By Emma Beatty
Portsmouth has one of the lowest numbers of trees of any British city – and there are no elms left on Elm Grove – but there are some arboreal stars if you know where to look.
When the tiny pinky-red buds on the elm trees on Southsea Common appear, it’s a subtle but dynamic shift signalling spring is on its way – a far less flashy sign than the purple crocuses that run along the base of their trunks. These boom into life one sunny morning then flop defeated three days later. But then Elm trees are low-key confident sort of characters and hold their ground. Some of these trees have been around over a hundred years, wind pruned into triangular forms by the relentless biting westerlies, salt, and sand. Relatively few species will survive in such a harsh seafront location — and several of the elms are said to have withstood the Dutch Elm Disease disaster of the 1960s that killed nearly all native British elms. Portsmouth’s island geography acted as something of a natural barrier to the beetles that bring the infection.
Other elms on the Common have been planted more recently in a bid to up the city’s tree count. Portsmouth has some 86,000 trees, according to a city council leaflet. This is far too few for such a populous area, when you consider all the good things trees do, as habitats for wildlife, absorbing carbon emissions and cleaning the air we breathe. Some 50,000 new trees are being planted in the “Horsea Island Country Park”, the landfill site to the west of the M275, and you can see the hundreds of little saplings as you drive past. It doesn’t seem completely clear when it will open to the public but the intentions are good, “to overcome the deficit of public open space” in the north of the city.
Along the Ladies Mile and Clarence Esplanade, the elms will soon leaf out in a show of bright green ready for nesting season and all the complex bird-life goings-on. In winter the common practically reverts to its ancestral wetland – puddles expand into ponds and wading birds dabble in the mud. The famous Brent Geese – that fly over from Siberia every winter – wisely steered clear of the riot fencing and cardboard geese decoys on Kings Field but I’ve seen them on the common digging about for food. They seem to eat permanently (not surprising I suppose as they need to refuel after, and then again before, their mammoth migration to the eastern edges of Europe).
But soon, the geese will be off, and the elms’ foliage will block those bleak mile-wide vistas across the common. In a normal year, we’d be looking forward to all sorts of events there: kites, horse fairs, festivals, maybe even a triumphant re-run of the giant Southsea dinosaur sculpture – but this year, who knows yet. At least we’ve got the elms.