Strange tales: English elms and Roman vines

All English elms (Ulmus procera) are the clones of a particular type imported by the Romans 2,000 years ago, probably with the intention of training vines up them.

Back in 2004 a team from the Polytechnic University of Madrid set out to track down the genetic origins of the English elm, partly suspecting that its susceptibility to Dutch elm disease that almost wiped it out in the 1970s may have had something to do with a lack of genetic variety.

The team examined four distinct lineages found in the chloroplast DNA of elm species across Spain, Greece, France, Italy and the UK, eventually settling on lineage C which is found only in Britain, Spain and central Italy near Rome.

Furthermore, the Spanish and British types of lineage C do not reproduce by putting out seeds but produce pollen and are extremely effective at vegetative propagation.

The results supported a long held hypothesis that English elm was related in some way to the Atinian elm from Latium (modern Lazio) that was advocated by the Romans as the most suitable tree to train vines up.

Not all ancient vines were grown alongside trees it must be noted, there were many other training methods as well but training them up trees was an accepted and common practice.

Furthermore, the link between trees and vines is extremely ancient. The authors of the report noted in another paper that an Assyrian relief of the 7th century BC depicts the king Ashurbanipal reclining as he enjoys a banquet beneath a tree hung with bunches of grapes.

The ancient Greeks too appear to have trained vines up elms, with Theocritus writing in his ‘Idylls’ of ‘Pteleaikós oinos’, ‘ptelea’ being the Greek for ‘elm’ and a fairly common toponym in Ephesus, Arcadia and Attica.

References to vine training and elm trees pick up hugely in Roman writings, through the agricultural treatises of Cato to Varro and the poems of Catullus.

Columella’s De Re Rustica absolutely advocates the use of the Atinian elm as the best prop for growing alongside vines and such was the number of elm trees in the extensive vineyards of Italy that he even claimed bees died of diarrhoea around them due to the abundance of pollen.

And his mention of pollen-producing elms is yet another indication that it is the Atinian elm he is referring to.

Born in Gades (now Cadiz) in southern Spain, he owned vineyards in Jerez and in Latium so it is no great leap to imagine that he actively imported Atinian elms (and others) from his lands in Italy to Spain and encouraged others to do likewise.

The Atinian clone was then taken to Britain by the Romans probably at some point in the mid 1st century AD – following the Claudian conquest in 43AD; furthermore, elm pollen has been discovered at several known Roman vineyards in Britain (in Northamptonshire in 1999 and Cambridgeshire in 2014) and other suspected Roman vineyard sites used to have large numbers of elms in the same area.

How the elms got there is of course a mystery. But is it too far to suppose that some veteran legionaries, given their discharge papers after 25 years service and a plot of land in southern Britain perhaps brought over their families?

The use of trees to train vines lasted for a long time in Italy as this print of 1849 shows.

And having served in the IX ‘Hispana’ – a legion that garrisoned Roman Britain from 43-108AD – might they not have asked their families to bring with them cuttings of those lovely Atinian elms that reminded them so much of home in order to plant new vineyards? Supposition perhaps, archaeological records cannot preserve the trace kernal of human emotion but it is a logical leap.

The method of training vines up trees continued for the next 2,000 years, mentioned and depicted in Renaissance and later art and literature and the practice was especially strong in Portugal, Spain, Georgia and Italy – in fact it was still a visible (though waning) method in Italy as late as the 1950s.

Vinegrowing in Britain was never as extensive as the Romans made it elsewhere in their empire and Domitian’s ban on further plantings issued in 92 AD no doubt curbed the ambitions of the more commercially minded.

After the retreat of the legions in the 5th century viticulture went into steep decline although vineyards are noted in the Domesday Book of 1086.

With the coming of the Normans came ties to winemaking lands in France. As the Anglo-Norman kings acquired more land through dynastic marriages so large parts of the Loire and Gascony fell under their sway and imports of these continental imports largely did away with the need for a domestic industry.

But if English vines withered the elms did not and became as much a beloved part of the English landscape as oak or ash.

Sadly, having already surfaced in the 1920s, in the late 1960s a virulent strain of the fungal infection known as Dutch elm disease arrived in Britain and, as is now known, the lack of genetic diversity in English elms made them horrendously vulnerable to the fungus.

More than 25 million trees have died in the UK and France also lost 90% of its elms. The species continue to survive but rarely grow into the mighty giants they once did, normally succumbing to the beetle-borne disease after a few years.

A few larger elms still exist across Europe. In the UK, a cordon sanitaire exists around Brighton and Hove in Sussex which today is home to the oldest surviving English elm trees and, in what any Roman might regard as fate, the county is of course at the heart of the renascent English wine industry.

The results of the 2004 study can be read here and a more historical examination of the link between elms and vines by the same authors here.

Read more Strange Tales: The emperor who loved vines and drove his troops to fury

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