The first time I set eyes on a Camperdown Elm was when my husband and I purchased our house in Eastport, Maine. I first identified the spectacular, oddly-shaped, twisted tree, as a Weeping Mulberry (Morus alba ‘Pendula’) as I quickly drove by one on the corner of High and Shackford streets. People started to ask me what the tree was, so upon a closer look, I knew it was more unique than a mulberry. Mulberry is overused in the landscape industry and many nurseries carry them for purchase. As a horticulturist and tree fanatic, I had never seen such a unique tree. I wanted to know more.
After properly identifying this ‘Umbrella Tree’, Ulmus glabra ‘Camperdownii‘, Camperdown Elm, I was given the opportunity by the local chamber to do a tree walk for the Salmon Festival in September. After reading many articles and conflicting stories, I have put together what I believe to be true facts about the Camperdown Elms, of which there are two in town. One is on the corner of High and Shackford, as I previously mentioned, and the other in the Hillside East Cemetery. There are other species similar to the Camperdown, such as Ulmus glabra ‘Pendula’ which forms a flatter top than the Camperdown. I believe these two Eastport specimens to be Camperdowns due to their dome shape.
The history is somewhat fascinating. The first sign of a Camperdown Elm was found just outside of Dundee Scotland by David Taylor, a forester/landscaper that worked for the Earl of Camperdown in 1840. The field of Wych Elms (Ulmus glabra) at Camperdown was where the first one was found. While roaming the field, David found a twisted, contorted, sport (a plant mutation) growing. With this sport, he grafted it on to the trunk of a Wych Elms, thus, the Camperdown Elm was cloned.
My next question was to find out if the cuttings or the actual grafted trees arrived in America. If cuttings arrived, I wanted to know if they were grafted to existing American Elm trees. Both the American and the Wych Elms are highly susceptible to Dutch Elm disease, so I was confused as to why the two on the island survived. In Eastport, the American Elm fell to Dutch Elm Disease that wiped out millions of the species all over America. I have found some saplings of American Elm in my travels on the island.
The answer into the identification of our Eastport trees was found in Michael Dirr’s Manual of Woody Plant Materials (a horticulturist’s bible), in whom I have had the pleasure to walk with on the campus of UNH looking at trees. Mr. Dirr has visited the original tree in Dundee, Scotland and notes in the manual. “Find we did, the house in a park-like setting and one rather pathetic, snaggle-toothed, weeping elm that both of us said could not be the original. The mind conjures great expectations of what something should look like. When that something is found and is not up to concept, then it is easy to dismiss that said object at not the original. In short, I was broken-hearted.” He states in his book that the Camperdown Elms were most likely grafted onto American Elms. But we can’t be sure.
In conclusion, the Camperdown Elm came to America most likely in the mid to late 1800’s. The house on the corner of Shackford and High was built around 1850. The tree was popular in the Victorian Era (1837-1901) so one can assume that is was planted between 1850 and 1901, aging the tree between 115 and 166 years old. Whether they were grafted right here in Eastport or produced elsewhere in the country and brought here, we might never know. Identifying whether the trunk is American or another species of elm, might give us a clue. A task I will take on. I do know one thing, each Camperdown Elm in the United States is a clone of the Camperdown Elm in Scotland, meaning each one has a branch stemming from that original tree. Fascinating.
Paula Kovecses is sustainable Eastport, Maine landscape professional, I am always on the look out for rare plants and trees.