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Tree of the Day

As our online contribution to National Tree Week we thought it might be fun to bring to you a tree hero each day as well as an unusual arboreal word, a picture and a poem of a different native tree.

Sunday 29 November 2020

Today’s Tree Hero: Felix Dennis – Today we remember Felix Dennis, self-described ‘publisher, poet and tree-planter’ who not only planted many thousands of trees in his lifetime but started the charity which became the founding of the new Heart of England Forest, which already has seen the planting of more than a million saplings of native species and will eventually spread to 20,000 acres, and left £150m in his will to continue and safeguard his vision. The charity’s mission is “the plantation, re-plantation, conservation and establishment of trees for the benefit of the public, together with the education of the public by the promulgation of knowledge and the appreciation of trees”. For more information on his work, please click here:

Today’s Word: “samaras” – The papery, green-winged fruits of the hornbeam which develop from the female catkins, pollinated by wind.

Today’s Tree: The Hornbeam (Carpinus betulus)

A Hornbeam tree

Hornbeams are a hardwood tree of the birch family of some 30-40 species across the temperate northern regions of the world, several being native to the UK. The name comes from the fact that the wood is so hard that it is like horn and the “beam” is the modern derivation of the middle-English / Germanic word, “baum”, meaning tree. In the States the trees have become commonly known as Ironwood, again because of their hardwood quality, and whilst this makes them difficult to use for furniture and carpentry the quality has made them popular through the ages for use as parquet flooring, carving boards, tool handles or coppiced for hardwood poles or for gear pegs in windmills. Medicinally a compress has been used to relieve mental fatigue and physical tiredness and their flowers can be used to relieve stress, anxiety and insomnia.

Today’s Poem: “Hornbeams”, by Felix Dennis

I walked alone in Golden Square
One bitter, solitary night,
The littered streets were cold and bare
With scarce another soul in sight,
The coward lamps flung out their glow,
Chrome yellow on the Soho snow.

St. Stephen’s bells began their dance,
I turned to pace my jaundiced way
To Kingly Street, and then, by chance,
I felt a snowdrift ricochet
From off my shoulder — raised my eyes
And froze mid-step in mute surprise.

High up above those streets of woe
Four massive hornbeams clawed the sky,
Each bough a silhouette of snow,
A sight to paralyse the eye,
To stun the mind and warm the heart
That nature might produce such art.

How long I stood and gazed aloft
I do not know — then heard a voice
Say ‘You alright?’ The words were soft
But coppers leave you little choice:
‘Yes thanks,’ I said, and met his stare.
He watched me as I crossed the square;

Yet I was musing while I stole
On beauty’s power to heal the soul,
And turning back, I chanced to see
A man entranced beneath a tree,
His head bent back, yet strangely bare,
His helmet doffed — as if in prayer.

Monday 30 November 2020

Today’s Tree Hero: Felix Finkbeiner – Today we remember another Felix, Felix Finkbeiner, who even by the time he was nine was an advocate for the preservation and planting of trees as a way to help heal the planet. Not content with his own extensive planting, he dreamed of a far larger scale at which point this then teenager from Munich set about founding his environmentalist group, “Plant-for-the-Planet” (, which to date has planted over 1 billion trees itself and, coupled with their partners in the United Nations, a staggering 14 billion trees in 130 countries. If you think this sounds impressive then think again, his revised aim is now to plant one trillion trees – which equals 150 trees for every person currently on the planet! One is more than slightly put in mind of the small acorn analogy when considering what this boy of nine started just a few years ago! The organisation also started the first global tree count, through establishing an army of 55,000 “climate justice ambassadors”, trained in one-day workshops to grow the movement in climate action, most are aged between nine and twelve years old.

Today’s Word(s): “marcescence” – the process by which an otherwise deciduous tree species retains its leaves through winter until the spring, as opposed to the leaves being “abscissed” (dropped) as thy are by most deciduous trees.

Today’s Tree: The European / Common Beech (Fagus sylvatica) 

Common Beech trees

Although one of the country’s most cherished and loved of trees (“the Queen of British trees”), beeches are in fact only considered truly native to the southern parts of England, though their range, together with their 10 – 13 close relatives within the Fagus species, extends throughout the northern temperate regions (their close relatives the southern beeches – Nothofagus – taking their share of the southern hemisphere). Though the wood is highly prized for its attractive qualities and often coppiced, it is dimensionably unstable so is traditionally used for ply, decorative items, flooring, engineering, firewood and even in brewing and for smoking meat rather than for furniture. Having quite a dense canopy means that the diversity of plants that thrive in their shade is typically rarer (their relationships being more closely tied as a result) such as box, an orchid and a helleborine and others and of course bluebell woods; even though a smooth trunked tree it has a host of animals which rely upon the species especially rarer forms of butterfly and moth, whose caterpillars are fed by the leaves. The edible fruits of the tree, known as beechnuts or mast, are two small nuts housed in small burrs that have a high fat content and a nutty, slightly astringent, taste and are a valuable food source for wildlife from small rodents, birds to boar and deer through the winter (but often only crop well after a hot summer and once the tree is over 30 years old). Several natural mutations boasting stunning colours (such as the purple beech – Fagus purpurea – which was first discovered in Germany in 1690), the ability of the tree to respond well to pruning and shaping and the species’ ability to tolerate shade have made it a really popular tree for horticulturists for centuries either to use as a huge domed magnificent specimen tree in parkland settings or a hedgerow in more confined urban settings, further popularised by the fact that they often retain their leaves through winter which extends the period of their use as a visible / audible screen but which is of course also valuable to wildlife to provide late autumn / winter shelter. Since druidical times the beech has been seen as the Queen or Mother of the woods, the partner to the King oak and thus has always had associations of caring and nurturing principles and also those of wisdom – further extended by the fact that the early books were made from thinly sliced strips of beech bound together, bistre pigment for writing and drawing would be made from beech soot and their trunks have for millennia been used to scratch messages into because of the way their smooth grey bark retains the marks. The astringent nature of the bark has led it to be used for a whole host of medicinal uses since earliest times including for minor ailments and skin complaints.

Today’s Poem: “The Beech Tree”, by Rose Flyeman

I’d like to have a garden
With a beech tree on the lawn;
The little birds that lived there
Would wake me up at dawn.

And in the summer weather
When all the leaves were green,
I’d sit beneath the beech boughs
And see the sky between.

Tuesday 1 December 2020

Today’s Tree Hero: Oliver Rackham – With a background in Natural Sciences and an early academic post in Physics, starting a career that would go on to cross many traditional scientific boundaries, and a keen knowledge and respect for science, Oliver Rackham’s true passion was in Botany, a life-long relationship that was rooted in his early life from his keeping a diary to daily document the changes he observed in the trees around him.

For many years he conducted vital research for various departments at Cambridge but especially within the Departments of Botany and that of Plant Breeding before transferring to the Department of Geography. As well as being an inspiring and much-adored lecturer during this time and causing many to go on and spend their lives dedicated similarly to better understanding the environment and helping to shape a more sustainable way for people to live on this planet, this research gave him the opportunity to test and confirm many of the suspicions he had about the natural world and to understand what it had been; he wrote several of the best books on historical ecology allowing us all to understand how our country and the Mediterranean region especially have developed over the past few millennia – and one might extrapolate these examples to provide some level of understanding for all temperate and Mediterranean zones of the world to a point as well as describing the beauty and importance of woodlands and also the threats faced by many species, particularly in his seminal book, The Ash Tree. Regarded as one of the finest ever writers on arboreal matters, his wonderful books such as Trees and Woodland in the British Landscape, The Illustrated History of the Countryside, Ancient Woodland, and Trees and Woodland in the British Landscape and so many others are unsurpassed and show his absolute reverence for the natural environment.

Crucially many of the theories he was able to prove, such as the transportation of a species from one place to another, such as Ash saplings grown intensively in Scandinavia then sold around the world, having the ability to spread any disease or pest with them which then spreads to the trees in those new locations far more quickly than the natural world would have transported such threats (within which time naturally the species would have developed a defence) – some of which were held to be ground-breaking and also contentious at the time, owing often to the hard truths he showed of the way in which we all live – are now shaping and underpinning the understanding of how we all confront climate change and associated problems and crucially how to try to save our trees.

Personally we remember Oliver so fondly and miss him so keenly but give great thanks to him, not only for his friendship but especially for the life-long dedication he showed to understanding our beautiful woodlands and strides he made in helping to save the trees.

Today’s Word(s): “keys” – the fruit of the Ash tree which hang in bunches of samaras and start out green, turning brown as they ripen and stay on the trees all winter before being distributed by the early spring winds.

Today’s Tree: The European / Common Ash (Fraxinus excelsior)

Common Ash trees

The Ash, closely related to the lilac and the olive trees, are from a diverse and extensive family of plants which can be found all over the world in almost all climatic zones. Our own cherished species, the Common Ash, is indeed a common tree – traditionally so common in the UK in fact that it is the most numerous tree in the country as well as being one of the tallest of the “hedgerow trees” since the loss of the elm trees in the 1970s.

Elegant, graceful trees they can be found almost anywhere and often grow together forming a multi-trunked dome and have always stood out from the others because of their upright nature and beautiful pinnate leaves which cast a beautiful light beneath them as the sunlight filters through (their Gaelic name is Nuin which is pronounced “Noon”, which again reminds one of sunlight on green leaves). In Norse times it was Yggdrasil – the steed or gallows of Odin, whose spear was made of Ash, which was watered by three holy streams and acts as the axis of the world which sustains all balance of life and the cosmos in its branches and roots and the species has always had connections with healing and peace and regarded by many ancient peoples as the Tree of Life – which makes the fact the species is suffering so dreadfully with the Hymenoscyphus fungus (“Ash Dieback”) all the more tragic – and worrying and ought to be seen as a sign of the malaise in the natural balance caused by the way in which we as a species are interacting so negatively with the natural world. Great strides are being made into trying to better understand the problem and to resolve the situation – including by local friends and neighbours Lees Court Estates ( which is in a partnership with the Prince of Wales, Edinburgh Botanical Gardens, Kew and others. Its importance to other wildlife is considerable and of the 111 species of insects living on the tree, 35 are specific to the Ash.

Despite being a canopy tree the late leafing of the species in May allows for many plants and smaller trees to grow well underneath and the timing of the leafing has traditional significance in the countryside for predicting the weather – as can be seen from the rhyme “Ash before Oak, in for a soak”, implying that should the Ash unusually beat the Oak to leaf then there will be unusual levels of rainfall that summer. The largest example in the country is at Clapton Court in England which has a girth of 9m (29.5ft) and one of the oldest is estimated to be between 300 and 400 years old at Glen Lyon in Scotland though one at Tinnis on the Bowhill Estate is thought to be far older still (more typically they live between 200-250 years).

The wood is attractive and one of the most versatile in the country as it hard, tough but also elastic and is lighter than oak – though not as resistant to decay. Commonly coppiced on a ten-year cycle its rapid growth make it a valuable crop for woodlanders. Used for all time for medicinal purposes (ancient remedies for snake bites, obesity, leprosy, jaundice, kidney and bladder stones and even earache!) and culinary uses – Ash key pickle, ash sap wine and the leaves can be used for tea or the young ones eaten fresh in salads. A true star in the tree world, let’s all pray that it makes it through!

Today’s Poem: Leaves A-Vallen, by William Barnes (Dorset Poet)

There the ash-tree leaves do vall
In the wind a-blowèn cwolder,
An’ my children, tall or small,
Since last Fall be woone year wolder;
Woone year wolder, woone year dearer,
Till when they do leäve my he’th.
I shall be noo mwore a hearer
O’ their vaïces or their me’th.

There dead ash leaves be a-toss’d
In the wind, a-blowèn stronger,
An our life-time, since we lost
Souls we lov’d, is woone year longer;
Woone year longer, woone year wider,
Vrom the friends that death ha’ took,
As the hours do teäke the rider
Vrom the hand that last he shook.

No. If he do ride at night
Vrom the zide the zun went under,
Woone hour vrom his western light
Needen meäke woone hour asunder;
Woone hour onward, woone hour nigher
To the hopevul eastern skies,
Where his mornèn rim o’vier
Soon ageän shall meet his eyes.

Leaves be now a scatter’d round
In the wind, a-blowèn bleaker,
An’ if we do walk the ground
Wi’ our life-strangth woone year weaker;
Woone year weaker, woone year nigher
To the place where we shall vind
Woone that’s deathless vor the dier,
Voremost they that dropp’d behind.

Wednesday 2 December 2020

Today’s Tree Hero: Arthur Rackham – After two Felixes (or should that be two Felices?) we now bring a second Rackham, this time the incomparable Arthur Rackham. Much like his similarly-named peer his passion and love for trees started at a young age through his years in England and then, in 1884, when he was sent to Australia with two Aunts in an attempt to mend his poor health at the age of 17. Within a year, his health sufficiently recovered, he was enrolled at the Lambeth School of Art and then went on to work as an illustrator and reporter at the Westminster Budget newspaper and taking commissions for book illustrations, initially as a way to supplement his salary.

With early and almost immediate success he soon became the most sought-after illustrator for a variety of books and publications but principally for children’s story books and fantasy-themed literature which included all the greats of that period in the UK and the US such as Peter Pan, Rip Van Winkle, Puck of Pook’s Hill, Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland, Gulliver’s Travels, A Christmas Carol, The Legend of Sleepy Hollow, Goblin Market and even the 1940 reprint of The Wind in the Willows, E.H. Shepard having been commissioned for the 1931 original, and literally hundreds of other commissions for plays and poetry, nursery rhymes and books that have been the nursery fodder of the Western culture for generations.

Central to so many of his extraordinary works is the tree which he cleverly uses to set the theme and the character of the scene be it friendly, scary or otherwise, his lifelong love of the tree doubtless fuelling his genius ability in making these depictions seem alive and anthropomorphised, some as fully-rounded, faced characters and some with more subtle impressions, whilst still capturing their intrinsic detail in all their beauty and majesty. Widely regarded as being one of the foremost illustrators of the “Golden Age” and of the century, his style is so unique that still today his work is instantly recognisable and this makes his work, even in original reprint, highly sought after and examples of his work can be found in many of the National collections and galleries.

As with so many of his contemporary writers, such as Barrie, Rossetti, Carroll and Kipling, his success in creating the right mood was partly rooted in his ability to connect with the child inside himself which was fascinated by trees and understood – and perhaps remembered – how they can be the source of such joy but also of such terror to a child’s eyes and this connection was doubtless what made him so popular to authors who needed to bring their wonderful writings to life in the images that accompanied their verse.

Maybe next time each of us looks at a tree we ought to try to do so with a child’s eye and stand and look for a limb, a face or just a character or personality in the majesty of nature that stands before us and give thanks for Arthur Rackham for having given us the ability to expand our imaginations from an early age.

Today’s Word(s): “cupule” – the cup-like structure which houses the acorn and connects it to the tree until the acorn is ready to fall.

Today’s Tree: The European / Common / English Oak (Quercus robur)

Illustration of an English Oak

The English Oak – what is there not to say!? England is not unique in considering it the epitome of trees, France and Germany and many other countries today have similar reverence for this extraordinary “King of the Woods” that has immortalised it throughout the ages for as far back as our cultures run and then some, druids would worship in oak groves, acorns were carried as talismans, branches formed the yule log which would then be decorated for Pagan festivities around the winter solstice to celebrate the lengthening of the days and the return of the sun and marriages would take place under oak boughs to bode good luck for the happy couple (the symbol of an 80th wedding anniversary is oak).

Whether it is the tannin that has flavoured our wines or tanned our leathers, the galls which have produced our ink, the acorns which made our “coffee” before the coffee bean and flour instead of grain, have fed our livestock, the roots which have held the ground, the wood which has roofed our castles and built our palaces, cathedrals and homes or ships to set sail on to every part of the world; the trunks which sheltered kings; formed our furnishings and enclosed our animals – or just burned throughout the years to keep us warm, there can be few trees that have provided and shaped our history so much.

As one of the longest-living (sometimes over 1,000 years – Gog and Magog at Glastonbury believed to be over 2,000 years) and tallest and often broadest of the English tree species and rivalling the Ash in numbers it is little wonder that they are the stuff of legend, coupled with their immense strength and durability even in the harshest of storms (aided by a vast root system) and often with enormous trunks (such as the Majesty Oak just outside Canterbury which is believed to be the largest in the country with a girth of 12.4m / 41 feet).

