For our first folklore Friday of 2022 I would like to start with the Elm tree because my interest and love of the natural world started with Elms. I mean it started before that with the local woodlands and bugs I chased, but the elms were the ones that got me really curious about nature. When I started school our playground was lined with elm trees. We climbed them, played underneath them, caught the seeds as they showered down on us in early summer, and chased each other with the leaves. The leaves are rough and if we managed to catch someone and put a leaf under their chin it would prickle. I didn’t know what the trees were called then, but I called them chin nettles. (The non-glandular Stellate trichomes develop to form a thick and dense surface around the leaves which serves to protect leaves from harsh environmental conditions, such as bruising, as well as protection from pathogens).
So my interest in the texture and uses, and stories of the plants and animals that we share our world with began. Through the millennia people have made up stories about nature to share useful information, or to make things more memorable. In folk tales, elm holds the power to give you prophetic dreams, just fall asleep under one, or put some leaves under your pillow. It is also associated with the underworld and elves were said to have guarded the ancient tombs of ancestors who has passed over. When Orpheus travelled to the underworld to rescue his wife Eurydice a grove of Elm trees sprung up when he played his harp. Traditionally the wood of the elm tree has been used to build coffins. In part due to its association with the underworld and also because of it durability. It does not rot easily and can be bent into different shapes. In fact it was used in some English towns to carry water before the widespread use of metal water mains, it was also popular for boat building. Elm bark was boiled and used in the past to treat burns and the inner bark chewed to relieve the symptoms of colds.
Elm was also used as a measure of the passing of the seasons and a guide of when to plant. There’s an old saying that goes – “When the elmen leaf is as big as a mouse’s ear, Then sow barley never fear”.
Do you have any memories of Elms or trees that are important in your life? We’d love to hear about them. If there are any trees, plants or animals that you would like to hear more about their folklore then please do let us know.