Friday, 21 February 2014

The Story Of Our Native British Trees (and some others...)

I'm being Very Decadent. I'm sitting here with a glass of wine and a packet of crisps with the dogs asleep at my feet and a blow-heater warming us because it's turned chilly, having not long got in from an hour's walk round about looking at trees.

I find I am increasingly drawn to trees. 

I've always loved them, so I suppose doing an ecology degree it's not surprising that I'm taking even more of an interest in them. I'm writing an assignment for college based on oak tree adaptations (the acorn, to be precise) so I have been filling my head in every spare second with tree-related information.

Our breakfast room table disappeared days ago beneath books with titles like 'What's That Tree?' and 'The History Of The Oak' and 'Britain's Tree Story,' not to mention a huge stack of Journal Articles, my favourite of which is entitled: 'Atypical Acorns Appear To Allow Seed Escape After Atypical Notching By Squirrels.' Every time I glance at it I can't help grinning, because I keep visualising it as a shock-horror newspaper leader.

Trees are beautiful and necessary things. They support a vast amount of life (the average oak is home to over 400 species of invertebrates alone), they remove carbon dioxide from the atmosphere and return it as oxygen so we can all breath, and they provide important carbon sinks. They first appeared in the World 365 million years ago in the Devonian period, before the Dinosaurs, before mankind, although the trees we have here in the UK did not appear until approx 10,000 years ago because of the Ice Age.

The list of Native British Trees is a surprisingly short one, and reads (in order of arrival in these islands):
Juniper, Downy Birch, Silver Birch, Aspen, Scots Pine, Bay Willow, Alder, Hazel, Small-leaved Lime, Bird Cherry, Goat Willow, Wych Elm, Rowan, Sessile Oak, Ash, Holly, Pedunculate Oak, Hawthorn, Crack Willow, Black Poplar, Yew, White Beam, Midland Hawthorn, Crab Apple, Wild Cherry, White Willow, Field Maple, Wild service-tree, Large-leafed Lime, Beech and Hornbeam.

These were the trees that made up the ancient Wildwood, which once covered pretty much all of the UK, but is all but gone from these shores now. Neolithic man began the first mass tree clearances to free-up land for farming, a practice which continued on down the ages. After the last Ice Age, but prior to 1600, other trees began to be introduced by man and these included: Walnut, Cornish Elm, English Elm, Grey Poplar, Evergreen Oak, Laburnum, Maritime Pine, Norway Spruce, Stone Pine, Swedish Whitebeam, Sweet Chestnut, Sycamore, White Poplar and Wild Pear.

Later still (1600-1700) came Black Walnut, Common lime, Dutch Elm, European Larch, Horse Chestnut, London Plane and the Tulip Tree. 

When the Ice first retreated, trees spread across the country from the south. The earliest Wildwoods were made from birch, aspen and sallow (willow). Then, around 8500 years ago, pine and hazel began to replace birch, which became uncommon until its recent resurgence. Oak and alder came next, followed by lime and elm, then by holly, beech, ash, hornbeam and maple. All of this is known because of pollen deposits. The earlier trees spread across to Ireland before it was cut-off by rising sea levels- alder just managed to get there, but beech and lime did not (Oliver Rackham is an excellent source for further reading if you're interested).

In these Native species that are still with us today lie the fragments and hints of the Wildwood, parts of which are thought to still exist deep within Britain's Ancient Woodlands. It's a wildly evocative thought - to me anyway. And apparently, not just to me, because trees have caught the national consciousness for centuries. The first ever written language of these Isles (if you discount the Romans, who were not native people) - Ogham - is a language based on trees. It appears, mostly scratched on stones in Ireland (although some can be found in the West of Britain in Cornwall, and there is even an Ogham stone at Silchester, not far from here), and it dates from the 3rd C. Each letter is based on a tree, so you have symbols for Willow, Ash, Holly, Birch, Elder, Hazel, Oak, Apple, Blackthorn, Ivy, Aspen, Yew, Pine etc.

I am particularly drawn to Oaks, and they are the most successful trees in Britain, They are capable of withstanding 100 or so days of being soaked by floodwater; their acorns will still germinate if they've been partially nibbled by squirrels, subjected to drought and buried beneath layers of leaflitter, and they have extremely long roots which enable them to also withstand droughts. They also live longer than many other trees- a life span of 400 years is not unusual for a British oak. Perhaps more than any other tree they symbolise strength and durability and I guess this is why they have such a special place in the British psyche.
English Oaks are divided into two native species: sessile and pedunculate. Pedunculate oaks have stouter trunks and wider canopies, and they produce their acorns on stalks, unlike Sessiles which don't have stalks and have a longer thinner trunk...