No tree species rivals the oak for its importance in biodiversity (the Birch and Willow running up behind) with nearly 400+ species dependent upon it for a food source – bark, leaves and acorns – or for shelter and, owing partly to its scale, but also for its ability over many other species to continue growing even whilst considerable amounts of it have died or the trunk has become hollow and because of its very slow decay, it provides vital habitats for insects, birds, reptiles, amphibians and mammals in holes and crevices or under its bark, again giving it the sense of the protective father of the woods alongside the protective mother that is the Ash.

Also like its companion, it forms a role in the weather prediction as mentioned yesterday – the first part of the rhyme being “Oak before Ash, in for a splash” – signifying that the normal leafing order should signify a typical, not excessive, rainfall amount. Their height, but also their high water content, makes them more prone than any other tree to lightning strikes which to all ancient cultures made sense of the fact that they were often under the protection – or even the manifestation – of the senior deities – Zeus, Jupiter, Thor, Dagda, Perun… and who could wonder that there is a God when standing under a great oak today and losing oneself in its branches?

Today’s Poem: “Song of Life”, by Charles Mackay

A traveller on a dusty road
Strewed acorns on the lea;
And one took root and sprouted up,
And grew into a tree.
Love sought its shade at evening-time,
To breathe its early vows;
And Age was pleased, in heights of noon,
To bask beneath its boughs.
The dormouse loved its dangling twigs,
The birds sweet music bore—
It stood a glory in its place,
A blessing evermore.

A little spring had lost its way
Amid the grass and fern;
A passing stranger scooped a well
Where weary men might turn.
He walled it in, and hung with care
A ladle on the brink;
He thought not of the deed he did,
But judged that Toil might drink.
He passed again; and lo! the well,
By summer never dried,
Had cooled ten thousand parchéd tongues,
And saved a life beside.

A nameless man, amid the crowd
That thronged the daily mart,
Let fall a word of hope and love,
Unstudied from the heart,
A whisper on the tumult thrown,
A transitory breath,
It raised a brother from the dust,
It saved a soul from death.
O germ! O fount! O word of love!
O thought at random cast!
Ye were but little at the first,
But mighty at the last.

Thursday 3 December 2020

Today’s Tree Hero: ‘Saalumarada’ Thimmakka – Born in around 1910, environmentalist Aalada Marada Timakka was born into a poor family in Gubbi Taluk in the Kingdom of Mysore, now India, and worked as a labourer in a local quarry. With no formal education and few prospects and in a very conservative community, she was married at an early age to Bikaalu Chikkaiah, who came from a neighbouring village in Karnataka. Her husband suffered with a speech impediment from an early age and was bullied and ridiculed daily and as a consequence was “more gentle than many” in a very traditional society where all that was expected of women was to have children and keep the house.

When it turned out that the couple was unable to have children her in-laws were not kind and treated her as an unpaid maid for her to be of use in place of bearing children but this treatment made the couple stronger together and their love for one another grew. One day they thought of planting a banyan tree in place of the child they would not bring into the world and to care and nurture that tree instead. One tree led to another, which led to another until eventually they had neat rows of 285 banyan trees. As the years passed and they continued to water and care for the trees these grew into a spectacular sight as people passed from their home to the nearest town and would draw people to visit and to walk under them and to spend money in their area, an area which might otherwise have been overlooked entirely.

After many years, Chikkaiah died in 1991 but Timakka’s love for the trees continued even though, as a widow – and a childless one at that – she was now shunned from society and was living in a ramshackle hut and stayed out of sight as much as possible. She faced huge pressures from relatives who wanted to seize even this hut and the small parcel of land that it sat on – partly driven by the fact that the trees that she and her late husband had planted had caused the area to be more desirable and sought after. Life was not easy and her future looked bleak. A surprising twist of fate awaited this extraordinary woman however.

In the 1996 elections a local politician, Deve Gowda, became India’s prime minister which coincided with a local journalist writing a piece about the local woman who had planted these trees so many decades before. This story caught the attention of the new prime minister, charmed by the fact that it was a story from his own home state, and he had Timakka found and brought to New Delhi, accompanied by a retinue of local dignitaries, and presented her with the National Citizen’s Award for her efforts in environmentalism. She was given the prefix Saalumarada to her name, meaning “row of trees” in the local Kannada language. Initially surprised since this wonderful lady had not thought she was doing anything special with her husband but just making a private gift to the earth in place of their own children’s footsteps but that selfless action had since brought prosperity where there had been none and joy to so many people who see these great trees and give thanks for the foresight of one lady and her husband almost a century ago.

Timakka has since been awarded countless awards and been asked to speak to various governments, activist groups and organisations and is regarded as a real celebrity in her home state, where people have safeguarded her property, built her a house and ensured the ongoing protection of her hundreds of “children” that majestically line a five-km stretch from Kudur to Hulikal, 80k from Bangalore.

And Saalumarada Timakka? She was listed by the BBC in 2016 as being one of the most influential and inspirational women of the world, has this year been awarded an honorary doctorate from the University of Karnataka, has adopted a son who still cares for her and takes care of her paperwork and plans her diary for her speaking engagements which continue, even at the age of 111 and currently has plans to build an hospital in her village in remembrance of her late husband.

Today’s Word(s): “aril” – the fleshy, berry-like structure which houses the seed of the Yew tree, which unlike a berry is open at the tip.

Today’s Tree: The Yew (Taxus baccata)

A Yew Tree in a churchyard

The English Yew is probably the only tree that could have followed the Oak of yesterday and given it some competition but if the Ash is the natural companion to Oak in terms of life-giving and nurturing then Yew is the opposite in that it is so often associated with death. Found throughout the British Isles and Northern France in churchyards – which is where many of the largest and oldest can still be found – there are many rival theories for why. Some believe it is because they were planted on the graves of plague victims to ward away the disease; some that, being extremely toxic to almost all animals and especially livestock, the planting of them in graveyards kept commoners from letting their animals stray; others that, as churches were usually located on the sites of pre-Christian worship sites and the Pagans revered the Yew and are likely to have had them near to their sites of worship, then the tradition just crossed over from one faith to another. Yews, aside from having portends of doom attached, were often also associated with immortality, which also carries through to the Christian belief of life-eternal, which could also be a reason why any respectable churchyard has a fine specimen growing. Seen by this age as being the “Church Tree” (and nowhere in Western culture does the proliferation of a particular species in sites of worship compare to the Yew), Druids and Celts both saw the regrowth of the fallen branches as a sign of resurrection and it is possible that Christians since earliest times continued this practise – which would explain why the deceased were often buried with Yew shoots and used boughs of Yew as ‘Palms’ at Easter.

The age of the trees, though often disputed, is often extraordinary in itself and certainly many date back two millennia and it is widely believed that many date back four or even five or, as in the case of the Fortingall Yew in Glen Lyon, possibly even nine thousand years. There have always been stories about the fact that Pontius Pilate was born under this tree and played in its branches, his father having been on a diplomatic mission to the Picts and escorted by his pregnant wife. Like the Oak, the trunks often show their age through being hollowed and contorted and ravaged by time into wonderful and other-worldly shapes, little wonder that people used to believe that they were portals to other worlds or dimensions.

Often used as a form of suicide by conquered early tribal leaders when the Romans or the Normans arrived and cited by writers such as the Bard for its murderous uses (such as in Macbeth), there is still no known antidote to the fatal consuming of any part of the tree – in fact it is so lethal that it even has the ability to ‘kill cancer’ and is being used in many of the modern drugs around the world to fight this disease. One of the most responsive species to pruning, along with Box, it has for centuries been used to form hedges and topiary as well as being allowed to grow into vast statement trees – as mentioned by the Dean in today’s Morning Prayer, one of the best examples of this is at Powys Castle in Wales. Yew wood is extremely attractive and beautiful to carve and has for millennia been used for bowls and tool handles. Its elasticity, strength and durability is extraordinary in itself and has made it a popular choice for weapons, sometimes even changing the course of history – since it was the ability to make long bows in England that turned the fortunes of warring nations such as at the Battle of Agincourt; the oldest known wooden artefact is a Yew spear head which is around 450,000 years old. It is a vital tree for wildlife in that it not only produces the ‘arils’ or berry-like fruits, which can be consumed by many bird species and small mammals through the winter months, but also as its foliage is so dense it can provide vital cover from weather and for nesting opportunities throughout the year. The leaves can also be eaten by the caterpillars of the satin beauty moth, which has built up an immunity to the highly poisonous taxane alkaloides (which would kill even the largest of mammals) and which in turn provides it with defence against predators, which have learned that it contains the toxin and is thus to be avoided.

Today’s Poem: “Lorton Vale Yew-Trees”, by William Wordsworth

There is a yew-tree, pride of Lorton Vale,
Which to this day stands single, in the midst
Of its own darkness, as it stood of yore:
Not loath to furnish weapons for the bands
Of Umfraville or Percy ere they marched
To Scotland’s heaths; or those that crossed the sea
And drew their sounding bows at Azincour,
Perhaps at earlier Crecy, or Poictiers.
Of vast circumference and gloom profound
This solitary tree! a living thing
Produced too slowly ever to decay;
Of form and aspect too magnificent
To be destroyed. But worthier still of note
Are those fraternal four of Borrowdale,
Joined in one solemn and capacious grove;
Huge trunks! and each particular trunk a growth
Of intertwisted fibres serpentine
Up-coiling, and inveterately convolved;
Nor uninformed with fantasy, and looks
That threaten the profane;—a pillared shade,
Upon whose grassless floor of red-brown hue,
By sheddings from the pining umbrage tinged
Perennially,—beneath whose sable roof
Of boughs, as if for festal purpose, decked
With unrejoicing berries, ghostly shapes
May meet at noontide,—Fear and trembling Hope,
Silence and Foresight; Death the skeleton
And Time the shadow,—there to celebrate,
As in a natural temple scattered o’er
With altars undisturbed of mossy stone,
United worship; or in mute repose
To lie, and listen to the mountain flood
Murmuring from Glaramara’s inmost caves.

Friday 4 December 2020

Today’s Tree Hero: Wangarĩ Muta Maathai – Wangarĩ Muta Maathai, environmentalist, academic, campaigner, political activist, politician and Nobel Prize winner, was born in 1940 in Nyeri, in Kenya’s beautiful central highlands, and was a keen and alert girl and an avid student right from the age of eight, when she started at her village school in Ihithe and at the age of 11 went to study at the Mathari Catholic School in Nyeri for four years. It was at this time that she dedicated herself to the service of others and was an active member of the Legion of Mary. From here the academically brilliant young lady, who came first in her year, was awarded a place at Loreto High School in Limuru and was then in a position to qualify as one of the 300 Kenyans to win a place on the Kennedy Airlifts which allowed her to study in the US – earning first a Bachelor’s Degree in Kansas and then a Master’s in Biology at Pittsburgh. It was during her time in Pittsburgh that she first saw environmental activism in action with a push to reduce air pollution in the city. Armed with her MSc, she returned to Nairobi to take up a research post but when she arrived she found it had been given to a man – her first experience of professional gender inequality. After a significant time she found a research post in the School of Veterinary Medicine in Nairobi and she would then go on to become the first woman in East and Central Africa to earn a Doctorate; it was at this time that she met the man who would go on to become her husband. By 1976, married and with three children, Professor Maathai had gone from being senior lecturer to chair of the department to professor and was the first woman in Nairobi appointed to each position. Also during this time she successfully campaigned for female equality and was director of the Kenyan Red Cross Society and chair of the Environment Liaison Centre and was an active member of the National Council of Women of Kenya. It was through her pivotal role in all these organisations and armed with her extraordinary knowledge that she saw the common problems faced by Kenya all rooted in environmental degradation.

Professor Maathai, through her connections and work with the UN and with the support of National Council of Women of Kenya, started her planting of trees – initially just seven to remember historical leaders and to mark World Environment Day in 1977. Maathai then activated the women of Kenya to plant small nurseries right across the country and encouraged them to go into the forests and gather seeds, bring them back and plant them and she paid them a small stipend for each sapling and had them replanted elsewhere to replace lost trees and to start her battle against deforestation. This later grew into a larger operation in partnership with the UN and the Norwegian Forestry Society and the Green Belt Movement was born, initially focussing on Kenya but then becoming the Pan-African Green Belt Network when 45 representatives from 15 countries across the continent came to learn from Maathai how to set up similar programmes to combat deforestation, desertification, water crises and starvation. This grass roots organisation has an aim to create “a values-driven society of people who consciously work for continued improvement of their livelihoods and a greener, cleaner world” and “strive for better environmental management, community empowerment, and livelihood improvement using tree-planting as an entry point”, whilst keeping four key principles in mind – a love for the environment; self and community-focussed empowerment; volunteerism and accountability; transparency and honesty in every the organisation does. Working with local people and giving them back the vital skills and resources to act and a sense of responsibility and ownership for the land upon which they live, instead of relying upon government action and twinning this with the support and platform of the UN and other similar bodies – and increasingly domestic governments also, the movement has saved threatened forests by preventing development and reducing agricultural creep; raised awareness for globally significant ecosystems such as the Congo Rainforests; empowered women through training, education and employment opportunities; held governments to account for their actions and planted tens of millions of trees using strategically-identified watersheds in locations for the maximum impact for water retention and biodiversity, which is already seeing positive results. All this has been achieved because of the wisdom and vision of one brave and very talented woman who faced terrifying levels of injustice and intimidation throughout her life but never let anything get in the way of her determination to improve conditions for women and men and their children through improving their natural environment, starting with the planting of trees.   As Professor Maathai so clearly put the case: “If you destroy the forest then the river will stop, the rains will become irregular, the crops will fail and you will die of hunger and starvation”. To date the programme that Maathai started in 1977 with the planting of just seven trees to mark World Environment Day has helped lift thousands out of poverty; given girls life choices that would never have been theirs before; changed and informed government policies the world over and planted over 51 million trees in Kenya alone.

Sadly Professor Maathai died in 2011 of ovarian cancer after a life filled with so much adversity but also with so much hope and we give thanks for her bravery and her faith in a brighter – and greener – tomorrow!

Today’s Word(s): “haw” – both the ancient name for a hedge, still used in some parts today, as well as the name of the fruit of the hawthorn, which is a “pome” (as in “pomegranate”, containing 1 – 5 “pyrenes”, the small stones that one would find in larger form in plums, peaches etc., which are closely related.

Today’s Tree: The Hawthorn (Crataegus monogyna)

A Hawthorn tree

After three giants of the tree world, today we look at the more humble Hawthorn – but do not be fooled into thinking that it cannot stand up for itself. The origins of its name, “Crataegus” come from the Greek kratos, meaning strength, and akis, meaning sharp, no doubt referring to its thorns – which it gets through being a member of the rose family. The name “haw” comes from an old English term for hedge, or rather the Anglo-Saxon term haguthorn or fence with thorns. With many local names, depending upon where you hail from in the British Isles, it is quickthorn, because of its growth rate; thornapple, because of the flavour of its fruit; white thorn, because of its lovely pink white hermaphroditic, highly scented blossoms; hawberry, because of its small hard red berries; or May-tree, because it was always the flower which bloomed at the start of May and people would cut branches of the blooms to celebrate May-tide and the coming of the growing season, though sadly this is rarely still the case in Southern and Western England and Wales since the Gregorian calendar pushed everything back a couple of weeks and now Hawthorn typically flowers in mid-May, or June in the wilds of Scotland. Some traditions have that hawthorn, though always cut and celebrated, was taken into the home as a good omen and some that it was never taken in as it was an ill omen. This latter belief is thought to have gained pace in times of plague when people associated the smell with death, a little like the contrasting belief of white lilies.

