Trees believed to have been extinct in Britain have been discovered at the Queen’s official residence in Scotland.
The two 30-metre (98ft) Wentworth elms have been identified in the Queen’s garden at the Palace of Holyroodhouse just a short distance from the centre of Edinburgh. Tree experts are now looking into ways of propagating the rare specimens, which carry the botanical name Ulmus wentworthii pendula.
Max Coleman, of the Royal Botanic Garden Edinburgh (RBGE), identified the mature trees after they were noted as being unusual during a tree survey.
“Such a discovery when the trees in question are just shy of 100ft and in plain sight does sound rather odd,” he admitted. “It is very likely the only reason these rare elms have survived is because Edinburgh city council has been surveying and removing diseased elms since the 1980s.
“Without that work many more of the thousands of elms in Edinburgh would have been lost. The success of this programme may be partly demonstrated in the way two rare trees have been preserved.”
The trees grow with a “weeping” appearance and have large glossy leaves.
Scientists say the Wentworth elm was most likely introduced to cultivation in the late 19th century but it was thought to have been wiped out in the devastating Dutch elm disease epidemic, which destroyed up to 75m UK trees during the late 20th century.
While the palace trees have been identified, it is not yet clear where the two specimens came from.
Curators and archivists at the royal household and RBGE are now working to find out more about their origins.
One theory is that the trees arrived at Holyrood from RBGE and survived while their botanic garden sibling died.
Archives already show that three Wentworth elms arrived at the botanic garden from Germany in 1902, after which all subsequent records refer to a single tree at the garden. The single Wentworth elm died in 1996 when it succumbed to Dutch elm disease.
Coleman said: “It is very tempting to speculate that the Wentworth elms at the palace are the two missing trees from RBGE.
“There is anecdotal evidence that the young trees could have come into RBGE, then been grown-on before planting-out in their final positions.
“Certainly, there was a close relationship between the palace and the garden in the early 20th century and the head gardener at Holyrood, William Smith, had trained here.
“Although we have no record here of elms going out, we know that a large number of ivy plants went from here to Holyrood to plant round the abbey ruins.”
Alan Keir, Holyrood park and gardens manager for Historic Environment Scotland (HES), which maintains the palace gardens, said: “When RBGE got in touch to ask if we could facilitate a walk round the gardens to find cultivars for propagation, we were happy to help – but certainly didn’t expect them to find these rare specimens hidden in plain sight.
“The HES gardens team have undertaken careful maintenance of these specimens over the past several years, including crown reduction and limb-bracing works, and we’re proud to help look after the only remaining examples of these trees in Britain.”