Immature Elms are still quite abundant in woods and hedgerows but because of the ravages of Dutch Elm disease the elegant trees that once graced our English landscape are now rare. A new generation of people has grown up not knowing the iconic, beautiful growth of the mature Elms.
The tale of the Elm is rather like the banking crisis. Most new Elms arise from the growth of suckers off the parent plant, which is a very successful way multiplying their numbers. Before the disease reached our native population this was a fast and efficient way of reproducing, since out of the scrubby growth the dominant trees would rise to majestic maturity. Nowadays saplings growing off the old stock will become infected once they reach a reasonable size; susceptible because as suckers they are still genetically identical to the originals. Natural recovery will happen only through seed production which supplies new combinations of genes, hopefully providing resistance to the disease. Unfortunately the viability of Elm seed seems disappointingly low (perhaps because the need for seed was reduced to a secondary method of reproduction). Natural regeneration of disease resistant mature Elms is definitely for the long haul.
Most trees of our English countryside are wind pollinated which means they flower before they leaf, since leaves interrupt the airflow. During the summer the pollinated flowers grow into fruits and, if they too are distributed by wind, become released once the leaves fall away in autumn. This, for instance, is the pattern for ash and sycamore. Elm too is adapted to wind pollination and wind dispersal, but it produces both flowers and fruit before the leaves are fully expanded.
Finding Elm fruits in the hedgerow, glowing in their lime green jackets, I wanted to paint them, but to include the flowers as well I would have to look much earlier in the year. I had not looked for the flowers before and they are easily missed. Flowering takes place in January to February in my area of Hertfordshire. Apart from being produced at this unusual time, they are small, and barely poke out of the buds. What gives them away is the stiff anther stalks holding their little packets of pollen which stick out like small fists in defiance of the cold, later to be unclenched showing sparkling pollen against a dark palm. To see the detail I had to turn to the microscope, because I was dealing with structures only a few millimetres in length. I used scale bars on the painting so the natural sizes could be imagined.
It seemed logical to follow the Elm through the rest of its year, showing the summer leaves and then the twigs as the leaves turned colour before being shed in autumn. So the painting emerged as the chronological sequence of the Elm’s year, winter to the left, autumn to the right. I enjoyed the process of finding and illustrating the parts of a plant produced from a sucker, but it would have been even more of a joy to be painting a seedling.