The Hawthorn has for millennia had connections to hope and to fertility and was often in bridal flowers and also at Greek temples dedicated to Hymenaios, the God of marriage ceremonies. It was the ancestor of the Maypole and appeared in the wreath of the Green Man. A tradition grew up that the crown of thorns worn by Christ was fashioned from Hawthorn and so in France it is believed that they groan and cry on Good Friday and in the British Isles that it brings bad fortune to uproot a Hawthorn. There are also many legends attached to the ancient Glastonbury Thorn from which Joseph of Arimathea is thought to have created his staff from one of its branches (this tree and its descendants, for it was the only known example before cuttings were taken and are still in great demand, flowers twice, once at the start of May and once in the middle of Winter and there has been a tradition since James I that sprigs of the thorn will be sent to the Monarch for them to be in the floral arrangement on their dining table for Christmas. In Gaelic tradition it was thought to be the entrance to the otherworld and is strongly associated with fairies and played a central role in Beltane, or the Gaelic Spring festival. For centuries it was believed that the lone trees were produced by lightning and they also had holy significance as they often were to be found near holy wells, where they gained the name rag trees as pieces of cloth were often tied to them as part of healing rituals and a common saying in Ireland was “When all fruit fails, welcome haws”. Other traditions hold that the Spring has not really arrived in force until the Hawthorn has flowered, “Never cast a clout till May is out” – meaning do not be dependent on warm weather until the May-tree has flowered.

A true friend to domestic uses and the home, it has been used to give sheltered hedging and contain livestock (as when routinely cut it grows into a dense hedge which, with its many thorns, most animals are unwilling to push through) and both its fruit and leaves are edible – the haws, can be turned into jams and jellies and can be added to other fruit to help them set since they are high in pectin, or wine. The leaves, when picked in the Spring and still young, can be added as a nice addition to salads so too the flower buds (traditionally called “bread and cheese”). Their haws are ideal for treating cardiac problems of many different types as well as acting as a relaxant which can assist with anxiety, bad dreams and the mood swings of menopause. In horticulture their rootstock has often been used to graft onto medlars, pears or other forms of hawthorn to produce different flower shapes and colours. The wood is hard and good for tool handles and walking canes, cabinets and veneers and boat parts and burns at a very high temperature so has traditionally be used for manufacturing when a hot flame was required. Its value to wildlife and biodiversity is huge, supporting over 300 different species of insect and is the food source of a host of rare moth and butterfly caterpillars. He haws are high in antioxidants and are hugely popular with many species of birds and small mammals and their dense thorny foliage is a safe and sheltered place for birds to nest or seek shelter in the winter.

Today’s Poem: “The Tree Song”, by Rudyard Kipling

Of all the trees that grow so fair
Old England to adorn
Greater are none beneath the sun
Than oak and ash and thorn

Sing oak and ash and thorn good sirs
All on a midsummer’s morn
Surely we sing of no little thing
In oak and ash and thorn

Oak of the clay lived many a day
Or ever Aeneas began
Ash of the loam was a lady at home
When Brut was an outlaw man
Thorn of the Down saw New Troy Town
From which was London born
Witness hereby the ancientry
Of oak and ash and thorn

Sing oak and ash and thorn good sirs
All of a midsummer’s morn
Surely we sing of no little thing
In oak and ash and thorn

Yew that is old in churchyard mould
He breedeth a mighty bow
Alder for shoes do wise men choose
And beech for cups also
But when you have killed and your bowl is spilled
And your shoes are clean outworn
Back ye must speed for all that ye need
To oak and ash and thorn

Sing oak and ash and thorn good sirs
All of a midsummer’s morn
Surely we sing of no little thing
In oak and ash and thorn

Ellum she hates mankind and waits
Till every gust be laid
To drop a limb on the head of him
Who any way trusts her shade
But whether a lad be sober or sad
Or mellow with ale from the horn
He’ll take no wrong when he lieth along
‘Neath oak and ash and thorn

Sing oak and ash and thorn good sirs
All of a midsummer’s morn
Surely we sing of no little thing
In oak and ash and thorn

Oh do not tell the priest our plight
Or he would call it a sin
But we’ve been out in the woods all night
A-conjuring summer in
And we bring you news by word of mouth
Good news for cattle and corn
Now is the sun come up from the south with oak and ash and thorn

Sing oak and ash and thorn good sirs
All of a midsummer’s morn
England shall bide till Judgement Tide
By oak and ash and thorn

Saturday 5 December 2020

Today’s Tree Hero: Rob McBride – Today, having considered some truly inspiring individuals who have worked tirelessly with growing and planting young trees we now skip to someone who has been working with ancient ones.

After years of working in IT, the stress of the role was taking its toll on Rob McBride and, feeling ill and going through some serious mental issues as a result, a friend suggested that he might attend a conference on the subject of trees as a form of release. This chance attendance turned out to be a cathartic epiphany moment which would lead directly to his volunteering for local authorities and wildlife trusts, taking up physically exhausting tasks in woodland and countryside management – building bridges, stiles, footpaths and bridleways; life had never had so much meaning for Mr McBride and he had never felt so healthy or so happy. McBride realised that for him there was a direct connection between his improved state and connecting with nature in the greenery of the forests and he believes that this revival quite literally saved his life.

Not long after his volunteering began he noticed an advert for the “Ancient Tree Hunt”, a Woodland Trust initiative which asks anyone to go onto their website ( and to log (pardon the pun!) any tree that they find that they believe might be ancient in order to get a better knowledge nationally of the distribution of aged specimens so that these can be protected and studied. The project is itself a way of encouraging people to engage more with their surrounds and to take more notice of trees in general and to think about them at a deeper level. At this moment McBride just knew that this was something that he could do and that he should do as a way to thank the trees for saving him, by saving them. So far McBride has recorded somewhere between 3,500 and 4,000 trees, approximately three quarters of them in the UK and the rest were in Europe, though his dream would be to start discovering and recording the ancient trees of the US as there are so many ancient examples there. For him the magic of the trees is not just in their extraordinary character and beauty but also in the fact that they have borne witness to so much history going on about them through their many, many years and there is mystery in wondering how the landscapes and views have changed in their vicinity over time.

The significant heritage value of these trees is of crucial significance to McBride and he is staggered, as we all should be, at the lack of proper protection for so many of these living legends in the face of development and land-use changes and has become a very active and successful campaigner to prevent the destruction of historic trees, and younger ones, and has used his success and significant respect within the environmentalist and tree conservation sectors as well as engaging and educating locals to stop many trees from being felled. It is a sad fact that, even though the UK accounts for 80% of all ancient trees in Northern Europe and that, whilst these contribute so much not only to the historical and aesthetic value of our countryside but also to biodiversity through often providing shelter and sustenance to a number of animals and plants that younger trees could not compare with, that so little is still known about these wonders on wider scale and it is through his work with initiatives like the European Tree of the Year contests that he aims to raise awareness of trees generally for the greater enjoyment and wellbeing of everyone as well as for safeguarding the future of our trees. To see the interactive map of the ancient trees of Britain, to which so many have been added by Mr McBride but also by so many other tree-lovers, then go to the Woodland Trust website. Or to find out more about the European Tree of the Year contest and to see some stunning trees, click here or go to the Tree Hunter himself to find what he has found lately.

Today’s Word(s): “drupe” – a fruit which does not split open when ripe composing of the seed (or stone / pit), the fleshy part of the fruit (the mesocarp) and an outer skin (exocarp). Flowering plants which produce drupes include mango, coffee, olive, coconut, all prunus species such as peaches and plums, and bay.

Today’s Tree: The Bay Tree (Laurus nobilis)

From one iconic tree in the form of yesterday’s Yew, we now look at another, the Bay Laurel. Whilst not an indigenous tree from within the British Isles, the Bay has been here for millennia, brought initially by the Romans or perhaps even before. Since its symbolic power for the ancient Greeks, Romans and other civilisations was itself the stuff of legend. As immortalised by Ovid, the Greeks believed that the nymph Daphne, daughter of the river god Ladonas, was spotted by Apollo and he was so taken with her beauty that he pursued her but, not wishing to be conquered by Apollo, Daphne pleaded with her father to be turned into a tree so as to avoid Apollo’s advances, her father consented and turned her into the Laurel. An alternative version of this story is that Daphne was a priestess for Gaia and upon having been noticed by Apollo she prayed to Gaia who hid her in Crete and placed a laurel in her place. However, either way, the tree was so elegant and so bewitching and resonant of Daphne’s grace, that Apollo claimed the tree as his own and decreed that it should be worn by champions for ever more. Since that time a wreath of laurel has been seen as the epitome of success through academia (where still in Greece today many opt to wear a wreath instead of a mortarboard for graduation and the Greek word for the berries is Baccalaureate), senators and emperors from that time to this have either worn or been depicted as wearing the wreath – and so imbued with the true virtues of statesmanship is it still, this can be used to mock leaders who are regarded as falling short of the merit of wearing a wreath (but who often think they themselves should). It is also awarded in sports and has symbolic attachments to international championships of excellence such as the Olympic Games or F1. There is no other plant species which has such global significance today for the true and honest qualities of virtue, decency, fair competitiveness and honour.

The Bay has also always had significance as a protector against ill – whether worldly or otherworldly. The planting of it either side of one’s front door is supposed to ward off evil and bad luck and for millennia it was thought to keep lightning away and significant families through the ages, starting with the Cæsars, appropriated these trees to keep them safe from harm, political and physical (though, clearly, unsuccessfully in some cases!). Interestingly all Julio-Claudian emperors made their wreaths from the same tree that was planted by Livia and it was seen as an omen that during the time of Nero the whole grove died, shortly before he died. Its power was also thought to render witches and devils powerless. This tradition is said to have ceased in modern times and yet just look at the number of homes, consciously or unconsciously, which have bay trees by their doors. (The decorative nature of the laurel also makes this a popular choice and has led it to being used in topiary and hedging, especially in areas which do not have much water). This use as a protector saw it being used to protect against plague and was used in tea and also to bathe in and the berries were used to heal stings and bites as well as for treatments for ear ache and bruises. Though potentially fatal in high enough quantities, the berries are thought also to cause divinatory trances and it was thought the Oracle at Delphi consumed bay for her prophecies and still it is thought to produce portentous dreams when placed under a pillow.

No herb is as ubiquitous nor as useful as the bay as it can be used it any form of meal whether vegetables, meat, fish, game and whilst adding flavour it is never too overbearing and has the ability to enhance anything that it is cooked with, including puddings and even confectionary. The species is one that is used in so many fragrances and essences and has a subtle calming effect and often combines well with other floral elements such as lavender or pine. To walk in a bay wood or even just to be under a large one in one’s own garden, especially in summer, instantly transports one to the Mediterranean with combinations of balsam, honey, spice and a suggestion of citrus. When used for fragrance or for culinary purposes the herb keeps its properties exceptionally well, whether dried or frozen. Traditionally they are also used to keep insects and meal moths “at bay”, by placing leaves in with grains / flour / dried fruit etc – the smell of the bay is extremely unpleasant to many insects, though not to bees where the essence of bay, along with other herbs such as thyme, is used within the hive (as in the Deanery garden) to ward off the varroa parasite which causes the bees so much harm and also has some limiting effects on wax moths. Leaves, or even better essence of the leaves (a simple reduction with water) is placed on a small tray at the top of the hive and as the heat generated by the colony beneath rises this acts like a natural diffuser and then by convection spreads the smell around the hive.

Today’s Poem: “A Laurel Tree At Myrtleford”, by William James Wye

It stands as though on sentry there, the lonely laurel tree,
Beside the garden gate post where the old house used to be.
Long years of life was granted it, ‘Ah’ how well I know,
The morn my mother planted it, just sixty years ago.

I watched it grow from day to day, and beautiful it grew,
I saw its leaves in revel play, with every wind that blew.
It witnessed my first tragic grief, wherein my soul was tried,
That seared my heart beyond belief, when our wee sister died.

The march of time leaves little trace, of all that once was fair,
The tree alone is left to grace the home that nestled there;
To me who loved its simplest theme and now of all bereft,
It seems as though it were a dream, that I alone am left.

Mute sentinel of vanished years, that silently have flown,
It almost as a shrine appears, its fate linked with my own;
This the one hallowed spot to me ‘neath all the worlds great dome,
This earth is sacred round that tree, for ’twas my mother’s home.

Sunday 6 December 2020

Today’s Tree Hero: Luccio Montecchio – Luccio’s love for trees is one that he inherited from his father, a farmer in the Padova province of Italy that Luccio called home throughout his childhood, which started in 1963. His father planted trees as a way to increase the firewood available to them on their land but also to increase the size of the woodland, which he saw as a special and important environment to protect and to nurture. Growing up in these surrounds meant that the changing seasons and the different characteristics of the trees through the year became part of Luccio who was fascinated by the way in which every year they die and yet then are born anew when the Spring comes. This love and respect for the serenity and beauty of trees led Luccio to devoting much of his professional life to helping to protect them through his work in tree pathology, identifying the diseases and threats to different species and then in turn trying to find ways of healing them.

There are of course many complicated reasons for the threats that we see faced by so many different species today and many of those threats in themselves are by no way new but, as with climate change, it is becoming more and more clear that the difficulties posed to trees and the rate of the changes happening around them – pollution, temperature, weather patterns, importation of pests and, as Luccio is keen to point out, the transportation of these trees away from their natural environments – not only out of the very complex ecosystems of the forests in which trees would have grown where evolution over millions of years has allowed nature to find a balance, and usually a solution, to all natural dangers over time but also often to thousands of miles away from those ecosystems for use in horticulture and silvaculture. Luccio seeks to identify these risks and identify the causes of problems to increase the “fitness” of the trees and sees himself as being like a personal trainer in finding solutions that work with the trees to help them heal themselves.

One way that this is often done is by the injection of various chemicals into the trunk of the tree to help it to fight any infection or pest – one example of this is the Central Park Conservancy’s success in routinely injecting the elms which still grow as a result in the park. The injection means that, as opposed to external spraying of the trees (as currently has to be done to the Canary palms in Spain because the water transport system of the tree does not allow for an alternative, as yet), all of the chemicals are being used for their purpose and not wasted but also, crucially, that often hazardous poisons such as pesticides, are contained within the problem area (the affected tree) instead of harming the area around it and other species of insect in the vicinity that might not only be harmless but often useful in combatting the risk posed. Effectively, as with the spot on treatment of cats and dogs, one is injecting the treatment into the tree to boost its own ability to fight the parasites and to kill them from the inside out when they start to ingest the leaves or bark. The concept was originally conceived by Leonardo da Vinci and has been used for many years but he only problem with this practise, or endotherapy, is that it can be in certain cases traumatic for the tree as one has always needed to drill into the tree to get the “vaccine” in (be it pesticides, bio-stimulants or fertiliser). However, Luccio has invented a tool which allows for the direct injection into the tree’s vascular system which, because it is now so targeted, means that much less of whatever the treatment might be is required and considerably less trauma is caused to the tree. He hopes that this tool and form of treatment will make it less likely that in future the councils and authorities do not go automatically to the felling option (we have lost SO MANY trees in Canterbury for this reason alone) but might have a cost effective and curative option instead – which ultimately would be much cheaper than the destruction and clearing of beautiful trees.

When not inventing ways to try to save trees being torn down needlessly Luccio is a professor at the University of Padova where, having written hundreds of papers on the subject of tree health and especially focusing his research on finding natural ways of healing trees and the better understanding of the complex relationships between fungus and trees, often living in perfect symbiosis with one another, both below the ground on the roots (mutualistic) and above the ground on the trunks and branches and leaves (endophitistic), and identifying how the health-bearing toxins which these fungus and bacteria exude help to heal and maintain the trees so that they might be used to help others. A considerable amount of his time is also spent on studying the effects of imported pests and diseases which often happen arrive so quickly with devastating effects – Dutch Elm disease, Sudden Oak death, Ash Die-back to name just three of the thousands of such examples we are seeing around the planet.

He has represented many of the most important conservation and consultative bodies within Europe for years and often speaks for the Italian and European governments on the subject and sits on the international consultative council to study quarantine diseases. Work has also more than started on two personal projects which will allow us all to see inside the beating heart of the trees so as to better understand their complexities – one which shows us the intricacies of an ancient Oak and one which uses the wonders of virtual reality to show us inside the whole of the tree from the tips of its highest leaves to the toes of its deepest roots.

When not doing everything possible to try to heal the trees he so passionately loves and respects, Luccio and his wife and their pet dog, Meg, have bought a beautiful patch of forest not unlike where he grew up and have built themselves a beautiful home from where they can look out and immerse themselves in the beauty and majesty of trees.

Today’s Word(s): “withies” – the rod-like shoots of a willow which grow up quickly when the tree has been pollarded which are then split to make the strands for wicker work or weaving. It also gives its name to the Withie Windle River in Tolkien’s Shire which is where “Old Man Willow” lives – a moody tree which shares his rather unfriendly character with the “Womping Willow” from Harry Potter.

