Brighton’s Trees

The History of Brighton and Hove’s Trees

Dr. Johnson was not overly fond of Brighton, and remarked to Mrs Thrale that he found the place “so truly desolate, that if one had a mind to hang oneself for the desperation of being obliged to live there, it would be difficult to find a tree on which to fasten the rope”.

The reliance predominately on elm in Brighton and Hove was not a problem until the arrival of Dutch Elm Disease (DED) in the early 1970s. Millions of trees across the UK were lost as the authorities dithered or made hapless attempts at trying to control its spread. The story in Brighton, Hove and Adur was different. Whilst many would say this was due to a geographical advantage, the towns sandwiched between the sea and the Downs, the truth says far more about the special people living in Brighton at this time. A campaign set up by local residents and tree surgeons struck out on their own with a war against the beetles that spread the disease. In time and after considerable pressure the then three local councils took up the gauntlet, and with massive public support brought the disease under control. Whilst every summer the city still loses trees, the situation has since about 1980 remained manageable.

The Great Storm of October 1987 was responsible for huge tree losses in the city, far beyond those caused by elm disease. Since then there followed a fifteen-year renaissance in tree planting, with many new trees planted in a rush to make up for the devastation that occurred in our parks and woodland. The Level and Valley Gardens in Brighton is a good example of this planting and shows just how much repair-planting work has been successful in restoring the landscape.

Our local treescape is perhaps more fragile than ever, with diseases such as Ash Dieback poised to wipe out an important native tree from our woodlands and across the city. There are a range of other diseases killing our Horse Chestnut trees, and still more pathogens waiting in the wings. The legacy planting in our roads is now aged and difficult to manage, and has little useful life expectancy left in it. Modern standards of construction, and the plethora of underground services in the roads and footways, make the highway a harder area to plant trees than it has been in the past.

There is again a growing realization of the importance of these trees and the part they play in our lives. Once again the residents of Brighton and Hove are coming together, this time with a strong desire to put back the trees across the city and fill the gaps in our tree-lined streets.

There is no escaping the fact that our city is not best suited for growing trees. In Johnson’s time it would have been a treeless part of the world. The exposed coastline brings salt-laden winds, while the ground is a thin alkaline topsoil over chalk. These two factors stack the odds against almost any trees flourishing. Nevertheless, the Victorians and Edwardians understood the difficulties, and when they planted up so many of our streets and parks they knew what would survive. They planted thousands of mainly elm and some sycamore, frequently in the most exposed and harshest locations, and despite the odds had phenomenal success. This heritage represents much of what we still enjoy to this day.

The Elms of Brighton and Hove

 As mentioned above, the Elm has had a long association with Brighton and Hove. In the early years local farms made use of its foliage and shade for crops and livestock alike. The arrival of the Prince Regent brought the Dutch elm (Ulmus x hollandica ‘Major’) along with further diversity through local dignitaries; the Stanford family for example.

Ray Evison, Parks Superintendent for Brighton Borough Parks Department, having a keen eye for the diversity in elm with its tolerance of both salt-laden sea winds and high alkaline soil types on the hills, brought some very important early numbered clones from Holland. These trees, coming from Prof. Hans Heybroek’s work station in Holland, are now some of the most valid examples in the world. Complimenting these are numerous early plantings of some of the world’s rarest elm cultivars lining streets, gracing parks. In all, the population contains as many as 125 different types of elm, which is more diversity than any other city in the world. In 1997 the population became a recognized National Plant Collection which has been in part of a long-standing Dutch Elm Disease Management Area founded in 1970 by concerned local residents.

The population is of great value to our local environment giving a green canopy over many local streets and parks.

 

 

 

 

 

Left: English elm (Ulmus minor ‘Atinia’) on the A23 into Brighton

 

 

 

 

Owing to the difficulties in growing many tree species on alkaline soil types, many elms in Brighton and Hove have proved to grow much better planted directly into the local soil with little or no compost added. Trees in Crespin Way, Hollingdean planted as mere 1-metre sticks are now a prized collection of the largest early numbered clones, Siberian elm, Himalayan elm and Bea Schwarz elm; just some of the species found in a healthy stand of over 200 trees.

Hove Recreation Ground was found to contain many rare cultivars of which some are endangered worldwide. These are in need of propagation. Likewise some trees have reappeared long after thought to be extinct- the Scampston elm in Woodvale Cemetery is one such species that was believed extinct by 1906 and a tree I identified in Edinburgh’s Holyrood Palace Gardens, the Wentworth Weeping elm is also found in one street and at Easthill Park, Portslade.

Dutch elm disease poses a great threat to such rarities; however, propagation could initially save these rare cultivars from extinction. Unfortunately there is one set-back that is of great concern: elm logs with bark imported into the city from surrounding countryside areas brings the Elm Bark Beetle an important vector in the spread of disease among these populations. Although we have had numerous Dutch nurserymen help with propagation in the past the logs from infected trees pose an ever-increasing problem; further public awareness is needed and more local action is required to prevent unnecessary problems from occurring. Otherwise, Brighton and Hove has one of the most enduring and spectacular populations of elm left on the planet. It would be wonderful if we could keep it that way.

 

Above: Pitteurs elm (Ulmus ‘Pitteurs’) leaves are some of the largest found on any elm. The one tree in Hove Recreation Ground is the only known tree in the world.

 

 

 

 

Left: Ulmus ‘260’. A extremely rare numbered clone which is now only found as a mature tree in Brighton and Hove.

 

 

 

 

 

Right: Scampston elm (Ulmus ‘Scampstoniensis’). A huge gracefully weeping tree with red seed thought to be extinct by 1906. This is one of two mature trees in Woodvale Cemetery