Wood Art #7: The Wych Elm Project

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Blog entry by Gary Fixler posted 03-03-2010 05:33 PM 13119 reads 0 times favorited 4 comments Add to Favorites Watch
« Part 6: Now that's some joinery! Part 7 of Wood Art series Part 8: Pictorial Webster's: Inspiration to Completion »

A couple nights back while on another of my serendipitous online adventures through the world of trees and wood, I happened upon a blog with a post entitled The Edinburgh Cabinet,RBGE wych elm project. It had some nice pictures of a cabinetmaker and some drawer fronts he’d carved with a scene of Edinburgh, Scotland (click for larger views):

Chris Holmes and his Edinburgh Cabinet

Chris Holmes and his Edinburgh Cabinet

I love how the wood grain creates a kind of blanket over the image, like the radial glow of a sunrise or sunset coloring the sky, far more visible in the full-size view of the second image (just click it to see it bigger). In my late night stupor I failed to notice many important things about the article, such as that the man in the pictures was none other than Chris Holmes himself – the man whose blog I was reading (I thought it was just a blogger reporting on the piece and artist) – and the “RBGE” in the title. Too, I failed entirely to notice that his Edinburgh Cabinet was part of “The Wych Elm Project.” I just assumed the artist was referring to it the way many of us do our projects, after the particular wood used in the making. For example, I’ve had a “eucalyptus cup project.” Here’s another view:

the Edinburgh Cabinet

Flash forward to yesterday. I walked to my local hardware store, something I’ve taken to doing since I got back from the holidays in an effort to get more exercise. It’s a fantastic walk, full of beautiful trees great and small, both in yards (sometimes behind fence walls) and lining the streets. The variety is staggering: bald cypress, pink honey-myrtle, palo verde, Chinese elm, American sweet gum, pride of Madeira (more a huge, weed-like shrub with large purple flowers), purple leaf plums, European olives, bamboo (some about 3-stories tall in mini forests), eucalyptus, enormous figs larger than the houses beneath them, naked coral, and many more. There’s always something I missed, and this time was no expection; I found 2 large species I hadn’t noticed before, and noticed this time as one is full of plum-sized fruit, and the other has exploded in yellow, pea-sized balls that are themselves popping out in yellow stamens in all directions. They smell deliciously like honey. All of these trees have wildly contrasting looks.

Palo verde has smooth, bright green bark and long, willowy, hair-like branches by the thousands that hang down everywhere making the whole tree look soft. Olives with their crazy gnarled bark and dark hollows everywhere look dead and haunted. The sweet gums right now are leafless for the most part, but some are covered everywhere in countless “gumballs” – spiky seed pods about the size and shape of a large shooter marble – hanging down like cherries on thin stems, making the trees look obsessively dressed in Christmas ornaments. Even the one naked coral with it’s big leaves and pretty bark is loaded with huge burls. It’s definitely not the standard oak and pine forests I grew up in, where the differences between the trees are much, much more subtle. I brought my camera, so it took me about 45 minutes to walk the 6 blocks or so :) I returned with nearly 300 photos of trees and plants, as well as some brackets, screws, and tubing from the store for a lathe project TBA soon (hopefully!). All in all another great little walk. You can look through all the pictures here.

One tree in particular – a huge one 60’ or greater in each instance – flanks the streets in several places and commands attention. I’ve only taken notice of it since late last year and it’s had no leaves, fruit, or seeds on it in all this time, so I’ve had no clue what it might be, nor how to look it up. Today, however, reviewing my very high resolution photos (12MP) at home, I saw spots of green. Zooming way in, I saw them: samaras. Samaras are simply seeds with papery wings, like those of maple trees, or in this case, with the seed central to a ring-shaped wing, elms. I looked through more pics and found more spots of green – leaves! They were definitely elm leaves. So now I know what those trees are, but the exact species of the 30 to 40 known will require further investigation. Here is one of my former mystery trees, now discovered to be elms:

huge elm tree of unknown species

I decided to do a bit of that further investigation right away. There was that deeply-furrowed bark that might help narrow it down, after all. That’s when I accidentally found my way right back to The Wych Elm Project (“wych” is pronounced like “which” or “witch.”). Wych elms (Ulmus glabra) are one of a couple dozen trees native to Scotland. The wych elm in the project was a 200 year old elm at Royal Botanic Garden Edinburgh (that was the RBGE in the aforementioned Chris Holmes’ post title) in Scotland that sadly contracted dutch elm disease, a beetle-carried disease that quickly kills certain elms and is currently ravaging the genus. In 2003 it was decided to bring it down for the safety of garden guests. Ian Edwards, Head of Interpretation and Exhibitions at RBGE pushed for what we’d all dream would happen – for the wood to be given to master craftsman, cabinetmakers, and artists in Scotland – 25 in all – to be made into all manner of human artistic endeavors, that it might live on. In 2008 the wood was given out, and in 2009, an exhibition was held. The RBGE put together a nice little film about it that incorporates some of the artists and some of the folklore of the wych elm, which I’ll embed here:

I do wish they would have featured more of the artists in the video, and more of the finished pieces. The YouTube video mentions “pottery, paper, jewellery [sic], boxes and toys, as well as a fishing rod,” but these are not in the video. There is a bit more about it, with a picture of a few of the pieces on display in the John Hope Gateway in another post on Chris Holmes’ blog. Further information on page 10 of the PDF file from the RBGE here, and I’ve found an additional 18 photos of the project’s pieces on Flickr. Oh, and here's the RBGE's Wych Elm Project page. Almost forgot!

And now I understand Holmes’ Edinburgh Cabinet piece. The cabinet is made from the wood of the 200 year old giant, and the carving across its drawer fronts depicts the view of Edinburgh as seen from the vantage point of the original tree. Neat.

-- Gary, Los Angeles, video game animator

4 comments so far

View lew's profile


12102 posts in 3780 days

#1 posted 03-03-2010 07:13 PM

Great information, Gary!

Looking out of the window, into our back yard, I can see a half a dozen elm trees. One is over 50 years old. I dread the day it succumbs to dutch elm.


-- Lew- Time traveler. Purveyor of the Universe's finest custom rolling pins.

View mmh's profile


3677 posts in 3747 days

#2 posted 03-05-2010 08:02 AM

Interesting stuff! That is one gnarly tree. Nicely blogged. Thanks for sharing.

-- "They who dream by day are cognizant of many things which escape those who dream only by night." ~ Edgar Allan Poe

View PineInTheAsh's profile


404 posts in 3293 days

#3 posted 03-05-2010 02:13 PM

On my bookshelf, a small elegant group of coffee table reference books all about trees looked like a quick-cash eBay opportunity. I was right. Final prices were better than projected.

But, I was wrong. Now, years later, I rue the the day those books were sold.

Gary, continue your splendid work.

After viewing The Wych Elm Project, we are all for the better.


View cristal1290's profile


14 posts in 3025 days

#4 posted 03-10-2010 01:33 PM

Nice video, thanks for sharing

-- Oskars,

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