Today’s Tree: The Willow (Salix)

The Willow Tree

Today we hope that you will forgive us but we have rather rounded many different species into one by just looking at the Willow as a single tree as so many of the characteristics and traditions are held in common.

The UK is home to six species of Willow that we would all of us recognise instantly which include the The Common Osier (S. viminalis), Bay Willow (S. pentandra), the Goat Willow (S. caprea), the White Willow (S. alba), the Crack Willow (S. fragilis) and the Grey Willow (S. cinerea), but not the Weeping Willow (S. babylonica), which comes from Northern China, and though each has different uses because the character of the wood varies and the creatures that live on them vary a little – often because of the differing types of ecosystem in which each inhabits, some liking drier conditions that others – they are all significant in the number of uses they have and the habitat they provide for hundreds of different species of insects and is a vital home to countless species of birds and other animals.

Willow has always had a connection to health and to rebirth – helped by the fact that the species is only really semi-evergreen in that the trees lose their leaves very late in the season (the Deanery willows often have leaves until January) and then are the first to sprout at the very first signs of the Spring but also because of their close association with water and its attributes of cleanliness and purity. This attachment was maybe in part why the branches of willows were used for centuries in the Palm Sunday celebrations in churches before palm leaves were available as well as the fact that, being one of the most elastic forms of wood, capable of bending without snapping (some species better than others), willow was pliable enough to be bent into cruciform shapes, as with the palm.

The malleable nature of the wood, particularly the osiers, made it possible to make much from the twigs, or withies, which were used for fencing, screens and basket-weaving – everything from food containers to ancient fishing nets (one has been found dating to 8,300 BC), beehives and lobster pots, helped by the fact that the wood has a natural ability to deflect water and is very light. The wood has traditionally been used for housebuilding (wattle and daub walls), coracles, Celtic chariot wheel spokes, Gypsies’ clothes pegs, Dutch clogs and the ability of the wood to absorb shocks without breaking has led it to be used for making cricket bats and stumps – which take their name, wicket, from the word wicker, or willow weaving. The bark has for centuries been used to dye the leather in tanning and the wood when burnt makes good charcoal. The leaves and shoots are a popular treat for livestock and for birds (even the inhabitants of Deanery aviary and chicken sheds are keen consumers – sometimes a little too keen!) and we have found that even on these creatures the healing ability of the willow is often profound. The Salix contains a powerful chemical, salicin, which has a diverse range of healing properties and which has been developed to form Aspirin. The properties of the species have been known since earliest times when chewing on the bark or making teas / lotions from the tree was common, and texts from ancient Egypt, Assyria, Rome and Greece, where Hippocrates in the C.5th BC described its healing effects, but as with so much of our natural environment it is thought that the species may yet hold many as yet unidentified secrets to health. In a non-clinical sense the trees also, through their setting and the light shade they give and movement of their leaves, have hugely important character and attributes for wellbeing and mindfulness in creating a very powerful calming effect.

Willows have always had associations with other dimensions and with magic, probably in part because of the fact that they often grow by water but also because they have the ability to “magically” grow back to life from even the smallest of cut branches or twigs, their visible healing effects and the ability to miraculously grow back to life and effectively never die, though changing in shape and form, another reason which made it popular for Easter when considering Christ’s coming back from the dead but also the eternity of Heaven. No example of this is more famously connected to the Weeping Willow than the depictions of the traditional love story from China: Two lovers kept from each other by the girl’s father chose to drown themselves under the Willow rather than be separated and upon having done so rose from the waters as a pair of beautiful birds and flew off into the sky together – immortalised by the ancient scrolls in their home country but more latterly by the Blue Willow Pattern by Wedgewood. This duality of the tree as one used for death and sadness but also for one of hope and a rebirth in a peace which is free from harm is common throughout many cultures and leaves the tree as one which has complex and yet inviting connections for us all to dream about as we lay beneath them on a warm sunny day to the sound of water.

Today’s Poem(S): “The Willow”, by Diane Ranker Riesen

Oh, Willow tree, of dream-filled sleep…
What makes your branches bend and weep?
What secrets live within your leaves-
That cause your mighty arms to grieve?

So many years have passed your eyes…
A million whispers, songs and cries –
What knowledge looms inside you deep,
What secret memories do you keep?

Your roots have stretched so far and wide –
As years have passed and people die.
Your silent wisdom holds you strong –
When darkness stirs and storms are drawn.

I need to sit beneath your grace…
To feel the peace within your space –
The soft, sweet branches sweep and flow…
And show me what I long to know.

“The Willow Tree”, by Anon.

A tale is told by the very, very Oldes,
Of a place they call “Fairy Glen”.
Where magical creatures with elfin-like features
you’ll see frolicking now and again.
When “Whispering Willow” glows soft as a pillow
with eerie yet welcoming light,
walk up to it slowly all humble and lowly,
ancient home of fairy and sprite.

And what you’ll find there! No wonders compare
to the luminous beings so kind.
They’ll whisper non-cease of love, laughter and peace,
lifting all care from your mind.
So don’t take it lightly this dreamscape shown nightly
will ease all who doubt, fear or grieve.
There’re no words to invoke or keyholes to poke,
all you must do is believe.

The Willow Cats, by Margaret Widdemer

They call them pussy willows,
But there’s not a cat to see,
Except the little furry toes
That stick out of the tree.

I think that very long ago
When I was just born new,
There must have been whole pussy cats
Where just the toes stick through.

And every spring it worries me
I cannot ever find
Those willow cats that ran away
And left their toes behind!

Monday 7 December 2020

Today’s Tree Hero: Patricia Medici – As many of you will know, often the loss of the trees themselves is only one tiny part of the whole picture, since the many-layered and complicated relationships of the natural world means so many animals and birds are dependent upon particular plant species, and vice versa. The loss of one species, flora or fauna, in any part of this chain can often mean the loss of other species too. The nature of these complex relationships is central to the work of Brazilian conservationist, Dr Patricia Medici, who is helping to mend some of the harm done by human mismanagement of natural biomes in Brazil through her focus on the saving of one link in this chain, the beautiful lowland tapir.

This idea came to Dr Medici quite by chance when, chatting in a bar with some like-minded friends in 1992, each like her having substantial knowledge and background in conservation, they made a list of the animals that they thought they would like to save from extinction which were crucial to the ecosystems in which they lived and they arrived at the lowland tapir. The more they looked into this little known and little understood animal – made very difficult to study since they are nocturnal, very shy and usually solitary – they started to grasp the huge role it played in helping the environments in which they lived. As the largest mammal in South America with a healthy appetite for fruit and vegetation and capable of travelling very long distances, they distribute the seeds of countless species and thus “plant” and reforest areas naturally – earning them the name “the gardeners of the forest”.

Tapirs are an ancient species, dating back long before the last ice-age, and they’re one of the most adaptable animals in Latin America having seen off natural threats which have killed countless other species and they have adjusted to living in different types of habitat – Brazil’s four main regions are Atlantic Forest, Cerrardo, Pantanal and Rainforest (each of those the largest of their types on the planet with an essential role in maintaining the balance of the climate both for the region and in turn for the whole world). The problem they face now with man however, is likely if left unchecked, to cause them to become extinct in a relatively short amount of time since the rate of change and the vast increase in the nature of the threats – deforestation, land clearance for development, pollution, roadkill and a general lack of any care for these creatures as they are seen as being at best a joke (their name in Brazil is used to insult along the lines of a “Jackass”) or at worst vermin to be eradicated – has developed so swiftly that they simply cannot adjust or find space sufficient enough for them to live in safety. Ironically for such a long-surviving species, their nature means that they have a much higher critical mass level needed for species survival and if we lose 50% of the current numbers – which we are well on track for at the current rate – the species would find it almost impossible to continue and would become extinct, leading to eventual collapse of the variety and natural spread of the flora species and habitats and inevitably all the other species which rely upon them.

The work that Dr Medici has done through her Lowland Tapir Conservation Initiative (LTCI) (, a nation-wide research and conservation program with partners in 26 other countries, has not only seen some of the first and certainly most extensive research done into the species so as to better understand it and the threats posed to its survival, but also community-focused work in resolving issues. The research has shown that as a species it is far from being the “dumb, useless animal” as so often thought but actually as intelligent and sensitive as the elephant with many similarities in behaviour and role and Dr Medici is using these findings to try to change perceptions and to make Brazilians care about the fate of this animal. Her findings show that the animals travel along certain corridors – often at vast distances – and that these corridors are often held in common with a diverse range of other creatures and that it is possible to follow the natural spread of reforestation along these paths but where they come into contact with development – usually roads or buildings, these corridors can be stopped and often lead to the death of these creatures by car or deliberate “pest control”. Dr Medici has found often simple but ingenious ways of limiting some of these issues by education of those living in the vicinity and changing views and thus behaviour and attaching reflectors to the tapirs so that drivers are more likely to see them on the road at night (being such large creatures a collision with these is often fatal for the driver and passengers as well). Her work has had some impact also on developers and governments, though of course at the current time this is limited, but has also helped to inform other more responsible governments and conservation groups across the globe. Ironically, though comparatively little appreciated at home (so often the way the world over), the tapir is of course hugely popular with people from around the world and so another way that the LTCI is helping to win over locals to their conservation, and bring in funds for their communities and for the work of the programs, is with tourism and safaris. Once again the tapir is proving to be a gateway for learning and training of the local communities who, when they start to understand the role of the one species then start to see the patterns and links with all manner of others and trace their ultimate survival up to their own and see that by helping just one species to survive and making the adjustments necessary, they can help to heal the forests and all the other species which ultimately rely upon them, including ourselves.

Today’s Word(s): “stool” – The part of the trunk of the tree which is left uncut when coppicing trees.

Today’s Tree: The Hazel (Corylus avellana)

Hazel trees

Following the pliable and very useful tree yesterday, the Willow, and of culinary trees, such as the Bay, today we bring you the Hazel or Corylus avellana. The word Hazel comes from the Anglo Saxon “haesel”, meaning cap – referring to the thin, leafy sheath over the nut, rather like a hat. An understory tree of the Birch family, which is to say a shorter tree which grows under an apex canopy of tall trees such as Oak, Ash and Birch, there is evidence to show that this indigenous tree, though one of the first to recolonise the British Isles following the last Ice Age, used to be relatively confined to certain patches of not only the United Kingdom but also Europe and the northern hemisphere and yet pollen samples have shown that the spread from these initial sites to a much wider region was extremely quick between 11,000 and 6,000 BC. As mammals that consumed the seeds, which as we all know come in the form of the delicious and highly nutritious hazel nut, would have had a relatively small range it is now believed that Mesolithic humans must have distributed these from their collected food stores from a time when farming had not yet really taken off and people were still predominantly hunter-gatherers. Exciting new evidence comes to light frequently as studies into sites such as Stonehenge are conducted, shedding light on the sometimes considerable distances that people during this period would travel sometimes for food, for shelter, or for pilgrimage to holy sites.

The Hazel’s natural habit of having many stems sprouting from or near to the ground has caused many to call it a bush rather than a tree as it doesn’t fit with standard definition of a tree, a tree only having one trunk and not many, but this habit has made it extremely useful and desirable for coppicing which it is also advantaged by the fact that Hazel grows at a relatively fast rate. As with the Willow, the straight shoots that grow back quickly are called “withies”, which grow from the “stool”, and they have the whole diversity of uses as the Willow, including wattle and daub house construction and basket-weaving etc, though the hazel does not have quite the impermeability to water of the Willow. It would be fair to say that for all those domestic tasks for which the wood is used that traditionally those that lived by water used the Willow and those that lived by woods used the Hazel. Their character is also very similar in the fact that Hazel can reshoot and start to regrow from cuttings and fallen branches, though perhaps not quite as readily as the Willow, and they also share many of the same associations for this reason to the notions of life-eternal and rebirth and hope of that species but also, for slightly different reasons, to the Hawthorn and so can often be found in locations such as holy wells and sacred springs where cloth was also tied to them as part of traditional belief practices.

Many ancient peoples saw the Hazel as sacred, connected to Brighid, goddess of wisdom and divine inspiration, and it has always had connections to poetry (“the Poets’ Tree”) – which traditionally was of course the way in which wisdom was handed down from one generation to the next. The Gaelic word for filberts (which are very similar to the Hazel and to the Kentish Cob Nut and share many of the same traditions) is “Cno” and the word for wisdom is “Cnocach”. Celts saw the Hazel as having particular powers and in Ireland there is a tradition that the island was once divided into three parts, ruled by three Gods (steering away from recent centuries!): MacCecht (son of plough), MacCuill (son of Hazel), and MacGreine (son of the sun). Tradition also speaks of the rivers of Ireland which flow from a holy well, surrounded by nine sacred Hazel trees. The nuts from these trees fall into the pool and are eaten each day by the salmon which have swam up the river from the sea for this purpose and each time they eat a sacred nut they acquire more wisdom and a spot on their backs. Anyone that catches and eats one of these fish will acquire all knowledge and wisdom. The Hind Etin is a ballad from Scotland about the spirit who guards the nuts of the sacred tree (we rather wish it worked in the Deanery gardens from the squirrels!) and in England names were given to the guardians of the unripe fruit – “Melsh Deck” and “Chem-milk Peg”. Stories of fairies and magic connected with this tree exist in almost every culture and are as old as time. In Scotland at Hallowe’en two nuts are given the name of two lovers and cast into the fire together and if the nuts stay together it bodes a good omen for the relationship but if one should jump away on the embers of start to split then it proves ill. A sprig of Hazel over the doorstep keeps harm from the home and remedies abound for cures to adder bites.

Interestingly, traditional medicine rooting from similar times and still in use today in not only Native American practices but also in those of ancient Greece, uses ground hazel nuts mixed with honey as a solution for throat complaints or irritating coughs and, aside from other medicinal uses, the nuts are of course used for all manner of baking and confectionary and are delicious raw. The roots were often used for a blue dye for fabrics and twigs for water divination are often used from this tree, though only ones which have a fork through which the sun has risen and set. The wood was also used for wands since they held the qualities of wisdom and foresight of the tree. A dream of a Hazel tree predicts wealth or the coming of some good fortune. In England branches of Hazel gathered on Palm Sunday (another connection to the Willow) and brought inside and kept alive would protect one’s home and in Wales the wearing of fresh leaves as a crown would protect those at sea.

Though there are relatively few insect species which depend upon the Hazel, there are some which are almost exclusively dependent including five species of moth, a few beetles and other invertebrates. However, the growth provides essential undergrowth for many species and nuts are rich in fats and protein and are a vital food source for mammals and birds from the critically endangered red squirrels and hazel dormice right up to larger mammals such as red deer, which also eat their leaves, stimulating new growth of the floor of the forests. Each of these transports the seeds and deposits them once digested but in the case of the squirrels and birds like jays who larder their food for later, often forgetting exactly where, they of course play a vital role in distributing the new trees far and wide. As one of the earliest flowers in the late Winter / early Spring, the hazel is also very important for a food source for any brave pollinator that tend to be about, though pollination is usually done between the male and female catkins by wind.

Today’s Poem: “Edwy – a Summer Song of Fairie”, by Ann Redcliffe

Lightly green with springing buds,
The hazel twines her fairy bowers,
In yon dell o’erhung with woods,
Where the brook its music pours.

O’er the margin of the stream
Peeps the yellow marigold,
And lilies, where the waters gleam,
Bend their heads so fair and cold.

Know ye why the Elfin-band
Watch beneath the hazel-bough?
‘Tis to guard its magic wand
And its blossoms, as they blow.

These, gathered at the mid-day hour,
To mortal eyes their haunts betray;
That has the strange enchanting power
To call up a prophetic Fay.

Be she down among the rills,
In some wild-wood dingle hid;
Or dancing on the moonlight hills-
She must speed, as she is bid.

Or sleep she on the mossy bed,
Under the blossom-breathing lime,
That spreads sweet freshness over head-
The freshness of the morning prime;

Or stray she with old Thames serene
Through osier-tufts and lofty groves,
By royal towers, or cottaged green,
Still must she leave what best she loves-

Leave the thatched cot, where finest spreads
The turf, ‘mid every choicest flower,
And the far-branching chestnut sheds
Over the wave its greenest shower.

Where, silver-streak’d, that polished wave
Glides by with lingering, sweet farewell,
While stately swans their proud necks lave,
And seem to feel some fairy spell.

