i.e., ENGLISH ELM (Ulmusprocera) We may mourn the passing of the elm, but it has long been seen as a treacherous tree, hostile to human beings (O Suilleabhain):
Man and waiteth (Wilkinson. 1978).
Kipling knew all about the belief, and wrote in A tree song:
Elmen she hateth mankind and waiteth Till every gust be laid
To drop a limb on the head of him That anyway trusts the shade.
That is probably the nub of this belief. Elms can often, without any warning or sign of decay, shed a limb and cause injury or death. A large elm near Credenhill Court, in Herefordshire, used to be called the Prophet Tree; it was said to foretell each death in the family of the Eckleys, who used to own the place, by flinging off a limb (Leather). It is thought particularly dangerous to shelter under an elm during a thunderstorm (Porter. 1969). "He will wait for me under the elm" is a French proverb, meaning, he will not be there, perhaps because it would be such a stupid place to wait (Wilkinson. 1978).
Distrust goes back a long way - Virgil talks of a great elm [not Uprocera, though] at the entrance to Orcus, and it seems clear that the souls of the dead were thought to inhabit the elm, as dreams or as birds (L B Paton). It should be noted too , in this context, that the elm was the execution tree of the Normans - Tyburn was once known as 'The Elms'.
They say in Somerset that elms pine for their fellows. If two trees out of four are cut down, the remaining two will soon die (Tongue. 1965). Oaks are rather like that, and they will revenge themselves if they can, if any others are cut (Briggs. 1962).
The leafing of the elm has for centuries governed agricultural operations:
When the elmen leaf is as big as a mouse's ear Then to sow barley never fear. When the elmen leaf is as big as an ox's eye, Then I say, "Hie, boys, hie" (Palmer. 1976).
A variant, from Warwickshire, as is the previous example, runs:
When elm leaves are as big as a shilling, Plant kidney beans, if to plant 'em you're willing. When elm leaves are as big as a penny, You must plant kidney beans, if you mean to have any (Dyer. 1889).
The Cotswold variation has "as large as a farthing" (Briggs. 1974), or "farden" (in Herefordshire), to rhyme with "garden" (Leather). But if the leaves fall before their time it "doth foreshow or betoken a murrain or death of cattle" (Lupton).
Of course, the timber has been used extensively, in spite of the tree's evil reputation. Elm poles made bows (though the best were from Spanish yew) (Rackham. 1976). It endures well under water, and so was the first material for water pipes (Grigson. 1955), and for piles, as in London and Rochester bridges (Rackham. 1976). For the same reason, elm timber was used for coffins, a practice that Vaux wholeheartedly condemned - "the evil practice of making coffins of elm in order to keep the body from the corrupting effects of contact with the earth for as long as possible, the very opposite to which is what all sensible people desire". But elm wood does not burn well:
Elmwood burns like churchyard mould E'en the very flames are cold.
It is quite usual to find purely magical practices masquerading as medical facts, and elm usage is no exception to this rule. From an Irish manuscript of 1509, it appears that an elm wand was used for healing purposes, and a cure for a man rendered impotent by magic was to cut his name in ogham on an elm wand, and then to strike him with it (Wood-Martin).
All parts of the tree, Evelyn said, "asswage the pains of the gout". Rather more optimistic was the assertion in Dioscorides that "the leaves beaten small with vinegar, and soe applied are good for the leprosie ..." (Apuleius Madaurensis). Wesley, too, associated elm with a leprosy cure, but it was the bark he prescribed.
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