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Tree of the week: Wych Elm

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October 2014 –

Wych elm

Wych elm usually grows in hilly or rocky woodlands, or beside streams and ditches. It is hardier than the English elm (Ulmus minor var. vulgaris), so is found much further north and west, and in parts of Scotland. Despite the English elm’s name, wych elm is the only elm that is regarded as being truly native to Britain. Thanks to Dutch elm disease, wych elm is now found very infrequently.

What does wych elm look like?

Wych elm is hard to tell apart from English elm. The bark is smooth and grey when young, becoming grey-brown and fissured after 20 years. Twigs are dark grey and covered in coarse hairs, and leaf buds are hairy, purple-black and squat in shape. Leaves are toothed, and at 7-16cm in length, they are larger than those of any other native tree. They have a characteristic asymmetrical base and taper to a sudden point at the top.

Flowers appear before the leaves in early spring. They are red-purple in colour, and appear in clusters of 10 to 20, spaced out along the twigs and small branches. Elms are hermaphrodite, meaning that both male and female reproductive parts are contained within each flower. One pollinated by wind, flowers develop into small, winged fruits known as samaras. These are dispersed by wind.

Mature trees can grow to a height of 30m.

Interesting fact: before metal was widely available, many English towns had elm water mains, including Bristol, Reading, Exeter, Southampton, Hull and Liverpool.

Value to wildlife

Many birds eat elm 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 feed on elms and the species has declined dramatically since Dutch elm disease arrived in the UK.

Mythology and symbolism

Elms used to be associated with melancholy and death, perhaps because the trees can drop dead branches without warning. Elm wood was also the preferred choice for coffins. In Lichfield it was the  custom to carry elm twigs in a procession around the Cathedral Close on Ascension Day, then to throw them in the font.

How we use wych elm

Elm wood is strong and durable with a tight-twisted grain, and is resistant to water. It has been used in decorative turning, and to make boats and boat parts, furniture, wheel hubs, wooden water pipes, floorboards and coffins.


Along with English elm, wych elm is highly susceptible to Dutch elm disease, a fungal disease which devastated populations of elms since it arrived in the UK in the 1960s.

Elms can also be affected by galls from aphids, which migrate from fruit cultivated trees.