During my first week of horticultural studies the group went for a walk in the woods adjacent to the 18th century mansion in 650 acres of parkland next to which the college had a portacabin. The tutor stopped at one gnarly specimen and asked if anyone knew what it was. There was an awkward silence, broken only by the shuffling of wellies. As it turned out there was a reason for our ignorance, the tree in question was an elm, which after the devastating Dutch Elm Disease infestation of the 1970’s was, and still is, a rarity in this country. Due to the buffering effect of the South Downs some trees remain in the Brighton area and I believe Edinburgh still has a few thousand specimens, but a fully grown tree is an unusual sight.
There are small shrubby specimens at Cliffe making up a mixed hedge, with their distinctive corky winged young branches, and these occasionally seed themselves around in nooks and crannies. They are sadly fated to be reinfected when they reach suitable size to allow the fungus carrying beetle access below the bark. They will resprout from the base but will never reach their stately potential.
So now we are being attacked by another tree killer, Ash Dieback, and the prognosis is not good. We have an enormous ash, Fraxinus excelsior, in the garden with an equally impressive Hydrangea petiolaris winding its way up. I feel guilty about the hundreds if not thousands of seedlings from this gentle giant that I have pulled up over the years, probably cursing as I tugged. Suddenly they have transferred in my psyche from weed to vulnerable. I sincerely hope that our elder statesman will be one of the lucky few amongst the estimated 5% predicted to escape the horrifying ash arboricide.