Wych

(Ulmus glabra) A protective tree, very much in the manner of Rowan. In fact, we find them used in tandem, as it were, in the Cromarty legend of Willie Miller, who went to explore the Dropping Cave - "he sewed sprigs of rowan and wych-elm in the hem of his waistcoat, thrust a Bible into one pocket and a bottle of gin into the other, and providing himself with a torch, and a staff of buckthorn which had been cut at the full of the moon ... he set out for the cave ..." (H Miller). Smollett knew of Wych Elm's prophylactic qualities, for he has a character in Humphrey Clinker say "As for me, I put my trust in the Lord; and I have got a slice of witch elm sewed in the gathers of my under petticoat". Opie & Tatem were able to provide a quotation from a time as recent as 1958: "the butter wunna come in that", she said firmly. "There's no wych elm in it, and anybody in their right senses knows as butter wunna gather unless there's wych elm in the churn". Yorkshire carters, too, put a sprig on their horses, and carried a piece of the wood in their pockets (Nicholson). Another example comes from Somerset, where it used to be said that a few sprigs of it should be put in vases indoors on 15 July, to prevent a curse from St Swithin (Watson).

There are but few usages that require Wych Elm rather than any other kind of elm, but for some peculiar reason, the seat planks of dinghies were always made of it (Wilkinson. 1978). As with the American Slippery Elm, the cambium of Wych Elm has been used until comparatively recently to make a kind of bread, known as bark-bread in Scandinavia, much like Scots pine-bark (Dimbleby). There have been a few records of Wych Elm being used as a shrew-tree (see ASH) instead of the more usual ash. There was one apparently made in Somerset in the 20th century. A cottager had a child sick with polio, and the idea was that a shrew-mouse would be allowed to run over the affected limb and then be imprisoned in a hole bored for it in the shrew-tree, in this case a Wych Elm. A decoction of the twigs of the tree that had caused the death of the shrew would act as a remedy for the child's sickness (Whistler).

'Wych' is from a Germanic base meaning 'pliant', or 'bending', much as modern German weich - soft, pliant; switchy is another way of putting it, hence Switch Elm (Grigson. 1955). 'Wych' all too easily becomes 'witch', with consequent confusion in local beliefs, like suggesting that witches dread it, or the opposite. Burning wych elm would bring the malignant power of the witch upon the household (Morley), and so on. So we find Witch Elm, Witchwood, etc., (Nicholson, Elworthy. 1888).

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