Tuesday, 4 December 2018

Wych Elm (Ulmus glabra)

WYCH ELM (Ulmus glabra)
Family: Ulmaceae

Wych Elms in spring are a remarkable sight and are often mistakenly thought to be trees in flower[i]. In fact the trees are covered in tens of thousands of winged seeds (‘samaras’)[ii] in which each seed is set in a greenish-yellow diaphanous disk approximately 20 mm long and 15 mm wide (The Tree Guide). Within a couple of weeks the seeds lose their golden-green colour and become dry, light structures, ready to be carried away by the wind. The name ‘Wych’ is thought to derive from the Old English ‘wice’, meaning to be pliant, or to bend (Thomas et al. 2018: 1751; see also Online Etymology Dictionary), and is applied to several trees (including witch hazels, Hamamelis spp.).

Unlike Wych Elm, the English Elm (Ulmus minor ‘Atinia’; synonym: Ulmus procera) rarely produces samaras and so distinguishing between the two species in spring is relatively easy. Another way of recognising Wych Elm is from its very short leaf stalks, which are less than 3 mm long on mature trees, whereas in the English Elm they are 5 mm or longer (see NHM Elm Identification Guide). The Wych Elm grows in woods, in hedgerows and beside streams throughout the British Isles and likes a fairly damp soil (Thomas et al. 2018; for distribution maps see Online Atlas of the British and Irish Flora).

The green samaras as food
When the winged seeds, or samaras, are still young, tender and golden-green, they can be eaten either raw or cooked (Plants For A Future [PFAF] database). They are mild flavoured even when raw and can be used as a major ingredient of salads[iii]. The seeds are eaten as a snack by children in Denmark, where they are known as ‘manna’ (Grøn 1998: 188). They are also good in soups and can be steamed or boiled to produce a kind of spinach, although they never really become completely flaccid. The Arhorchin Mongol herdsmen apparently gather the young fruits of the Siberian Elm (Ulmus pumila) to eat as a vegetable (Khasbagan et al. 2000: 533). One major drawback of these young samaras is that they keep very poorly—even in a refrigerator—and they really should be gathered daily, as required. Alternatively in hot weather they can be quickly dried in the sun for use in soups. In lowland areas of the British Isles they are generally at their best between early April and early May.

The ripe seeds as food
Grøn records that the elderly inhabitants of south Jutland and Funen (/Fyn) remember when they were children being given “a slimy manna porridge” made with ripe samaras (Grøn 1998). He describes his own attempts at making the porridge, and states: “I have recently carried out experiments which show that porridge can also be prepared from the dried seeds with wings. This does actually taste nice if the water is changed a couple of times during the boiling to wash out the bitter chemical component” (Grøn 1998: 188).

Samuel Thayer (2006: 169) describes harvesting elm seeds in North America:
Once the seeds of the Siberian Elm[iv] ripen, the samaras become dry and brown. They flutter from the tree in the breeze, littering the ground below and sometimes getting blown into convenient piles. They can often be collected very easily. After they are thoroughly dried, you can rub and winnow them to procure rather soft, lentil-like seeds. The ripe seeds are delicious raw or cooked. The flavour reminds me of a cross between sunflower seeds and oats.” … “Their texture seems too soft and oily to make good flour,” but they are “easily stored” and “ripen at a time when other seed foods are not available.”

The young leaves as an edible and medicinal resource
Although the young leaves of Wych Elm are rather rough-textured, they too can be eaten either raw or cooked (see Plants For A Future [PFAF] database)[v]. They are best if collected just as they are emerging from their buds in late April and early May. There has been a long tradition of feeding elm leaves to livestock (see later section on Historical Uses), and in parts of Norway pollarded Ulmus glabra trees still provide fodder for animals (Thomas et al. 2018: 1751, citing Nordbakken and Austad 2010; see also: Heybroek 2015: 182).

The leaves also have antimycobacterial properties and so can be used to inhibit the growth of the pathogenetic bacterium Mycobacterium tuberculosis, which causes tuberculosis (Tosun et al. 2004).

The inner bark as an edible and medicinal resource
The inner bark of Wych Elm is very nutritious and it has been found to contain 72 mg of carbohydrate per 100 g and 97 mg of protein (Källman 1997: 110). It is best gathered in February or March from bark stripped from branches that are four years old or younger. In Sweden in the early 19th century Ulmus glabra bark was used as a famine food, it was ground into flour and used to make bread when cereals were scarce (Svanberg 2012). Heybroek (2015: 183)[vi] notes that the chopped or shaven bark was fed to cows in Norway and the nutritional mucilage from the inner bark was given to calves. He also states that because elm bark was a commodity of such high value it could be exchanged for other goods, for example: “Fishermen sailed into the fjords to barter their best fish against elm bark” (ibid., citing Landmark 1983; Nordhagen 1954; Ropeid 1960).

