Plant Profiles

One of the World's Great Camperdown Elms

For about twenty-five years, we have been visiting Langdon Hall, a former estate in Ontario that thrives now as a Relais & Chateaux hotel. Its gravitational pull is strong as well as multivalent: nearness to the Stratford Shakespeare Festival, sumptuous rooms, adventurous foraged as well as estate-grown food, extensive gardens—and, shading much of the terrace, one of the world's great Camperdown elms.


Ulmus glabra Camperdownii Langdon Hall long view towards back of house 072717 640


I've written with a mixture of reverence, giddiness, and geeky gratitude about a sizable Camperdown in our neighboring village back in Rhode Island. Its steeply cascading canopy could form a children's hideaway. The canopy of this Ulmus glabra 'Camperdownii' projects more sideways than down and, after a century or so, could now comfortably shade a dinner for forty.


Two massive upright trees at the right provide too much shade for the Camperdown to grow in that direction. But there's glorious full sun to the left and, so, growth on that side increases in a virtuous cycle. With full sun, the rate of growth is enhanced—which leads to more growth that is able to absorb even more sun, which leads to more branching and more leftward growth overall.


Ulmus glabra Camperdownii Langdon Hall long view towards back of house 072717 cropped 640


The length of the cantilever is remarkable: perhaps twenty-five feet and counting. Also remarkable is that the canopy of this specimen of what is otherwise a to-the-ground weeping tree doesn't descend lower than six to eight feet above ground. Is there a connection between these two dramatically eccentric dimensions?


Ulmus glabra Camperdownii Langdon Hall 072717 under canopy 640


Take another look at the free-range Camperdown. The majority of its young branches dangle down like streamers. Most of the new growth of Langdon Hall's Camperdown also does the same—but is clipped off so that the headroom under the canopy is preserved.


The regular loss of those well-foliaged stems means that the tree's overall capacity to absorb sun—and, therefore, grow even larger—is correspondingly impaired. But growth is also originating top to bottom over the tree's canopy. Some of it will be high enough or horizontal enough to escape pruning and, so, remain to produce still more growth.


True, that additional growth is just as likely to dangle down and get pruned off—but some of it will also be high or horizontal enough to escape the cilppers. Over time, then, the canopy still increases despite the regular removal of lower growth.


And this tree has time: It was planted in the first decade of the 20th Century, and is carefully tended to maximize its lifespan. Scots elms can live for centuries—here's a list of notable specimens in Europe, including one planted in the 14th Century—so Langdon Hall's Camperdown could survive for centuries to come. 


Since it has been able to cantilever over twenty feet in its first century, how much farther might it extend by the end of the second? The third? The fourth? Richard and I are mere humans, and are already in our sixties; we aren't likely to be able to witness more than the next couple of decades of this tree's cantilevering progress. Imagine the display that will greet generations to come.


Would this tree achieve a similar degree of spread without pruning? Then, the orientation of a given young stem wouldn't affect its survival, and downward danglers would be just as likely to survive as horizontal spreaders.


For sure, a canopy that was allowed to grow free-range would extend to the ground in just a few years. Is there any connection between achieving and maintaining that natural downward cascade and a reduced lateral spread? It's definitely not the case that pruning off lower growth causes the tree to produce growth that is higher and more horizontal. Neither would a cessation of pruning of downward growth cause either increased production of it, or decreased production of outward growth.


Rather, the pruning that has kept the canopy raised for over a century has only slowed overall growth in any direction a bit, simply because the pruning reduces the amount of foliage that could absorb the sun's energy. This individual tree's exceptional lateral spread would have been achieved on its own—along with a full-to-the-ground cascade. The pruning hasn't encouraged the horizontality, it merely highlighted it.



Here's how frilly and flouncy Camperdown elm looks after its reddish flowers have matured to clusters of papery greenish-yellow seeds known as samaras.


Here's how to grow golden-leaved Scots elm. Its hardiness and culture are the same as for the Camperdown cultivar.


Here's another species of elm that has spontaneously produced a strongly-weeping form.