Then marvel not that Elfins fair
Guard the thin wand and hazel bloom;
Since these can all their haunts lay bare,
By hidden stream, or forest gloom.

Tuesday 8 December 2020

Today’s Tree Hero: Ben Law – One of the saddest elements of the way in which people live today is that we have all become so disconnected from nature and the natural world around us and have lost so much of the understanding of the balance of the biodiversity and plethora of relationships which go on between all sorts of species – animal, fungal and plant, that our forebears would have witnessed and appreciated.  This lack of understanding and knowledge often leads to a fundamental disconnect which can lead to not only not appreciating our natural environments but also not caring – made worst by the fact that so many of us now no longer have daily access to the countryside or even much more than a tree or a window box as we become increasingly urbanised.  Daily we watch the atrocities being committed against nature brought to us through the extraordinary work of people such as David Attenborough or lesser known heroes like Patricia Medici with her work to save the lowland tapir, and quite rightly we are appalled that such things can happen, without ever really appreciating the fact that so much has already happened and is still happening closer to home.

This was exactly the situation for Ben Law, who in the late 80s received a campaign leaflet through his door asking people to help save the Amazon, which even then was being destroyed at an alarming rate – though not nearly as badly as it is today.  Deciding that he wanted to see this situation for himself, he flew to South America and witnessed the extreme beauty of the place but also the devastating reality of the human impact.  What surprised him most though was that he realised that fundamentally this was no different from what was happening at home and the root causes of so much of what was happening to the Amazon was driven by factors from the West, such as demand for resources.  It was at this moment that he thought that if more people were creating more in their own parts of the world in a more environmentally-friendly way, working with nature instead of against it, that the impacts of places like the rainforest could be much less.  This thought led to a complete change of life for Law who upon returning home moved onto the eight acre “Prickly Nut Wood” in Sussex, just over the border from us here in Kent, and set about his new life.

Ben’s life now is one that follows the seasons of the year which he sees as far more harmonious but which is also far more practical and efficient.  Through the Winter he coppices the woodland, and has gathered the annual crop of hazel and chestnut withies which he then starts to turn into items of furniture, arbours, posts, woven fence panels (both of which he makes year round), treehouses and much more besides, often taking orders for specific items or else making products that can be sold locally through partner outlets.  Later into the Spring Law starts to burn the first charcoal using traditional practices within the woodland and this has become a first rate and highly sought-after product which, together with many of his other items, he sells through his local community store, Lodsworth Larder.  By late Spring Law is now working in construction, using his much-championed style of natural and traditional building methods with whole tree trunks through the company he set up, Roundwood Timber Framing Company which have built many local buildings for schools and local charities and the Larder itself.  Law uses the good weather of this time through to Autumn for construction and often muses as to why construction takes place outside of this time when adverse light and weather always causes delays and added expense, again an example of working with the seasons and the long days that nature has sent us.  Law’s own home that he built for himself and his family using all traditional methods and mostly from his own wood was a real triumph and was the subject of the Grand Designs television programme, where it was voted viewers’ favourite build time and time again.

Law’s passion for working with the natural world and living in sustainability with it and utilising traditional crafts and methods is one that he has shared not only through his wonderful books but also through his ground-breaking training programmes which annually have attendees from all over the world that come and learn so much from this extraordinary woodsman – charcoal burning and production, sustainable woodland management, traditional construction methods and there is even a course for “I’ve bought a woodland – what do I do now?”, which helps people to understand how best to manage and enhance the natural ecology of these special places.

Today’s Word(s): “coppicing” – is the ancient practice of farming the woodland through the routine cutting of trees down to a fixed point of the trunk, or stool, sometimes annually and sometimes on a longer eight or ten year cycle, depending upon what the wood is to be used for and how thick or long one needs the timber to be and what the species growth is like, some trees growing slower than others.   The woodland is usually divided into fixed areas and the cycle is then progressed through the area on a rotational basis so that only certain patches are cut back which means that across the whole area there is a wide array of different levels of tree growth and in turn light and drainage which allows for a vast array of different plant and animal / bird species to live in a relatively small area and each year instead of being wiped out, as happens with felling, the life just moves “next-door” – often just a matter of metres – which allows for the natural life to not be impacted whilst still retrieving timber and other materials from the woodland in a completely sustainable way with almost wood to order.  Certain apex trees of significant character / species / biodiversity are always left within this space for species that require older trees but the boles that are created by the coppicing close to the ground are also an essential shelter for critically endangered amphibians, reptiles and shelter for birds such as nightjars.

Today’s Tree: The Birch (Betula pendula)

A line of Birch trees

As mentioned yesterday, in connection with the Hazel, the Birch is one of the earliest colonisers in the British Isles after the last Ice Age and it still serves the role as a “pioneer” species.  When colonising previously un-vegetated areas (such as areas that have been cleared by fire), or ones which have not had trees or large shrubs growing there for some considerable time, one of the difficulties trees often have in getting established is the fact that all of the nutrients can be too far down in the soil for many to reach and to sustain life, certainly in the younger stages when their roots are small (the rain is constantly washing the nutrients down into the soil).  The Birch has deep roots and an enviable ability to sustain itself above that of other trees, helped by the fact that it has, like the Hazel, only a slim trunk and smaller leaves neither of which require as much feed as species like the Oak or the Chestnut, and make them much less likely to sustain life threatening damage by weather, helped by the fact that they are so supple (as highlighted in Robert Frost’s poem, “the Birches”, when weighed down by the snow that would have snapped other trees.  These deep roots grow quickly and reach down to lower levels in the soil (substrata) where the nutrients are and absorb them, transferring the nutrients into their leaves which then drop off in the Fall and lay on the surface which then break down and effectively fertilise the higher levels of soil, allowing shorter-rooted plants to be fed which over time allows for secondary and tertiary levels of trees to then become established where conditions allow.  This can be seen in places like Estonia where, even on the edges of the capital Tallinn, the vast forests are principally made up of birch which have the ability to grow in the very sandy soils, which would not all that long ago in global terms, have been sand dunes.  Over time with numerous seasons passing the continued falling and breaking down of their leaves onto the surface will change not only the chemical composition of the soil but also the physical make up of it until the soil starts to look like the typical earthen floor that we might all be more familiar with.  In this sense, the continued evolution of the woodland composition and species, though for very different reasons and effects, is a little like natural coppicing on a very long cycle.

Having a very open habit and no dense crown, again typical of pioneer community plants (as is a relatively short life) allows for light to pour through the tree to the ground so typically they are surrounded by other smaller shrubs and herbaceous plants which attract a large number of insects and in turn animals and birds, helped by the particular benefits of their leaves and bark; almost everything about this species is designed to be as inviting as possible to as much wildlife as possible so as to take species with it to new locations.  The biodiversity associated with the Birch is enormous – only beaten by the similarly pioneering Willow and the Oak, which being the opposite of the pioneer and thus very stable and long-lived allows for different advantages.  This makes it a very useful tree for small gardens, especially as they tend to be quite upright in nature, and is the reason that we are able in the Deanery to have a number growing even in our little orchard, since they do not cut the light from the lower fruit trees as many other species might and yet still provide wind cover and some frost protection to the developing fruit, some very light shade for the beehives (and pollen on their catkins) as well as a vital resource for wildlife which helps us maintain the health of the fruit trees – birds being attracted to the branches above which then come down and take the insects from the lower trees which might harm the fruit.

In Britain there are only really two native species of Birch, the “Silver Birch” and the “Downy Birch” – there is a dwarf subspecies in parts of Scotland and the Isles which has evolved because of the particularities of where it grows – and both share many of the same characteristics, though the Downy (which gets its name for its hairy leaves and shoots, unlike the Silver) prefers a damper situation and so the species that depend on it might differ slightly as a result.  The Silver is the one that most people recognise and this is the main focus today.  Samuel Taylor Coleridge is coined with first calling it “the Lady of the Woods” because of its graceful elegance and the way that it has a slightly ghostly presence in the dark woods when it is growing amongst other species.  The folklore attached to the species is overwhelmingly positive and attached to themes of warding off evil and bad luck and for giving courage against adversity.  It is the first tree in the Celtic Alphabet, the Ogham, and is the first season in the Celtic year (which was made up of thirteen months, each named after a different tree), which was a month when purification was important and included gathering a bunch of birch twigs to ward off evil spirits of the old year – which is the origin of the “Beating of the Bounds” which parishes still do today.  Another Christian connection through the Birch is that the tree was associated, through its virtues of fertility and new life, to the goddesses Frigga, Freya and Eostre from where the word Easter comes – which too has the belief of new life.  The birch is also an excellent tree for growing truffles off of the roots (as in the Deanery garden – though we have to watch the pigs!!) as they have such close attachments to many forms of fungus and often in symbiotic relationships either for itself or for the purposes of paving the way for subsequent species to follow.  The attractive bark flakes off regularly which, along with the similarly natured Plane tree, makes it a perfect tree for city locations as the bark traps pollutants and then is shed so as not to harm the tree (another attribute which comes from its pioneering nature, when atmospheres may not be very healthy – a sort of natural PPE).  The ability to easily access this bark, which peels off like paper (leading many to call birches the paper bark trees – one in particular) is actually where the tree got its name originally, since “Birch” comes from the Sanskrit “bhurga”, meaning “a tree whose bark is used to write upon”.

Uses of the tree are many as the wood is extremely good for all manner of uses, being heavy, regular and tough – so tool handles, bobbins and anything that might see hard use.  Traditionally, because of the connections to hope and new life babies’ cradles were made from Birch and the branches have been used in smoking and whiskey production and the bark for tanning leather.  The twigs, because of their pliable nature, were used in thatching and the sap is used to make Birch wine, when tapped in the Spring for the fresh sap, and as shampoo.  The health properties are also huge – the leaves are a diuretic and give good treatment for all manner of issues from cystitis to kidney stones and the antiseptic qualities make it a very important natural remedy also especially to heal muscle pain – either by applying the bark externally or by using to bathe in.

Today’s Poem:  “The Birch-Tree at Loschwitz”, by Amy Levy

At Loschwitz above the city
The air is sunny and chill;
The birch-trees and the pine-trees
Grow thick upon the hill.

Lone and tall, with silver stem,
A birch-tree stands apart;
The passionate wind of spring-time
Stirs its leafy heart.

I lean against the birch-tree,
My arms around it twine;
It pulses, and leaps, and quivers,
Like a human heart to mine.

One moment I stand, then sudden
Let loose mine arms that cling:
O God! The lonely hillside,
The passionate wind of spring!

“Silver Birch”, by Cicely Mary Barker

There’s a gentle tree with a satiny bark,
All silver-white, and upon it, dark,
Is many a crosswise line and mark –
She’s a tree there’s no mistaking!

The Birch is this light and lovely tree,
And as light and lovely still is she
When the Summer’s time has come to flee,
As she was at Spring’s awaking.

She has new Birch catkins, small and tight,
Though the old ones scatter and take their flight,
And the little leaves, all yellow and bright,
In the Autumn winds are shaking.

And with fluttering wings and hands that cling,
The fairies play and the fairies swing
On the fine twigs, that will toss and spring
With never a fear of breaking.

Wednesday 9 December 2020

Today’s Tree Hero: Greg Packman – After skipping across the border into neighbouring county Sussex yesterday, today we go to another neighbouring area, London, to highlight the work and efforts of Greg Packman. Like so many of the people that we have already considered, and like so many of us, Greg’s love of trees started when he was very young and his childhood involved much climbing of – and falling from! – trees. It was from quite an early age that he wanted to be more connected to them and so when the opportunity arose to volunteer in caring and maintaining his local trees he took this chance. He is certain that it was this first step into volunteering that led to his whole world being changed and his career and personal passion for trees and woodland taking off. He studied and became qualified in arbiculture and during this time acquired a much more detailed understanding of different species and the problems faced by them and also the care required by each, specifically as much of his training was in conservation and woodland management. Through years sent working in the Royal Parks (which include the vast Bushy Park, Greenwich Park and Richmond Park as well as the iconic Hyde Park, Kensington Gardens, St James’s Park, Green Park, Regent’s Park with Primrose Hill) and also the beautiful Brompton Cemetery, much practical experience was gained in specific areas of study but especially with his work on the London Plane trees, which are so iconic across the city. As mentioned yesterday, Planes having the ability to trap pollutants on their bark and then shed them, so effectively to clean the air to a much higher degree than many other types of species – this made them a popular choice for Victorian city planners when laying out the rapidly expanding city.

Greg’s work on the London Plane has also led to his becoming an expert on the Massaria disease which is currently wreaking such havoc on the species (and which is seeing the French destroy so many hundreds of thousands of similarly iconic Planes which line the roads of France, the authorities worried about the potential of limbs falling from infected trees onto vehicles). Having had his research published in many languages across Europe and beyond and talking at many national forums and conferences on the subject, he is currently chair of the commission which is reviewing the policies on the treatment of the disease and how best to manage the trees, creating the proper practices for professionals, authorities, landowners and other interested parties to follow for both inspection and care.

Having moved on from his role in the Royal Parks, Greg currently works as a Senior Tree Inspector for the London Borough of Islington with special responsibility for the Borough’s external clients which include the City of London, Epping Forest, Inner Temple Gardens and Alexandra Palace as well as tree management for the local authority. The thing that Greg enjoys most is sharing these places – and his own personal love and respect for them and their arboreal inhabitants – with as many people as possible, encouraging them to spend time in these most special locations and noticing the trees. To this end Greg still volunteers and has been leading walks and tours and giving talks for the past five years, still giving presentations online this year when public access was limited because of Covid. He has become the co-chair of the London Ancient Tree Forum Group, which works to educate the communities living in the vicinity of ancient trees and the wider public about these special neighbours and bringing in more volunteering and participation, efforts which has also seen him design and create the new St James Park tree map to make the visitors’ experience of the park more enjoyable, educative and interactive.

He credits the generosity of those that he volunteered with when first starting out and their having shared their knowledge and own passion for trees with him at that formative stage for opening the door to a lifelong relationship and he sees it as his responsibility to pay that gift forward by sharing his knowledge in turn with others. He thinks that the most important thing for any one of us is to get involved, not to let anything get in the way of trying and just calling up any organisation or charity and asking if they have the opportunity to help. He has encouraged many people to do this in the field of conservation across the capital – a major city in which it is only too easy to be lonely and isolated but by going along to volunteer this has proved to be a wonderful way for people to make friends and learn new skills and develop interests within themselves in a non-threatening way. In London there are organisations such as nature reserves, London Wildlife Trust, Woodland Trust, Kew and others and similar organisations will be on your doorsteps too. For his voluntary work in conservation of trees and in the community-focused engagement and training he has done Greg was awarded the prestigious Acorn Award at the London Tree and Woodland Awards for 2020 and “would urge anyone thinking of volunteering to just get out and do it”.

Today’s Word(s): “mocha” – The Mocha (Cyclophora annularia) is an attractive moth species which, though rare, is distributed throughout Southern England which flies from May to June and then in late July and August whose caterpillars are dependent upon the Field Maple.

Today’s Tree: The Field Maple (Acer campestre)

A Maple tree

Following hot on the heels of the pioneering Birch we now have a prime example of a “second generation” tree in the Field Maple, the only truly native Maple in the British Isles, though many (including the dreaded Sycamore) have of course become common place in the wild also some, as in the case of the Sycamore, a little too successfully and to the detriment of other species who are swamped by their fast rate of growth and demand for light and water. No such imbalance exists with the more friendly and genial Field Maple, however, which grows comfortably in the shade of the taller species (though for optimum flowering and seed production it does require more light) – which is good for the Deanery garden, where we have a mixed native hedge including them under the canopy of the Ash and even the dense Bay and Mulberry, though this hedge has grown more slowly than the two we planted in more sunny locations.

A tree of medium size and medium girth trunk and of medium lifespan (approx. 350 years), this species is typical of the trees which follow the first wave of trees such as Hazel and Birch as part of the ecological succession before one gets to the tertiary level of trees like to Oak and this is also seen in its growth habit which is rapid in the early years and then slows to allow others to overtake it.

