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...
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|
|Corkscrew Willow bark|
|Corkscrew Willow branches|
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...
|Line of Alders|
|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 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.
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!