The Preston Twins in 2007. The tree on the left is the one due to be felled.
Brighton and Hove is home to some 700 mature English elms (Ulmus minor ‘Atinia’), part of a population of some 40,000 mature elm trees. Over the years the city has steadily lost trees to Dutch elm disease, but in recent years, as the County Council struggles financially to combat DED, logs from infected trees have been brought into the very heart of the city for sale to stove owners and with unfortunate consequences.
The logs are barked and often infested by Scolytae, the major vector in DED. As a result, the disease has been popping up all over the city, even in areas that had not seen infections for many years.
The Preston Twins are renowned nowadays as the world’s oldest remaining English elms and Europe’s largest. They stand in Preston Park’s Coronation Garden along with two smaller next-generation English elm saplings, two Camperdown elms (Ulmus glabra ‘Camperdownii) and a Coronation planting of the rare Ulmus ‘Den Haag’ weeping elm.
In September 2017 one of the Preston Twins, the East tree, lost two major limbs in a storm. The tree was badly damaged but was stable health-wise. The City Tree Team was concerned for its survival and had the tree fenced off as it was considered unsafe to some extent, and to allow the tree to regrow after some careful pollarding was done on it and its companion nearby.
The East Tree in 2017 when it received major wind damage after a storm. This tree is now dying of Dutch elm disease.
The Preston Twins got their name after I measured the trees in the late 1980s: I found they had similar measurements, and later similar ages were proven by consulting landscape paintings and historical records. The elms are almost certainly former hedgerow trees which later became screening for the nearby Manor House. Other English elms also used for screening having long since gone, the Preston Twins became a landmark for the city and in recent years gained much acclaim owing to their former status as world champions in girth size – they were recently overtaken by trees in Australia.
The trees became popular with school children as environmental issues became more and more prominent in the media. Both are very much hollow and have competed with each other for reigning champion in Europe, but after 2017 the once-champion tree lost 40cm of its circumference owing to a huge scar left by a solid heavy limb with an enormous burr. This meant its ‘brother’ became the reigning champion.
Sadly, the health of the damaged tree was touch-and-go, and despite the constant vigil of local residents this season’s hot temperatures and the looming doom of DED vectors have seen its demise. After 400 years of being a noble guard to the Manor, the tree finally succumbed to DED.
The public reacted with sadness and concern. The locals are proud of their elm population and the Preston Twins were its banner. Local press quickly picked up on the story and we found ourselves on radio and in local and national newspapers. As Volunteer Curator for the National Elm Collection, I had people from as far away as Maryland, USA, showing concern for the tree and support from local groups to help with elm propagation etc. Trenches were dug around the tree to prevent the disease from spreading to its neighbours; this made the scene look more devastating to some locals but was a very necessary precaution as the other Preston Twin (the West tree) is now the current European Champion English elm. Only time will tell whether the other tree will waver owing to the loss of its brother.
As one of the last bastions for the English elm’s natural range left in the world, we are seeing a change in the elm population which cannot be avoided, from the old-school historic species to the new resistant clones of today. However, the old giants like the Preston Twins will never be forgotten.
I have some good news to conclude the bad. The Dutch planted a sapling recently in Amsterdam as a way of thanking a DED officer for her services to the city. The sapling is Ulmus minor ‘Actinia’, grown from a cutting taken in 2008 of the tree in Brighton that now is due to be felled.
Peter Bourne is Volunteer Elm Inspector for Brighton and Hove City Council and Volunteer Curator for the National Elm Collection, Plant Heritage.
This article was taken form Issue 186 Autumn 2019 of the ARB Magazine, which is available to view free to members by simply logging in to the website and viewing your profile area.