A highly attractive tree with beautiful golden leaves in the Fall, which are very late to drop (as is typical with many of the native species, certainly in Southern England where our weather is more kind), and with a ready ability to grow well when pruned – so are a good species for hedging – this has long been a favourite for gardeners and is a tree which can be easily maintained in smaller urban gardens as well as allowed to grow on where space allows. The bark is light brown and flaky which again makes it, as with the Plane above, a good choice for urban planting for air purification and the twigs develop an unusual corky appearance with age – a good way to identify them in Winter. Its nature also makes it an ideal choice for bonsai – of which there are some beautiful examples in Kew.

Its warm, silken, cream-coloured wood is highly attractive and is used for furniture and flooring (especially in parquet) and for musical instruments but the small size of the tree compared with giants like Pine or Oak and its slow recovery rate for coppicing when compared with Chestnut and other species makes it a little used wood since the size of the trunk or branches and availability limit its potential, though it is worth noting that when it is used, Field Maple has the hardest, highest density timber of all maples..

It is an attractive tree to wildlife and supports many different species of insect and aphid which in turn attract their predatorial birds and small mammals – which also like their clusters of large winged seeds, which are dispersed by the wind and come from small insect-pollinated cup-shaped green flowers which are hermaphroditic and much loved by bees. The nature of the trees also makes them ideal for nesting birds.

Maple has fewer traditions associated with it than some of the other species and oddly, especially for a tree which has been here almost throughout the post Ice Age human history of the isles, it is not included in the Ogham calendar or even listed as one of its trees (Ogham being the language of trees which the Celts used, which involved not only their alphabet being named after trees but also their thirteen months – we are currently in Birch). Few superstitions also exist for the species but one is that to ward off bats from the home then pin its branches over the doorway – a belief which crosses Europe through all different cultures. Though why one would wish to keep bats out is unclear – in the Deanery bats frequently fly through the house in the Summer when the windows are open all night, successfully avoiding the cats and catching mosquitoes. Another is that the passing of a maple bough over a child would bless it and keep it safe from harm. It is also believed to strengthen the liver but the great benefit for humans – and wildlife throughout the ages (just think of Amber!) is the tree’s sap, which in the case of the Maple is of course the delicious syrup.

Today’s Poem: “The Maple Tree”, by Philip Henry Savage

Day after day I travel down
From Billerica to the town;
Day after day, in passing by
A cedar-pasture, gray and high,
See, shining clear and far, (a mile),
The white church-steeple of Carlisle;
And bright between Carlisle and me,
Daily a glowing maple-tree.

Suffused with yellow, every part
Is burning saffron at the heart.
Upwards and warm the colors gain
From ruddy gold to claret-stain;
And downward tending, lightly lean
To citron yellow and cold green.
Day after autumn day it still
More deeply burns against the hill.
And now I’ve made of it a type
Of hopes, like mine, near autumn-ripe,
And watch, intent, which first shall be,
The consummation of the tree,
Or that gold harvest-hope prepared for me.

Thursday 10 December 2020

Today’s Tree Hero: Stefano Boeri – Anyone that has spent time in the larger cities of the world in recent years has seen that there is a growing trend to increase the number of trees and planted areas, not just in the conventional places such as parks and street-side settings but increasingly on either new constructions (such as the beautiful and imaginative proposed Garden Bridge over the Thames in London) or re-imagined transport or industrial structures that had fallen out of use from earlier times – canal-sides, old railway lines, community dumps and of course most successfully the Highline raised railway on Manhattan. For a few lucky ones, aside from those that have gardens of course, the trend to have trees growing in containers on the terraces or rooftops of their apartments has also increased wildly – and again few cities display this more than the compact nature of the beating heart of New York’s highest borough. Driven principally through an aesthetic movement originally – people just wanting to see more trees around them in urban settings, evidence soon showed that trees, as had long been supposed, had beneficial effects for the local environment in clearing the air of pollutants and providing shade with cooler walkways beneath for people to enjoy, something which our forebears the world over had always known and incorporated but which had become increasingly unpopular in recent decades by planners, driven by financial demands to not waste valuable building land and to not increase maintenance costs to local authorities.   It soon became evident too that much wildlife was able to sustain itself within the city, particularly birds and insects but also small mammals and other creatures, either directly on the street / rooftop trees or else by using these as corridors and bridges between larger planted areas. The increase in “green roofs” also substantially reduces the urban heat island effect (where the proliferation of reflective materials such as tiles / tar / glass – pretty much most modern building materials – kicks solar heat back into the air which is then coupled by the heat given out by cars, air conditioners and other human activities and this is made worst by the fact that the cities are also drying up since without plants and open ground there is less to retain moisture above the surface of the tarmacked streets, further increasing the damaging effects of pollutants which go unhindered. These heat islands then in turn increase the intensity and severity of weather patterns, having destabilising effects on local weather patterns (increased heat, increased rainfall, fewer cold winters…) and in turn these then contribute to the rate of climate change. We all know this, probably without thinking about the reasons why and just take it for granted that it rarely snows in London or that it is always a few degrees warmer than elsewhere or New York (which, coupled with the humidity and lack of shade and proliferation of glass buildings is just a horrible place in Summer). We also know that land is very expensive in cities and that developers have to make a profit to stay in business and that authorities have to keep residents safe and have finite resources with enormous demands facing them. Into this dynamic comes today’s hero.

Stefano Boeri was born in Milan in 1956 and studied architecture and the Polytechnic of Milan. Growing up in one of the fashion and artistic centres of the world clearly made a huge impact on him and his professional career and he has sat on many different boards and associations connected with the wider art world which led to his being appointed head of Culture, Design and Fashion for the city of Milan for a fixed two year period (2011-2013), where he developed projects such as Piano City Milano and Book City Milano (still both hugely successful) many innovative and large scale traditional art exhibitions, bringing art and literature to the people. This led to his being councillor for culture in Florence for two years, staging and overseeing many significant events including the Summer arts festivals during which time he set up the web platform theTomorrow (, which promotes the sharing of ideas on culture across the continent. He is also part of the scientific board of the Uffizi, partnered with the John Paul Getty Museum and the Philadelphia Museum of Fine Art. Aside from art and culture and his drive to better understand the human dynamic for creation, or perhaps because of it, he has also become increasingly concerned about the pattern he saw in all art forms, but especially within architecture, that man was pulling away from his natural roots (to his own detriment) and also from one another and so he became more interested in looking at settlements where there was division in community through projects such as “Sao Paulo Calling” – an extensive international investigation into the phenomenon from all aspects of informal settlements in not only Sao Paulo but also Rome, Nairobi, Medellin, Mumbai, Moscow and Baghdad. To explore his concerns about our distancing from the natural world and the direction of contemporary urbanism, he founded a research agency in 1993 which ran through three major programmes: “Uncertain States of Europe”, exploring the territorial transformations; “Solid Sea” – a study of the Mediterranean; and “Border Device(s)” – looking at the proliferation of controversial boundaries around the world; it would be fair to say that central to all of these was the theme of how people can live in harmony with one another and with nature.

Already a successful and accomplished architect, Boeri founded his own studio in 1999 which is now called Stefano Boeri Architetti (SBA) and is located in Milan, Shanghai, Doha and Qatar. Using all of his passions and his experience the firm’s principles are based not only in sustainable architecture but in ones which enhance, not detract, natural biodiversity and attempt to bring communities together with building that benefit everyone, not just the people living and working inside them. Past projects have taken urbanites back to nature and connected them with their natural surroundings as in the case of Villa Méditerranée in, a new multi-functional community-serving building which now has its entire focus on the sea, with water brought through the complex with an artificial dock over the top of the underwater conference centre. He has taken this idea of connecting the natural world to the built one stage further with his new style of buildings which, though not entirely new in their vision and concept, are jaw-dropping in their beauty and aspirations.

Boeri’s Bosco Verticale, which is a high-rise apartment complex consisting of two residential towers up to a height of 119 metres in Milan, has been constructed to be a vertical woodland for people to live in which is the solution to how to find space for people and wildlife in urban settings without losing profit. Each floor of the high-rise complex has been built with trees and plants incorporated into effectively giant planters on every level (over 900 trees and over 2000 other plants in all), which allows not only for a huge biodiversity of wildlife which now lives on the new building’s sides but also connects people in a very real way with nature – either those inside the building or those on the street outside. It provides employment for a new team of vertical arbiculturalists and gardeners which in turn provides more tax dollars which covers any increased costs in maintenance of fallen leaves on the streets below but since the apartments, built of more sustainably sourced materials, benefit from the shade provided by their own trees they do not need the levels of air-conditioning and heating that they would have required before, reducing the draw on local power and reducing the amount of heat given off by the building into the local environment since the trees trap the solar glare and turn it into energy as well as drinking any water that now falls onto the building as it is trapped into the multi-levels troughs which reduces runoff and potential increase to localised flooding. Understandably this project has won many awards and gained much attention and is already helping to drive the movement to more sustainable ways for urban environments to work with and enhance biodiversity whilst having net benefits for the authorities and hopefully encouraging town planners to do more to plant trees and see them as a positive element which is core to the urban environment as our Victorian and Georgian forebears would so often have done. Similar buildings are now being built by the firm round the world and whilst the impact of one signature building does little comparatively within the scope of a whole city, a movement to creating truly green cities at a time in our species’ history when we are now predominantly urban-dwelling, would help create not only the afore-mentioned environmental and financial benefits but also just make cities much nicer places for us all to live and reducing the continual spread of urban sprawl destroying yet more of the natural environment.

Today’s Word(s): “Box blight” – very sadly the Box species is undergoing a serious attack from two different forms of fungus at the current time, Cylindrocladium buxicola and Volutella buxi, which rapidly attack and kill off infected plants. In the Deanery Gardens, where some of the Box hedges date back to Victorian times (and are some of the oldest plants in the garden), several patches of hedge have been infected and we instantly cut out and burn any infected branches and occasionally whole bushes. We replant to fill in the gaps, sometimes with other species such as Yew, but mostly with Box – in the hope that the plants will find a natural defence to keep the pathogen in control, since no effective cure has yet been found. We also try not to cut the hedges too much to allow a more open habit and more wind flow through the bushes to make the conditions less attractive for fungus and this seems to be helping.

Today’s Tree: The Box (Buxus sempervirens)

Box trees in a garden

A slight oddity in many ways, the Box is full of contradictions. Whilst being an indigenous tree to the British Isles the species has been limited to the calcareous soils of Southern counties of England with perhaps only one natural original woodland of limited size left on Box Hill in Surrey (and others, such as Boxwell in Gloucestershire, which has been in the care of the same family for over 500 years and the Prime Minister’s official country residence, Chequers, in Buckinghamshire), although there were clearly many more copses or woods from the number of place names that have been named after them since ancient times such as Boxley, which comes from the Anglo Saxon “boc” (Box) and “leah” (a clearing in woodland) and there are findings of charcoal from Box in Neolithic camps. The wood in Surrey has for centuries been a source of fascination to visitors and was managed for such and literary references, such as the infamous picnic in Jane Austen’s Emma, abound. The limits of its distribution in the wild and its rarity is seen in its total spread which is fragmented and somewhat disparate as it stretches down finger-like through the whole of Europe to the coasts of the Black Sea and the Caspian Sea, with perhaps the highest concentration being in the Mediterranean Pyrenees. Despite this scarcity Box is probably one of the most recognised and used plants in all of Western horticulture ever since the Romans started to cut it and shape it into topiary and hedges to form parterres and create geometric structure in gardens – it was thought to be a friend of Julius Caesar’s who first started this practise. The ability of the box to be cut back to as little as 30cm from even the tallest of trees (it grows, very slowly, up to an ultimate height of 9m / 30 ft where conditions allow), helped by the denseness of its growth, makes it ideal for using as living walls or art-forms. Wonderful examples of this exist throughout Europe from the classical gardens of Italy and Rome through the palaces of Spain and chateaux of France where designers like Le Notre drew inspiration from the Latin cultures and laid out vast-scale planting schemes including water features and walkways and coloured beds and lawns, all divided by the simple Box, making the design the ultimate must have for any self-respecting monarch from Hampton Court to the Schönbrunn and Aranjuez (which may have been the inspiration to France) to Drottningholm. Some of our favourite gardens are the ones at Powys Castle in Wales, where there are some of the finest Box (and Yew) hedges in the country.

The wood, which being so slow growing is very dense – is so heavy that it does not float, is itself full of contradictions – very attractive and with its own very special properties which, though harder to carve, has extremely good durability, comes from a tree with such thin trunks and branches that it is almost impossible to make wide enough cuts to be of much practical use, except in handles and musical instruments or carving and marquetry (as with its biblical references). The wood was popular for rolling pins, bobbins, pins for blocks and pulleys, wheels and shivers on ships, pestles, nut-crackers, combs, rulers and pegs and pins for musical instruments. It’s main traditional use has been in being made into printing stamps and for this it was highly sought after (which might explain partly its scarcity in the wild, coupled with the slow regrowth of any felled woods), until the advent of the automated printing presses which did not need the wood cuts. However, with a resurgence in print-making as a hobby and for traditional handicrafts it is once again being harvested for this purpose – mostly from cultivated sources. The leaves used to be boiled with lye to make hair dye and, as with the similarly-toxic Yew, the Box has been used for all manner of ailments from gout to leprosy, HIV, and malaria (as a substitute to quinine), with varied levels of attestation. Certainly the alkaloids contained within the Box are likely to have very good uses medicinally and testing continues. Traditionally it as used to ward off witches from the home – the belief being that before the witch entered a home it was necessary for them to be very familiar with the layout, to the point of even knowing the number of leaves on the plant outside, and because of the many close-growing leaves on the box it would prove so confusing to try to count them that they would give up and move on.   Stems were often thrown into graves at burials by mourners to show respect for the departed and so it has been associated, perhaps unfairly, with a more sombre and unlucky tradition which has caused many to believe that it is unlucky to have Box in the house – it is also unpopular because it smells very unpleasant to many.

Box woods are a strange and slightly eerie ecosystem which are like little alien worlds unto themselves with the uncommon shiny dark green vegetation of the Box on its dense twisted stems curling up through the darkness under the very dense canopies which prevent much else from growing. The lack of a diverse range of other plant species, coupled with the toxic and not very nutritious leaves of the Box, means that not many insect species live there so in turn not many predators come there for food so these woods are often devoid of bird song, however they do of course also offer excellent cover for winter weather and when we do (rarely) have snow in the Deanery garden, it is quite common to find all sizes of birds from the wrens up to the chickens using the Box hedge for cover. The flowers are also popular with bees.

Today’s Poem: “The Box Tree’s Love”, by Barcroft Boake

Long time beside the squatter’s gate
A great grey Box-Tree, early, late,
Or shine or rain, in silence there
Had stood and watched the seasons fare:
Had seen the wind upon the plain
Caress the amber ears of grain;
The river burst its banks and come
Far past its belt of mighty gum:
Had seen the scarlet months of drought
Scourging the land with fiery knout;
And seasons ill and seasons good
Had alternated as they would.
The years were born, had grown and gone,
While suns had set and suns had shone;
Fierce flames had swept; chill waters drenched;
That sturdy yeoman never blenched.

The Tree had watched the station grow,
The buildings rising row on row;
And from that point of vantage green,
Peering athwart its leafy screen,
The wondering soldier-birds had seen
The lumbering bullock-dray draw near,
Led by that swarthy pioneer
Who, gazing at the pleasant shade,
Was tempted, dropped his whip and stayed;
Brought there his wanderings to a close;
Unloosed the polished yokes and bows.

The bullocks, thankful for the boon,
Rang on their bells a merry tune:
The hobbles clinked; the horses grazed;
The snowy calico was raised;
The fire was lit; the fragrant tea
Drunk to a sunset melody
Tuned by the day before it died
To waken on Earth’s other side.
There ’twas, beneath that Box-Tree’s shade,
Fortune’s foundation-stone was laid;
Cemented fast with toil and thrift,
Stone upon stone was laid to lift
A mighty arch, commemorate
Of one who reached the goal too late.
That white-haired pioneer with pride
Fitted the keystone; then he died:
His toil, his thrift, all to what boot?
He gave his life for Dead Sea fruit:
What did it boot his wide domain
Of feathered pine and sweeping plain,
Sand-ridge and turf? for he lay dead,
Another reigning in his stead.