In Ireland there are early records that date back as far as 1726 for the application of a “slimy decoction” made with the inner bark of Ulmus glabra to treat burns and scalds, and its use in this form continued until the 1930s (Allen and Hatfield 2004: 83-84). The mucilaginous salve was also found to ease inflammations and sprains (ibid.). A North American relative of Wych Elm, Ulmus rubra, known as the Slippery Elm (also Red Elm or Indian Elm), has similar medicinal uses and it has also been found to be effective in treating sore throats, coughs, oedemas, and various gastric and urinary problems[vii] (Watts and Rousseau 2012).

Additional uses
Ulmus glabra wood is useful in construction and for making furniture (Thomas et al. 2018: 1751; see also: ASHS, Association of Scottish Hardwood Sawmillers). Thomas et al. (ibid.) record recent results of a survey of Scottish sawmills in which “the perceived use of elm timber [was] 36% for furniture, 22% for wood turning and carving, 17% for wood fuel, and 9% for coffins and various other small uses” (citing Bowditch and MacDonald, 2016). The wood is much more durable when wet so is commonly used in boat building and for timbers to make lock gates on canals (ibid.). There are also early records of bored-out elm trunks being used as mains water pipes (dating from the 17th century) and sewer pipes (dating from as early as the 13th century; Thames Water News; The History of Sanitary Sewers; History of London: The New River). In Patrick O’Brian’s novel ‘Master & Commander’—the first book in the series about Captain Jack Aubrey—which is set on the warship HM Sophie at the turn of the 19th century, he extols the facilities on board, including the water pump: “There were three things that everybody knew about the Sophie:….and a third was that she possessed an elm-tree pump on her fo’c’sle, that is to say, a bored-out trunk that communicated directly with the sea and that was used for washing her deck – an insignificant piece of equipment, really, but one so far above her station that no mariner who saw it or heard of the pump ever forgot it.” (O’Brien 2002: 49-50).

Elm bark fibres can be made into cords that are then used in various ways, e.g., for thatching, and to make shoes and mats (Heybroek 2015: 183). The Ainu of Japan made clothes with the bark: “they peeled the bark off the trees in spring or fall, then soaked it in water for ten days, divided it in strips which could be used for weaving. This textile could be colored dark with oak bark or with iron-containing peat, creating bold traditional patterns” (ibid.).

Historic and Prehistoric uses
Marcus Porcius Cato (234-149 BC) wrote extensively about agriculture and his works offered best practice advice to landowners (Meiggs 1989: 4-6). For example, he suggested planting elms and poplars around farmland and beside roads to provide fodder for livestock and also for timber (ibid.). And on building a pressing-room for olives, he suggests using oak and pine as support timbers, but for the great disc, which compresses the olives, elm and hazel—because of their durability (ibid.).

From as early as c. 600 BC it was thought that the best wine was made from grapes that grew high above the ground in trees and elms were favoured as ‘living supports’ for the vines (Heybroek 2015: 184). Like Cato, other Roman authors who wrote about agriculture and rural life (e.g., Marcus Terentius Varro, c.116-27 BC and Lucius Junius Columella, 1st century AD) also agreed that elms were useful ‘nurse-trees’ for grapevines (Meiggs 1989: 7-8; see also: Fuentes-Utrilla et al. 2004). Thomas et al. (2018: 1751) refer to the symbiosis between elms and grapevines and state: “This elm grape co-cultivation was called ‘Grape married to elm’[viii] (Ovid, Metamorphoses, XIV, 663–666) and was common in all central–north Italy since Roman and Etruscan times (citing Aversano et al. 2017; Richens 1983). They also point out that the elms would need to be stripped of their leaves to allow the sun to ripen the grapes thus providing a ready supply of fodder and, as many of the Roman authors noted, these were superior to the leaves of other trees (ibid.).

The versatility of the elm is commented upon widely by Medieval authors. In his agricultural discourse Ruralia commoda (Smith 2005), which was based in part on the writings of classical authors and also on his own knowledge of horticulture and agriculture, Pietro di Crescenzi (c. 1230-1321) gave the following advice: And if it is all a field, there the elm is the best tree among the others and it can be pruned often. And it can well support vines to have the grapes and it provides good greenery and pleasant shade to the people and the cattle and from it we take poles and branches for hedges and it is good to burn and it has more other things” (Fuentes-Utrilla et al. 2004: 11). Fuentes-Utrilla et al. (2004: 12) draw attention to the painting by Leonardo da Vinci’s student, Francesco Melzi (c. 1491-1568/70), entitled Pomona and Vertumnus (dated 1517-1520), that shows the male and female figures in front of an elm tree entwined with a vine—thus confirming the continuation of the tradition of using the elm as a support for grapevines. Shakespeare also refers to the symbolic male-female relationship between the elm and the vine in his play a Comedy of Errors (first folio published 1623); in act II scene ii Adriana affirms the bonds of marriage and pronounces:

Come I will fasten on this sleeve of thine;
Thou art an elm, my husband, I a vine,
Whose weakness married to thy stronger state,
Makes me with thy strength to communicate.