Pedunculate Acorn on stalk

A simple exercise to get to know your local trees better and see which ancient native species you have growing near you is to do what I did this afternoon when I took the camera out with me to see what I could find growing within a mile of home. It was an interesting exercise, and I returned having seen a great many trees that I don't know the names for but am now determined to find out. You might think leaves are the easiest way to ID a tree and that there isn't much you can do in winter, but winter twig IDs are also very useful, as the pic of ash below will show, so don't let the season put you off. 
As with anything, it is amazing what is there if you take the time to look closely and  properly. I took photos of the ones I knew and thought it would make an interesting post, so here they are. My ID skills are not perfect, so if you spot any glaring inconsistencies please point them out!

First off is Ash. Dead easy to ID in winter because of the black tips to the buds. It's fast-growing and seems to do well on a wide range of soils so it springs up all over the place. It responds to daylight as a stimulus for growth, unlike the oak which requires warmer temperatures, so I'm afraid the old ditty 'oak before the ash, in for a summer splash, ash before the oak, in for a summer soak' isn't really representative. Most years the ash will be out first as the daylight lengthens, although, if we get Global warming occuring that could all change...

Ash bud

Ash bark

Round the lake there are various Willows, which I've always loved and thought I knew pretty well. A walk round them today with the book told me otherwise - I realised that there is one Goat Willow hiding among them that I've never noticed before (the rest are Weeping Willows). The furry buds yesterday first alerted me to its presence, and when you look closely the bark is different too. This is important to me because Goat Willow supports a wide range of moths (and, as said yesterday, the Purple Emperor butterfly larvae feeds on nothing else). Willow bark also has properties similar to aspirin so was valued in natural medicine.

Goat or 'pussy' willow buds

Distinctive Goat Willow Bark with the flattened ridges

Weeping Willow branches drooping dreamily into the water

Heavily ridged Weeping Willow bark
We have a third Willow species growing at home- a Corkscrew Willow, which of course is not native and comes originally from China...

Corkscrew Willow bark
Corkscrew Willow branches
There are currently two Canada Geese living on the lake near the house where the Willows grow. They always seem to arrive very noisily in the middle of the night in January, although they aren't as bad as the laughing duck, who has kicked off at midnight for the last 5 years and brings me to swearing very quickly....

Canada Goose

Elder is another tree that grows locally. It is an easy one to ID once you get to know the pattern of the bark. In ancient literature Elder was often used to represent the three stages of the Goddess and therefore womanhood- virgin/ mother/ crone. The berries make a fantastic cough syrup called 'Elder Rob' as they are rich in Vit C, and we make elderflower cordial from the flowers on the one beside the house every spring. It is the most delicious and refreshing of drinks.....

Heavily pitted bark of the Elder

We have a lot of Silver Birches growing around here. I love them- they are so beautiful in the sunlight and are important for the mychorrhizal fungi they support...

Silver Birch
There are also Alders growing in long lines nearby, which the Siskins are finding irresistible at the moment....

Line of Alders
There is beech in the hedge that holds on to it's leaves until the fresh ones start to come through....

Beech Bark
And an old Apple tree in the garden, favourite with the lichens that grow there and the birds that sing in its branches....

When we had my clinic built at the top of the garden we had to take down a cherry to make way for it. It was a beautiful tree- a perfect shape and it had the most beautiful creamy white blossom like drifts of snow in the spring. I felt very uneasy and upset about the whole thing and sat with the tree for days explaining what was happening and why. I am very big on energy, being a healer, and it felt wrong to take down this Guardian of the top end of our land. Anyway, I really suffered over it for ages and thought of it often, until the following Spring in fact, when a very young tree that I'd never noticed before suddenly sprang into pink blossom at the front of the house. It was a cherry. Suddenly I felt that the old tree understood, that she had given her blessing to the healing clinic, and that everything was fine.

Cherry bark- it has distinctive 'circles' around it

A dear old friend of mine is a garden designer and he tells a wonderful story of the time he had to move two pear trees from one side of a garden he was re-designing to the other. He is a very thoughtful man who never does anything without due care and consideration, and he also works with energy in his designs. Anyway, he said these pears were like two old ladies, standing there with their hands on their hips, defiant and daring him to move them. So he spent some time explaining why they needed to go into a new bit of the garden, that they would like it there, and that it wouldn't take long for them to feel settled and happy. Apparently they were unconvinced, as it took him most of the day to transplant them. By the end of it he was covered in scratches and bleeding. He said he went back the following year and they looked so well and content in their homes he could have sworn they were smiling!
Hazel is one of my favourite trees, it has a youthful, joyful and slightly cheeky energy and the bark seems to shine...
Hazel branch
Hazel catkin (male flower)

This isn't technically a tree, but an ancient woodland indicator species and a prickly shrub called Butcher's Broom which grows down the lane.

Butcher's Broom
And finally, the last tree of my outing- the noble oak. This is a Pedunculate, which predominates in the South of the UK and is quite possibly my favourite tree (although I'm a sucker for all of them really). As a child growing up on the farm I had a favourite oak who stood on the bank over our drive. I spent hours and hours playing under that tree and I always felt safe and very connected to him. I'm wondering, writing this, how many of you have special relationships with particular trees? I hope he is still there....