His sons forgot him; but that Tree
Mourned for him long and silently,
And o’er the old man’s lonely bier
Would, if he could, have dropped a tear.
One other being only shared
His grief: one other only cared:
And she was but a six years’ maid,
His grandchild, who had watched him fade
In childish ignorance; and wept
Because the poor old grand-dad slept
So long a sleep, and never came
To smile upon her at her game,
Or tell her stories of the fays
And giants of the olden days.
She cared; and, as the seasons sped,
Linked by the memory of the dead,
They two, the Box-Tree and the Child,
Grew old in friendship; and she smiled,
Clapping her chubby hands with glee,
When for her pleasure that old Tree
Would shake his limbs, and let the light
Glance in a million sparkles bright
From off his polished olive cloak.
Then would the infant gently stroke
His massive bole, and laughing try
To count the patches of blue sky
Betwixt his leaves, or in the shades
That trembled on the grassy blades
Trace curious faces, till her head
Of gold grew heavy; then he’d spread
His leaves to shield her, while he droned
A lullaby, so softly toned
It seemed but as the gentle sigh
Of Summer as she floated by;
While bird and beast grew humble-voiced,
Seeing those golden ringlets moist
With dew of sleep. With one small hand
Grasping a grass-stem for a wand,
Titania slept. Nature nor spoke,
Nor dared to breathe, until she woke.

The years passed onward; and perchance
The Tree had shot his tufted lance
Up to the sky a few slow feet;
But one great limb grew down to greet
His mistress, who had ne’er declined
In love for him, though far behind
Her child-life lay, and now she stood
Waiting to welcome womanhood.
She loved him always as of old;
Yet would his great roots grasp the mould,
And knotted branches grind and groan
To see her seek him not alone;
For lovers came, and ‘neath those boughs
With suave conversing sought to rouse
The slumbering passion in a breast
Whose coldness gave an added zest
To the pursuit; but all in vain:
They spoke the once, nor came again,
Save one alone, who pressed his suit
(Man-like, he loved forbidden fruit)
And strove to change her Nay to Yea,
Until it fell upon a day
Once more he put his fate to proof
Standing beneath that olive roof;
And though her answer still was ‘No’
He, half-incensed, refused to go,
Asking her, Had she heart for none
Because there was some other one
Who claimed it all? Whereon the maid
Slipped off her ring and laughing said:
‘Look you, my friend! here now I prove
The truth of it, and pledge my love!’
And, poised on tiptoe, touched a limb
That bent to gratify her whim.
She slipped the golden circle on
A tiny branchlet, whence it shone
Mocking the suitor with its gleam,
A quaint dispersal of his dream.
She left the trinket there; but when
She came to take it back again
She found it not; nor though she knelt
Upon the scented grass and felt
Among its roots, or parted sheaves
And peered among the shining leaves,
Could it be found. The Box-Tree held
Her troth for aye: his great form swelled
Until the bitter sap swept through
His veins and gave him youth anew.

With busy fingers, lank and thin,
The fatal Sisters sit and spin
Life’s web, in gloomy musings wrapt,
Caring not, when a thread is snapt,
What harm its severance may do,
Whether it strangleth one or two.

Alas! there came an awful space
Of time wherein that sweet young face
Grew pale, its sharpened outline pressed
Deep in the pillow; for a guest,
Unsought, unbidden, forced his way
Into the chamber where she lay.
‘Twas Death! . . . Outside the Box-Tree kept
Sad vigil, and at times he swept
His branches softly, as a thrill
Shot through his framework, boding ill
To her he loved; and so he bade
A bird fly ask her why she stayed.
The messenger, with glistening eye,
Returned, and said, ‘The maid doth lie
Asleep. I tapped upon the pane:
She stirred not, so I tapped again.
She rests so silent on the bed,
Friend, that I fear the maid is dead;
For they have cut great sprays of bloom
And laid them all about the room.
The scent of roses fills the air:
They nestle in her breast and hair,

Like snowy mourners, scented, sweet,
Around her pillow and her feet.’
‘Ah, me!’ the Box-Tree, sighing, said;
‘My love is dead! my love is dead!’
And shook his branches till each leaf
Chorused his agony of grief.

They bore the maiden forth, and laid
Her down to rest where she had played
Amid her piles of forest-spoil
In childhood: now the sun-caked soil
Closed over her. ‘Ah!’ sighed the Tree,
‘Mark how my love doth come to me!’
He pushed brown rootlets down, and slid
Between the casket and its lid;
And bade them very gently creep
And wake the maiden from her sleep.
The tiny filaments slipped down
And plucked the lace upon her gown.
She stirred not when they ventured near
And softly whispered in her ear.

The silken fibres gently press
Upon her lips a chill caress:
They wreathe her waist: they brush her hair:
Under her pallid eyelids stare:
Yet all in vain; she will not wake,
Not even for her lover’s sake.
The Box-Tree groaned aloud and cried:
‘Ah, me! grim Death hath stole my bride.
Where is she hidden? Where hath flown
Her soul? I cannot bide alone;
But fain would follow.’

Then he called
And whispered to an ant that crawled
Upon a bough; and bade it seek
The white-ant colony and speak
A message where, beneath a dome
Of earth, the white queen hath her home.
She sent a mighty army forth
That fall upon the tree in wrath,
And, entering by a tiny hole,
Fill all the hollow of his bole;
Through all its pipes and crannies pour;
Sharp at his aching heart-strings tore;
Along his branches built a maze
Of sinuous, earthen-covered ways.
His smooth leaves shrunk, his sap ran dry:
The sunbeams laughing from the sky
Helped the ant workers at their toil,
Sucking all moisture from the soil.

Then on a night the wind swept down
And rustled ‘mid the foliage brown.
The mighty framework creaked and groaned
In giant agony, and moaned,
Its wind-swept branches growing numb,
‘I come, my love! my love, I come!’
A gust more furious than the rest
Struck the great Box-Tree’s shivering crest:
The great bole snapped across its girth;
The forest monarch fell to earth
With such a mighty rush of sound
The settlers heard it miles around,
While upward through the windy night
That faithful lover’s soul took flight.

The squatter smiled to see it fall:
He sent his men with wedge and maul,
Who split the tree; but found it good
For nothing more than kindling-wood.
They marvelled much to find a ring,
Asking themselves what chanced to bring
The golden circlet which they found
Clasping a branchlet firmly round.
Foolish and blind! they could not see
The faithfulness of that dead Tree.

Friday 11 December 2020

Today’s Tree Hero: Thomas Bewick – Born at the family home, Cherryburn, in Mickley, Northumberland, in 1753 to a farming family who also ran a local community mine to supplement their income. From an early age Thomas was employed on the farm to help care for the animals and to keep the fields clear of mole hills and so spent much time outside in nature and as the years passed he built up a strong love and understanding of the seasons and the species that he saw around him, both natural and on the farm. He was educated from an early age and started at the local village school but found the confines of the classroom rather too restrictive and was often prone to play up and cause trouble, longer for a freer existence than the oppression of the schoolroom and this free spirit was one that would go on to characterise him through life. One particular occasion of note was that during one of his periods of misbehaviour, his poor schoolmistress was so tried by his naughtiness that she locked him in the church whilst she dealt with some other matters. Always one to push back at any conformity the young Thomas climbed up a pillar and got into the roof space where he hid and waited until the tutor came back and when she did, upon not being able to find him then went searching round the church at which point Thomas dropped down and ran out of the building leaving the poor teacher looking in vain.

Though academic work eluded him, Bewick was a wonderful artist from a very early age and, being completely self-taught, at the age of 14 he was apprenticed to an engraver in Newcastle who specialised in engraving family insignia into wood and metal. Captivated by the ability to create a new form of artwork with such extraordinary precision with all the potential for print Thomas was soon working in wood engraving and illustrating books, winning the prestigious Royal Society encouragement award for his engraving of the “Huntsman and the Old Hound” for a book, Select Fables. Soon a partner in the firm, the company prospered and was soon undertaking works for London clients and gained a national reputation for the fine craftsmanship of the engraving, much of which Bewick preferred to do on Box wood which he son found to be the hardest wearing (one particular stamp he used over two million times before it wore). It is probably important to state also that Bewick realised that the previously-considered inferior prints from wood, because of the higher precision of metal, could be vastly improved over the latter by changing the cut of the wood, carving against the grain, and by using tools that would previously have been used on metal for the finest detail. Almost all of his engravings include beautifully-detailed trees, many of them inspired by trees he had known on the farm on or his many country walks when he lost himself in nature.

A pacifist (he thought war was foolish and pointless) and an active protector of the wildlife and the animals he had grown up with, he was a vocal opponent to the docking of horses’ tails and campaigned for fair treatment of all animals, trying to stop cruelty to dogs and bear fighting. These themes, as was the case with the work of near contemporaries Blake and Hogarth, were omnipresent in his work where he attempted to win people to his kindly ways through showing a slightly ironic (though usually scathing) attitude to any alternative. His fine detailing of engraving was also so precise that he would often include tiny amusing touches about the identity of the characters or the creatures / birds or scenery and in many would include specific leaf shapes and characteristic detail of the trees and plants included. Having benefited from an apprenticeship himself and seeing how it had the ability to nurture talent and pave the way to employment that would lift whole families out of poverty (the Industrial Revolution was gathering pace with more and more people moving to the cities and facing poverty and homelessness and starvation in a way that had never been seen before), he opened up the studios to having at least 30 apprenticeships – which also gave him the ability to encourage more towards his beliefs. Many of these became outstanding in their own careers.

Bewick’s real time came, however when his company started to undertake illustrated natural history publications which started with his own, slightly self-indulgent at the time, collection, “History of Quadrupeds” in 1790, which included 200 different species, each beautifully represented in print from his fine woodcuts. He went on to publish “Land Birds” and “A History of British Birds”, which allowed him to use much of his exhaustive knowledge of the birds he had taught himself about during his youth and on regular visits home to the farm even when grown. He went onto publish “Water Birds” and also met with John James Audubon when he came to Britain to choose his printer for his opus, “Birds of America” and they exchanged much knowledge on the birds and on the printers. A hero for championing music of all kinds, but particularly traditional forms and instruments, such as the Northumbrian smallpipes, which he could see was being lost with the rate of social change, and he engaged piper John Peacock to teach young pupils to safeguard its future and to teach young people a profession. Social activist, educator, animal-rights campaigner, natural historian, consummate artist and conservationist and all long most of those issues had even been formally identified, we give thanks for the visionary ability of people like Thomas Bewick who gained all that knowledge from just watching nature around him and taking notice of it.

Today’s Word(s): “umeboshi” – ume trees / fruits are a small form of apricot, which are confusingly often referred to as plums in native Japan.  Related to Blackthorn trough their both being members of the Prunus family, they are commonly pickled and eaten as umeboshi – or “salted Japanese plums” – and when pickled themselves, sloes have just the same flavour and so are sometimes referred to as the “European umeboshi”.

Today’s Tree: Blackthorn (Prunus spinosa)

Blackthorn berries

As with so many of the hedgerow species that we have already looked at, Blackthorn for most of the year is not especially remarkable and most people would probably go past not noticing it there except for twice a year when it puts on quite a remarkable show – firstly when it flowers in extraordinary profusion, usually in February when it seems to be stimulated to bring out its beautiful coverings of white blooms which are so conspicuous that even the time when it flowers has a name, a Blackthorn Winter, as it gives the effect of a snowfall all through the hedges and woodland margins from seemingly out of nowhere. It gains its name, Blackthorn, because of the dark colour of its trunks and branches which at this time particularly in the stark light of Winter and with the juxtaposition of the white flowers, appear jet black when looking up at them under a grey sky. The other time that most people remember them is in the late Autumn / early Winter when it fruits in equal profusion and the small trees are covered with sloes, a small stone fruit about the size of a small cherry which with its dark purple colour and white waxy blush resembles a small plum – and this is not by chance since the Blackthorn is the parent, through the natural crossbreeding with the equally small-fruited Myrobalan (cherry plum), of all modern plums. Unlike the larger sweet-tasting plums, the taste of the sloes is a little tart, unless one can get them after the first frosts which freeze and then sweeten the sugars – zero chance of that in the Deanery garden since they are so sought after by the birds! We have found that putting them in the freezer for a few days can sweeten the fruit but the best thing to do with sloes in our opinion is to turn them into jams or to mix them with apples from the orchard and make pies or crumbles from them, where the sweetness of the apples enjoys the slight sourness of the sloes. The tradition of adding them to alcohol has also been a popular Winter pastime for centuries across the whole of the central and southern belt of Europe where the fruits can be found, the most popular being gin.

The species has VERY sharp thorns – which show their close relationship to the rose and which have made them a popular barrier to plant by farmers to keep livestock from roaming, and a habit of growing into small thickets. This growth keeps animals out but the species grows harmoniously with other plants and especially trees and in this way effectively creates safe spaces for juvenile trees of other trees to germinate and grow without being eaten by larger animals. This protective and life-nurturing quality has earned the Blackthorn the name “the Mother of the Woods”, the origins of this nomenclature coming from France where it is also commonly known as Mère-du-bois. Other names for the tree are common and often regional – Bullen in Shropshire, Bullison in Wiltshire, Bullister in Scotland and Ireland, all of which are mistakenly attached to the wild plum, the Bullace, which is more like a Damson. Due to the fruiting potential of the tree local names also abound along the lines of Hedge-picks in Hampshire or Winter Picks in Sussex.

As is the case with its close friend Hawthorn, although exceptionally hard wood and of attractive appearance, the thin trunks make it unusable for most forms of carpentry, though very attractive for turning and carving especially as it polishes well when finished. Also like the Haw, it is a heavy dense wood which makes it burn slowly with good heat and little smoke. One traditional use for the wood is for making walking sticks and protective clubs out of long straight branches / trunks – nowhere more famously than the shillelagh in Ireland and commissioned officers in the British Army of the Royal Irish Regiment still carry sticks from Blackthorn, a tradition which also continues of Irish Regiments in Commonwealth countries around the World as well as for new Town Mayors around the country, presented with such a stick on their inauguration. The leaves, which do resemble those of tea, where used to substitute and thicken the expensive tea and the fruit has been used in the same fashion for port, as well as being used to make the liqueur pacharán in Navarre, bargnolino in Italy, épine / épinette / troussepinette / eau de vie and vin d’épine in France, where the latter is made not from the fruit but from the new shoots of the bushes; a fermented fruit wine was common through all Anglo Saxon traditions from England, through Germany to central Europe. The fruit has been used to line cloth (which starts out reddish brown but fades to pale blue) and its sap was used as ink.

The thorns (which were used by ancient peoples through to modern times as fish hooks) are very sharp and long and are usually covered in a bacteria which is symbiotic to the species and does not cause any known detriment to the tree but does result in much more pain for those animals pricked by the thorns and can lead in extreme cases to blood poisoning, and in as much acts as an extra deterrent to eating the leaves or fruit of the trees. A traditional chant to try to limit the effects of being pricked ran, “Christ was of a virgin born, And he was pricked with a thorn, And it did neither bell nor swell, And I trust I Jesus this never will”.  The thorns, of course, do not cause any harm or detriment to the pollinating insects and the fruit eating birds which the species uses to produce and then distribute its seeds but do make a protective location for the smaller fruit-eating birds to nest in which leads to a lifelong relationship between birds and the species in symbiosis. As is typical with many passerines, or branch-roosting birds, they eat seeds and fruit through the year (and pollen from the flowers for an extra boost, especially when weather is cold such as during the North-east winds of a Blackthorn Winter), but when they are rearing young they switch their diet to include insects and at the time of year that their eggs are hatching and the developing fledglings need extra protein and fat, long before seeds and fruit are available, the birds have the many species of insect which eat the Blackthorn leaves on which to prey, ensuring that these invertebrates in turn do not become too plentiful for the tree to stand. One particular British bird, the beautiful but rare redbacked shrike, has taken the use of the tree’s thorns a step further and hooks its prey (mostly small reptiles, amphibians and insects) onto them like a larder.