Pressed, dried leaves of Ulmus glabra were found between pages of a copy of the Great Bible kept in the library of the university of Western Australia (Dodson et al. 2013). The bible, originally from Ely Cathedral, Cambridgeshire, is dated to the mid 16th century (c. 1540 AD) and a radiocarbon analysis on a sample of the leaves gave a date of 310±40 BP (equivalent to a calendar date of between 1516 and 1596 AD). The authors conclude that the leaves were therefore contemporaneous with the bible (ibid.: 1701). They are more equivocal, however, about the religious significance of Wych elm and suggest that perhaps its reputed association with fertility, death and melancholy from the late Medieval period (c. 15th century) to the 17th century was the reason why the leaves were placed within the bible (ibid.: 1702; see also Thomas et al. 2018: 1751-1752). Interestingly, in the same library at the University of Western Australia Ulmus glabra leaves were found between pages of an original edition of the King James Bible (1611) also formerly from Ely Cathedral (ibid.).

Ulmus glabra charcoal was found in the three uppermost burnt layers within an Iron Age ritual pit at Raffin Fort, Co. Meath, Ireland (Newman et al. 2007). The main feature at the site (dated to the early 4th to late 6th century AD, equivalent to the Iron Age/Medieval transition) was a circular enclosure, approximately 65 m in diameter, surrounded by a bank and an inner ditch. In the enclosure there was a circle (c. 15 m in diameter) of six posts and within which there was a smaller ring-ditch (c. 9 m in diameter); all features are thought to have been constructed at the same time (ibid.: 349-350, figure 3). The ritual pit was located in the northwest of the enclosure, just inside the perimeter ditch. It was filled with successive layers of charcoal and burnt soil that indicated several phases of intense burning (ibid.: figure 4). A human skull fragment (subsequently found to date to at least a century earlier than the feature) and broken animal bones were also found in the pit fills (ibid.: 352). The authors comment that the selection of wood for burning in the ritual pit was: “neither random nor determined solely by availability or combustibility, but instead may have been informed by socio-religious belief systems pertaining to trees and wood” (ibid.: 349). The association of Wych Elm with the ceremonial burning therefore adds support to the notion that it was endowed with sacred significance.

There is evidence of the use of elm to make long bows during the Mesolithic period in northern Europe; for example, at Holmgaard IV (Zealand, Denmark; c. 6000 BC), at Ageröd V (southern Sweden; c. 5890-5500 BC) and at Tybrind Vig (Fyn/Funen, Denmark; c. 4600-3200 BC), thus indicating that the pliancy of the wood was valued from a very early date (Bergman 1993: 97-98).


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[i] Gordon Hillman’s reminiscence illustrates this: It was early April and, as we walked over a rise towards the woods at the foot of the Downs, the sun caught a group of trees at the woodland edge The trees glowed golden yellow and my guest, a Russian botanist, stopped and asked: 'Those trees are absolutely smothered in yellow blossom. What trees produce such a mass of yellow flowers at this time of year?'” (Hillman unpublished field notes).
[ii] Grøn notes that “large free-standing elm trees on the edges of forests produce 10-20 kg seeds in June (equivalent to 5-10 kg dry weight = 500,000-1,000,000 seeds)” whereas “trees standing in dense forest will only produce seeds from their upper part – a couple of kilos” (Grøn 1998: 188, citing Søren Levinson, pers.comm.).
[iii] The Plants for a Future record for Wych Elm states the seeds have an unusual aromatic flavour, and also that they leave the mouth “feeling fresh and the breath smelling pleasant”.
[iv] An introduced species in North America.
[v] In a 16th century Chinese herbal the leaves of the English Elm are recorded as being eaten boiled, with oil and salt (Read 1982: 48).
[vi] NB: In Heybroek’s paper it is not always clear which species of elm is being referred to.
[vii] There are also records of Slippery Elm bark being inserted into the uterus to bring about abortions (Charles 1939). Charles describes one such instance that he was witness to in the UK: “An unmarried woman, aged 25, who had had one previous full-term child, attempted to induce abortion on April 10, 1938, by trying to insert two pieces of slippery elm into her uterus. The pieces of slippery elm were about 21/2 inches long and as thick as a lead pencil.” This caused damage to internal organs, pain and excessive bleeding but the foetus was aborted; and the patient survived.
[viii] The elm being the man and the vine the woman (Heybroek 2015: 185); interestingly, in early Germanic mythology the elm was referred to as female and the ash male (after the Embla and Aska myth; Heybroek 2015: 183)

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