Pedunculate Oak Bark

An oak in winter that I can see out of our bedroom window
Well, I hope you've enjoyed all of that. Doubtless, there will be more to come as the year gets going and I get better at spotting things!

Wishing you all a peaceful evening. I'm off to cook a thai green curry for supper now...Yum!

CT x


  1. You see, your posts are always so informative and interesting whereas all I do is bang on about flippin' Vodafone...sigh... Xxx

    1. My dear friend, you have had a string of bad luck on the home front recently which is both tiresome and wearing and letting off steam to your blogging chums is a good way to get it off your chest. A problem shared and all that. Hopefully the trees brought you some peacefulness. In fact, I think you should go out and hug one or two tomorrow (although perhaps make sure no one is watching first). xxx

  2. Loving this post I am !
    We definitely share a love for trees.
    When we moved to this farm some of the relatives said to cut down certain trees I said no way they all stay ~ and I have no regrets I love them all. A few of the very old ones fell over the past few years in snow storms one in a hurrican but none caused damage, and we honored the ones that fell by making bird houses and benches and such to display around the yard. Even one silver birch that is only about 6 years old ( a friend brought it as baby one and thought I'd like it ) and even Mimosa tree that was given as a gift a few years back ~ all have their spot on this tiny farm .
    Even as a small child I had an affinity with trees and they just give off the greatest energy .

    1. Making things from fallen trees is such a lovely way to keep them present on their land. I'm with you- I would struggle to remove a tree unless it was very sick, hence my angst over the cherry. Every tree is different, feels different, looks different, brings some different in terms of the ecology of the land, so I can completely understand your attachment to all of yours- it sounds a lovely place to be.

  3. Here it would be atypical notching OF squirrels, if Mike got his way..

    1. Fear not Mike! Oaks don't produce acorns every year and in the years when they don't predator (squirrel) populations fall, so squirrel notching isn't necessary.

  4. A wonderful post CT with some fascinating information and a lovely look at your own trees. Trees are a big part of our life here and we're lucky to have so many beautiful oaks around our property. Last year I worked out their ages. And Oliver Rackham has been well read in this house, too!

    1. I'm glad you enjoyed it. I felt I learnt a lot just walking round our local area yesterday. I'm a bit tree-obsessed at the moment and looking forward to all the leaves coming out now for any IDs I'm stuck on!

  5. A really interesting post with some lovely photos. I love the Rackham books - they completely change and enhance the way you view the countryside :)

    1. I've got his 'history of the countryside' sitting on the table as I type. They are a great resource. Beautiful day here- feels like Spring :-)

  6. I was very pleased to see that I have seven varieties from the native tree list that you detailed growing in our garden, including two oak trees and in some cases several of each of the varieties - 3 hollies, 3 yew's, hornbeam and beech hedge (mixture of the two), so I feel as though I am doing my bit for native plants and the environment and will be pleased to tell my naysayer neighbours who are not so keen on our trees! This is such an interesting post, thank you!! Oh, and I liked the apocalyptic headline too!! xx

    1. I remember your post about neighbours pressuring you to take trees down, but as long as they're checked and healthy there is no reason to remove a tree and the benefit of having them is so much greater than not, so well done you for sticking to your guns :-)

  7. I loved this post! Perfect for this time of year when the native trees are such a striking part of the landscape. I woke up after the Valentine`s Storm feeling thankful that the wonderful old trees near to us had survived the night.

    1. Glad you enjoyed it. They are special things and so many have come down this winter in all the storms. I suppose it is natural cycles, but its always upsetting to see a grand old tree lying broken on the floor. Glad all of yours have been OK :-)

  8. Well I'm interested in the laughing duck now....! I have always said I'd like to come back as an oak tree, live for hundreds of years watching the world go by and sheltering thousands of creatures, and having birds land on my branches.
    I grew up with two beautiful lilac trees in my childhood garden, one white and one purple, love the smell still and they had great twisty, peeling bark. I also had a tree in my last garden which supported the tawny owls, so many other birds and tree creepers.
    Wonderful post full of lots of interesting things-many thanks.

    1. He's a mallard who goes 'quack quack quack quack quack' endlessly at midnight through the Spring. He sounds like he is laughing. As you know, I love birds, but I could cheerfully murder him some nights! :-)

      Lilac is one of my favourites too- the BEST smell in the whole world. We put one in here and I adore it. Glad you enjoyed the post x

  9. As another soul who loves trees, i really enjoyed reading this over my morning cuppa. Fab photos too, thankyou!

    Leanne x

    1. Hi Leanne,
      Glad you enjoyed reading it. Trees are such wonderful things- where would we be without them? x

  10. A wonderful post on trees, my favourite trees are oaks and beech. I took part in following a tree for a year and it was wonderful closely watching the changes that take place. Sarah x

    1. I remember you following that tree, and I remember thinking at the time what a lovely and special thing it was to do. Oaks and beech are part of the same family, although Oaks are the older of the two x


Thank you for leaving a comment. I always enjoy reading them and will try my best to reply to every one. CT x