to school, and become leafy with book knowledge, play forth verses, and song, and Art; producing, like the birds in spring, not from instruction, but because they cannot help; presently, while these livelier sweet sights invite our hearts, the dark elm-knots also expand, and then we have dense round clusters of little vases, tinted brown, and purple, and green, in delicate intermixture, while in the midst are lifted up stamens and a ruddy pistil that seems clipped out of fairy velvet. So abundant are these pretty flowers, and so deep and vinous is the hue, that when the sunbeams fall on the tree, it seems almost to purple the surrounding air. Up to this time, not a leaf, not an opening leaf bud, is to be seen, so that between our eyes and the pale sky there is nothing but twig and bloom. Talk not of flowers as born only of the summer. In the dreariest and coldest seasons that precede there are always plenty. It is not that flowers are wanting, but that we have not yet quite learned that seeing, like conversation, is one of the Fine Arts, the principles of which come by nature, but which requires culture quite as much as our capacity for writing or working out a sum in arithmetic.
By the time the leaves are completing their green promise, mingled with, them in countless numbers, are the fruits into which the pistils have ripened. Now the ruddy fur is entirely gone, and we have flat green circular plates with a notch at the summit, and a seed embedded in the centre, the whole seeming an image in little of those ancient shields that had a boss in the middle. Hanging upon the tree they seem green hop-clusters gone astray; when they fall to the ground, they lie thick as the chaff on a threshing-floor. Showiness in the detail of its parts, the elm is thus not gifted with: yet the aggregate makes amends, and is it not by the aggregate of our nature that we ourselves desire to be judged? Partly, perhaps, because of this little pretension on the part of the elm to floral beauty, the ancient Italian gardeners selected it as a living prop for their vines, giving to the tree which nature had left with so little glow of ornament, the most exquisite decoration that art could super add. For nothing can be more charming than a tree twined over and festooned with the many-tendrilled vine, every leaf a model of elegance, and every bunch the beau-ideal of a fruit. Amid all the varied and graceful uses to which the foliage of trees has been applied in Art, the palm-leaf to form the capital of the Egyptian pillar, ivy to help in the stone foliage of the Gothic cathedral, none perhaps have been more constant, as none have been more popular, than the use of the vine-trail. " Vignettes " are so called because all such little pictures were at one time surrounded by an engraved vine-wreath, in classical language called viticula. The selection of the elm for the purpose above-mentioned gives occasion to very frequent allusions to the practice by the ancient poets, as by Virgil over and over again in the Georgics and the Pastorals. It would seem that in those days, as in the present, lovers forgot their occupations while thinking of the beloved, for thus does Corydon chide himself when he wakes to the consciousness that his appeals are vain: Ah, Corydon! Corydon, quae te dementia cepit? Semiputata tibi frondosa vitis in ulmo est. "Ah, Corydon! Corydon, what love-fever hath enslaved thee? Half-pruned is thy vine that mantles in the leafy elm!" Like a wise man, he decides to resume his legitimate occupations, "to weave, of osiers and pliant rushes, such implements as his work requires: if this Alexis disdains thee, thou shalt yet find another."
Elm Genus: Ulmus An article from "The Trees Of Old England" continued...
Elm Genus: Ulmus
All the preceding remarks apply to the noble tree popularly known as the elm, by botanists called the small-leaved elm and the London elm, and classically Ulmus campestris. It is this one also which, in the south of England, has given its name to one or two "Elmtons" or "Elm-towns;" another circumstance indicating its probably exotic origin, since names of places founded upon that of the elm are very rare, while names of towns and villages founded on that of the oak and other undoubted natives are quite frequent. There is one kind of elm which is acknowledged to be indigenous that one called by botanists Ulmus montana, and popularly distinguished as the wych-elm. In all characters except the technical ones found in the shape of the leaf, and in the structure of the flowers and fruit, this is a perfectly dissimilar tree. Instead of being lofty, erect, and with many tiers of columns that alternately lose and disclose themselves among the foliage, this one is comparatively low in stature, and the tree is disposed more to the spreading or horizontal mode of growth: consequently it never attains the handsome figure of the campestris; it is unsuited for avenues and colonnades, and takes its place better among the middle class forest inhabitants. Planted singly, well-grown individuals have, nevertheless, a beauty which is not to be ignored. The leaves are many times larger than those of its loftier relative, and are disposed in so elegant a manner as to give the branches the appearance of enormous "pinnate leaves," or such as are formed after the manner of those of the Eobinia. The long and curving lines produced by these, and the amplitude of surface, constitute attributes such as few other trees present, and redeem the wych-elm from any charge of absolute inferiority. The name, which is a singular one, and is often misspelled "witch" from some confusion of ideas as to the wych-elm and the mountain-ash, a tree from time immemorial associated with witchcraft, signifies a box or chest, and refers to the ancient use of the wood for the purposes of the rough cabinetmaker. Chaucer spells it "wiche," and by Sir John Mandeville the name is applied to the Ark of the Covenant, which, as he says "Titus ledde with him to Borne." It was also used in the sense of coffin: and coffins, to this day, are largely made of the wood of the elm. For this purpose, however, the wood of the campestris is preferred, seeing that the fibre possesses greater lateral adhesion and less longitudinal toughness, and consequently does not crack so much in drying. It is from the same species (the campestris) that the elm-wood used in shipbuilding is derived. From its hard and adhesive nature, and indisposition to crack or split when exposed to hot sunshine or unfriendly weather, it is particularly suitable for the blocks and other wooden furniture of rigging; the great use of it, however, is for the keels of ships. The wych-elm is the species that predominates in the north of England, as in the south the prevailing species is the campestris. The two forms abound equally in flowers, but the wych-elm is much more ready to ripen its fruit, and the description above given of the latter product pertains emphatically to it. Herein again we have a curious bit of collateral evidence as to the campestris not being aboriginal to England. For it is inconsistent with the harmony of nature that a tree or plant should be located in a spot where the climate would be opposed to its free multiplication by seed cast from its own boughs. Such multiplication occurs in the case of the wych-elm; but very sparingly or not at all, in England, in that of the stately small-leaved one. With all their willingness to accommodate themselves to new soils and to new countries and latitudes, there is of course a limit to the endurance of plants, and we must not be surprised if, when a tree is brought from a far southern country, as the campestris probably was, either by the Romans or the Crusaders, it should be unable so to harden its nature as to ripen fruit with regularity, and so easily and steadfastly as to propagate itself without the aid of man, who transported it from its birthplace.
After all, it is "by no means certain that the wych-elm is a distinct species. No less than seven different varieties of elm are distinguished by the analytical school of botanists. Two species, the campestris and the montana, seem sufficient, and to include all the others that have been proposed; and even these, as we say, are perhaps resolvable into a single one. The great question of the present day with naturalists, "What is a species?" seems further from solution than ever. Perhaps the wisest course is to take things as we find them, and be content with their beauty and their grace, their strength and their utilities.
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