What are coffins made of?

Elm is highly resistant to both rotting and damage from crushing forces. It also has a long standing association with death, dating from at least the Celtic druids who linked the tree to burial mounds and their elvish inhabitants. It is perhaps no surprise then that elm became the timber of choice for the undertaker in the construction of coffins.

English elms were once a familiar sight (Credit: Owen Johnson / Ancient Tree Inventory)
English elms were once a familiar sight (Credit: Owen Johnson / Ancient Tree Inventory)

History of the elm

Some of our oldest yew trees had already witnessed the turn of two millennia by the time the word 'coffin' first appeared in the English language in the late 14th century. This was when a wave of the bubonic plague, known as the Black Death, was ravaging Europe, ultimately killing around half of the human population. The plague is caused by a bacterium, Yersinia pestis, for which one carrier is the ship’s rat, Rattus rattus. Ships constructed of English oak would have imported this terrible cargo to our shores, arguably providing a centuries-old lesson in the need for biosecurity.

As the plague took its toll our woodlands would probably have temporarily expanded, reclaiming the agricultural fields that our ancient forebears had hacked into existence. According to the Forestry Commission’s figures, drawn from sources as diverse as written records and pollen samples, there would have been about as much woodland in England then as there is now, roughly ten percent of the land cover.

Across that medieval landscape English elms, Ulmus minor, would have been a familiar sight. The tree has an interesting history: they appear to be genetically identical to each other and there is a theory that they were brought by the Romans, planted as stakes to support vines. Later they found renewed favour with landowners racing to enclose land during the 16th to the 19th centuries, planted as 'standards' among the arrow-straight hawthorn hedgerows and so giving rise to the iconic patchwork landscape that we treasure even today.

Find where ancient elms still survive.

Ancient Tree Inventory

Pattern on elm left by bark boring beetle (Credit: wikimedia/Ronnie Nijboer)
Pattern on elm left by bark boring beetle (Credit: wikimedia/Ronnie Nijboer)

Dutch elm disease

Dominating the agricultural landscape, elms later suffered their own plague in the form of Dutch elm disease, a fungal pathogen transmitted by a bark boring beetle. There were two epidemics in the 20th century, the first in the 1920s and the second more devastating outbreak in the 1970s and 80s. The nature of the countryside was profoundly changed, with some 60 million trees being killed.

Although the disease continues to spread northwards in Scotland even today, elm made something of a recovery in the south, albeit in a changed form. It exists mainly as a hedgerow shrub, through “suckering” rather than setting seed. If ever it does manage to escape the flail and assume the form of a tree, its fate is all but sealed once it attains a suitable size as habitat for the bark beetle, which still unwittingly carries the fungus.

A now bitter irony is that the spaces vacated by elms were often colonised by European ash, Fraxinus excelsior, which has in turn become a dominant non-woodland tree, especially in hedgerows and along roadsides. Many millions are likely to succumb to ash dieback, caused by another fungus (this time windblown), and our landscape seems doomed to change once again.

Hallowe’en is the traditional end point of summer, marking the turning of the wheel towards winter. With our trees assuming their skeletal winter forms it’s a great time to practice your tree identification skills – try using the tree’s bark and check using leaves. There’s lots of activity in the woods right now with wildlife preparing for the (fingers crossed) cold months ahead and the colours are amazing. Happy Hallowe’en!

If you find a big old elm please be sure to record it.

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