It is the long-held tradition that it was from the Blackthorn that Christ’s crown was made (some have said the Haw but the former’s thorns are far more severe). This has led to the tree, even when in bloom, to be associated with death and therefore unlucky to have in the house. A charming tale of Christ’s crown has been handed down through the ages to explain how the Goldfinch got its colours and this tale is below today’s poem for anyone that wishes to read it. It is important to note that this story related to the beautiful and lovely little Eurasian Goldfinch which has red in its colouring, as opposed the spectacularly beautiful American Goldfinches, both of which have the most glorious yellow plumage. However, somewhat conversely, Blackthorn has also long-been considered a holy tree in the countryside which warded off evil (perhaps the reason for its use by military and mayoral protectors of communities?) and was said to bloom at midnight of the old Christmas Eve (prior to the disrupting Gregorian calendar) and a tradition held that at New Year’s, the making of a crown of Blackthorn, scorching it in the fire (to symbolise the burning of the old) and hanging it with mistletoe (to symbolise the new, miraculously fruiting in midwinter) would bring good luck for the year ahead – this is the origin of the Christmas decoration of a hoop of foliage with mistletoe. All in all this is a protector tree which likes to do things its own way but which provides so much for such a small member of our tree family.

Today’s Poem: “The Blackthorn Tree”, by Dan Lake

You’ll find me in the hedgerows down the lanes where cowslips grow,
accompanied by hawthorn and my kin, the damson tree,
and while you look at bluebells growing wildly at my feet
you may, just as a fleeting glance, look up and notice me.

Around that time my petals of the purest white will form,
while whiskers like an old man’s beard sprout from their yellow mouth,
but quickly as my blossoms fall, this “mother of the wood”
falls silent to the eye to grow, my fruit that’s facing south.

Those tiny green-like baubles swell beside my fearsome thorn
upon contorted branches bent and crooked, all askew,
but though I grow irregular, my wood is firm and strong
to bear my harvest of the gods for wise men to accrue.

October sees my wholesome yield, dark blue with angel dust,
the sprinkled wax that forms a bloom on every sour sloe.
For those with knowledge pick my plum not for a sweet dessert,
but make a jam or mix with gin to set the cheeks aglow.

Then as the year draws to a close, my leaves and fruits bestrewn,
another hunter casts his eye to find among my fare
a bough that’s straight and strong of heart to make a walking stick,
but search he will, and search he must to find that which is rare.

My powers are as strong today as they were long ago.
My bark, my leaf, my flowers sought to heal throughout the land,
this “keeper of the secrets” this old friend of Wiccan charm,
so use, but don’t abuse me, or my thorn will prick your hand.

“The Blackthorn”, by Cicely Mary Barker

The wind is cold, the Spring seems long a-waking;
The woods are brown and bare;
Yet this is March: soon April will be making
All things most sweet and fair.

See, even now, in hedge and thicket tangled,
One brave and cheering sight:
The leafless branches of the Blackthorn, spangled
With starry blossoms white!

The legend of Christ and the Goldfinch

The Biblical story of Christ playing as a child with clay figures which he had made and then clapping his hands and the figures coming to life as little birds which flew away gave rise to a tradition that these birds were goldfinches, one of the reasons they appear so much through medieval art right up to the current day.

A legend tells that one of these goldfinches, years later, happened to see Christ’s humiliation as he carried the cross to his execution site and so moved was this little bird that flew down and tried to tear the crown of thorns from off of Jesus’s head but in so trying a spot of Christ’s blood landed on the brave bird’s head and was for evermore carried by her and all of her kin as sign of her courage and loyalty, when the rest of Creation stood by and watched. Some traditions hold, for the same blood-red feather coloured reason, that it was in fact the little robin red breast which did this courageous act but, either way, when we often see both species in the thorny thicket of Blackthorn at the Deanery (as both were during this morning’s service, the robin in view of the camera) it gives us pause for thought not only of Christ’s suffering but also for the courage that so many show to stand up and do something to try to stop it.

Saturday 12 December 2020

Today’s Tree Hero: Philip Ashmole – We live at a time when we are all increasingly conscious of the need to protect what we still have and to try to unwind the clock and undo some of the damage we have done within the natural world. There is currently a move from Central Government to shift the rural focus from one led by the CAP, in many ways a deeply flawed system which had its roots in the purely human-led needs of the post war era and was often itself damaging to wildlife, to one where nature is put to the centre of policy, hopefully finding a way forward which also supports the valuable and essential work of the rural economies. This shift will see a greater expanse of wetlands allowed to reform, both coastal and inland; more indigenous species being allowed to prosper in our meadows and grasslands through different land-uses; and forests to reform. Once a predominantly forested nation, deforestation is not a new problem and it started nearly 4,000 years ago. Today just 5% of the nation is forested but the Government hopes to get this back to 12%, nearly at the Domesday Book level of 15%. These changes will see not only a huge increase in the native biodiversity of these islands, helped by the work of wildlife conservation charities like Wildwood in Canterbury (, and a restoration of the natural ecology but also have very real and important human benefits. This change in direction is not new, neither is it unique to the UK, though if the Government keeps to the current agenda it would be one of the most ambitious rewilding policies of any major nation, but for decades individuals and charities have been working throughout the country on similar localised projects. One such project is the Carrifran Wildwood in the Southern Uplands of Scotland.

The uplands cover a staggering third of Britain’s landmass and are iconic and considered beautiful by many. Use for grouse-shooting and sheep grazing has shaped and maintained the grassland landscapes in a time-honoured way but many of these areas used to be forested and sit on the largest reserves of carbon in the country, peat which, with the close-grazing of grass and no shade from trees and the resulting lack of retention of rainfall and snow (which instead of being retained in the trees’ biomass just flows downstream and causes flooding), is drying out and poses a very real risk of releasing all of this carbon into the atmosphere. Peat also gets released into watercourses, flowing downstream and raising the acidity of water and soils which has a detrimental effect on those ecosystems. This is made worse by the tradition of burning the landscape for the grouse – but to the detriment of almost every other native species and non-native species which have come to live in the changed landscape. Tragically, where once these areas would have supported huge forests and a huge diversity they have become veritable deserts in natural terms. It was into this dynamic that the Carrifran Wildwood project was started by conservationist Philip Ashmole and his wife Myrtle and a number of friends.

Born in Amersham, Buckinghamshire just before the war, he read Zoology at Brasenose and then went as an ornithological research assistant to Ascension Island for two years which resulted in a doctoral thesis on the biology of terns. Not long after he met fellow nature-lover Myrtle, whom he married and who became his life-long fellow researcher. His career went from a post at the EGI to Oxford, then to a fellowship at the Peabody and working with Yale and then to a research posting for the two of them on the ecology of seabirds on Hawaii and Kiritimati at just the time when nuclear testing was being undertaken by so many nations on pacific islands so were able to undertake important research into the effects of testing on wildlife. From an associate professorship at Yale came the senior lecturing post at the University of Edinburgh. During this time he was also conducting research and investigations on living and fossilised flora and fauna around the world, including on St Helena, which has proved extremely useful in shaping understanding of so many species. Also over all of this time, much like the case of Sir David Attenborough, he has seen in real time the effects of human activity on the planet and the species that live on it and both he and Myrtle have worked tirelessly in conservation to try to limit some of the effects of human activity, realising that if each of us does what they can in their own corner of the world that cumulatively this would have a huge impact for the better, hence the Carrifran Wildwood.

The couple and their friends worked hard to capture the imagination of the public and managed to raise the £350,000 needed to purchase the Carrifran 1,650 acre valley from the local farmer, who helped by reducing the asking price from the original £1m. Research was conducted into the biodiversity of similar areas and using archaeological finds to ensure that just the right form of trees and plants would be planted for this ambitious rewilding endeavour, so as to optimise the ecosystem for the native fauna. The group organised volunteers to collect thousands of seeds locally to avoid the risks, as highlighted by previous “Tree Hero”, Oliver Rackham, of bringing with them disease on imported trees; growing from local seed in the area in which trees are to grow also makes them much stronger and allows for closer symbiosis with other species, as well as saving costs. These seeds were grown on in local nurseries, which provided employment locally, and then the saplings were planted into the newly fenced-off valley. Where there had been just a few hundred trees there are now nearly a million, spanning 30 native species and nearly 100,000 indigenous shrubs which have also been planted and which, like the trees, are now spreading and reproducing naturally. Every stage of this project – which already include an explosion in the biodiversity of different species, has been recorded and documented which means that this can be used as a guide for all future similar rewilding projects. The success of this project has led to the Ashmoles’ charity rewilding other sites too, totalling almost 10,000 acres, and Philip Ashmole, now aged 86, is positive about the future with its potential to restore much of the flora and fauna that has been lost – eventually even up to the larger mammals. This project led to the foundation of the environmental charity, the Borders Forest Trust, and has seen both Philip and Myrtle be awarded the RSPB Lifetime Achievement Award for their work in ornithological research and improvements to the ecosystems for birds.

Key to the success of such projects is the equal partnership between landowners and farmers and conservationists and engagement with local communities, keeping all parties included in all levels of discussions and ensuring they all feel they have a shared ownership and responsibility for the success of the initiative, whilst understanding the particular concerns and roles each plays in the rural environment.

Today’s Word(s): “sericulture” – the cultivation of silkworms to produce silk, or silk-farming which dates back to the Neolithic period in China (where there are even accounts from as far back as 2967 BC of the Empress Si-ling) and still today, along with India, accounts for over 60% of all global silk production. The Japanese Minka House at Kew gives one an excellent impression of the traditional practises:

Today’s Tree: Mulberry (Morus nigra)

A Mulberry Tree

Whilst not a native tree of the British Isles, the Mulberry has been here certainly as far back as the Romans, who liked to take plants familiar to them to grow in the places in which they went on to reside to remind them of home (like the English growing roses in Africa and India) but also to have readily available to them the fruits (plums, peaches, pears, grapes, apples, cherries, walnuts…), vegetables (cabbages, parsnips, peas, celery, onions, leeks, cucumbers, radishes…) sometimes even the animals (fallow deer, hares, guinea fowl, roman snails, peacocks, pheasants…) they needed for their diet or for their comfort (such as the domestic cat). They also brought with them ornamental plants such as violets, pansies, poppies, lilies and the stinging nettle – thanks Romans! Whilst some of these species prospered in their new terrain unsupported, the stingers and deer especially, many struggled following the fall of Rome and the centuries of chaos that followed which led to little sustained stewardship of pretty much anything in the Isles because of invasions from Europe, plagues and civil wars so many of the trees, such as the Mulberry but also others including Medlars, Quinces, Italian Cyprus, Sweet Bay and the Oriental Plane, which required more tending, all but died out save a few rare examples until their re-introduction, after the Dark Ages and early medieval period, when the Tudors established a lasting peace in the Kingdom and relative stability from that time gave rise to sustained gardening once again.

One prime example of an early survivor, local accounts dating it back to Saxon times if not earlier, is the Mulberry which still grows from the original rootstock in the gardens of Chillenden Chambers here in the Precincts and upon which the knights that came to argue with and then kill Thomas Becket in 1170 tethered their horses and hung their armour. As is typical with this species, in a not dissimilar way with many willows, the trunks get too heavy for them to support themselves and they then start to lean, some becoming positively slumberous, and can snap in strong gales (as happened to the main trunk of this ancient tree in the Great Storm of ’87, when 15 million trees were lost across the county), for it only to grow up again from the roots. At the time, fearing the fallen tree would not survive, cuttings were taken and these cuttings have themselves grown into impressive trees around the Precincts with three in the Deanery gardens, though sadly one was cut down recently in the Memorial gardens.

Originally coming from South-western Asia and the Iberian Peninsula, where it has been cultivated for so long that it is impossible to get a true understanding of whether it was truly native there, the late-leafing tree forms a majestic medium-sized dome of large nettle-shaped leaves of a fresh bright green which are hairy beneath in the black form (the white mulberry is smooth). This is not the only difference between the two forms, the latter being a much smaller and much shorter-lived tree with white berries instead of the large purple berries of the Morus nigra but also one holds commercial viability through its leaves and one does not. Not entirely unwisely, James I sought to avoid paying the high costs for silk that were exacted by the Chinese, who held most of the international market at the time, by creating his own domestic market – an early form of “Buying British”. He researched the growing techniques and found the right plot of land and employed specialists and then set to planting his 10,000 trees in this one garden alone – encouraging many landowners to plant the species also. The British silk boom had started well but unfortunately no one had realised that the silkworms, who eat the leaves and then weave their cocoons out of silk, only eat one form of Mulberry and that this was the White Mulberry, Morus alba, and not the one which had been so extensively planted which, aside from giving very nice (though also VERY messy fruit) and an attractive tree to look at, did not provide silk. Since that time others have tried with mixed levels of success and you might like to read the story of Lady Hart-Dyke’s attempts at the wonderful Lullingstone Castle to find out more (she provided the English silk for the Queen’s wedding dress) – and to explore the superb wealth of other treasures at this most special place not far from Canterbury . (If there then do make sure to visit the Alexanders’ wonderful lavender farm next door also, the largest in the country and a real show in Summer and wonderful shop year-round: . The remains of James I’s attempts can still be seen in part and there are wonderful routed walks which take you though that part of London, including to the National Mulberry collection in St. James’ Park, available through the Museum of Walking, .

A highly attractive plant and one which is reasonably easy to contain, though frequent cutting is thought to shorten the ultimate life of the trees, many forms have been created including a weeping one, often using a smaller-leaved alba form onto a grafted trunk. The fruit forms from small catkins and in the case of the black form make wonderful jams and sauces with their pleasant acid-sugary flavour and this has been used for centuries to form a syrup which is effective against bad throats and coughs. The Greeks believed that the white fruit had turned to red because of the blood of Pyramus and Thisbe (the pre-cursor to Romeo and Juliet), who died in the shade of a Mulberry and so the tree took on associations of misfortune in love. The Romans attached it to themes of wisdom and it was seen as being a tree of Minerva. Pliny, perhaps ironically, attested that the Mulberry is the last tree to grow its leaves after all chances of cold weather were past so that it must certainly be a very wise tree.   This is true in the Deanery gardens but the tree does hang on to its leaves very late into the season and often right up to Christmas if the weather has been kind, looking positively exotic in the otherwise fairly bare English Winter garden! A tradition going back to the time of the Romans, who loved these fruits at banquets, that the berries should be picked just before sunset for the best flavour, allowing the fruit to absorb as much sun as possible through the day. During medieval times the juice was often added to cider and the berries make a nice addition to the bottom of a champagne flute instead of an hibiscus flower.

The medicinal qualities of the tree caused it to be popular with the ancients but also Charlemagne listed it in his list of significant medicinal plants in 812 – fortunately many of the issues which the Mulberry is reputed to aid are not often suffered these days (and I will let you look up the maladies yourself!) but do try a syrup for the throat or eating the fruit to help with heartburn, which in France it has always been believed to help mitigate; a tea from its leaves is also reputed to bring down fevers and its juice is thought to have beneficial effects on the circulatory system and the heart. Because of its long history of health-uses, many of the traditional beliefs centre on the tree’s ability to restore balance and harmony, its post-frost leafing attaches it to patience, its rapid-leafing to expediency and wisdom. The tree has always been popular and John Milton planted trees at Cambridge which still prosper and Shakespeare “borrowed” a tree from the gardens of James I and planted it at Stratford. In Chinese tradition the sun was a three-legged Sun Bird which resided at the top of the Mulberry tree and so the species has always been seen as the connection between earth and heaven. It is also the symbol of the archer as legend tells how the Emperor Huangdi was chased by a tiger into a Mulberry where he made the first bow from its branches to defeat the ravenous beast. In Japan, where the tree is also native and equally-revered, families have often included it within their crests and Mulberry paper is often used as vessels for offerings in Shinto shrines. Due to the wealth of properties the species provides of itself, both cultures see it as representing support, nurturing and self-sacrifice.

Today’s Poem: “The Mulberry Tree”, by James Whitcomb Riley

It’s many’s the scenes which is dear to my mind
As I think of my childhood so long left behind;
The home of my birth, with it’s old puncheon-floor,
And the bright morning-glories that growed round the door;
The warped clab-board roof whare the rain it run off
Into streams of sweet dreams as I laid in the loft,
Countin’ all of the joys that was dearest to me,
And a-thinkin’ the most of the mulberry tree.

And to-day as I dream, with both eyes wide-awake,
I can see the old tree, and its limbs as they shake,
And the long purple berries that rained on the ground
Whare the pastur’ was bald whare we trommpt it around.
And again, peekin’ up through the thick leafy shade,
I can see the glad smiles of the friends when I strayed
With my little bare feet from my own mother’s knee
To foller them off to the mulberry tree.

Leanin’ up in the forks, I can see the old rail,
And the boy climbin’ up it, claw, tooth, and toe-nail,
And in fancy can hear, as he spits on his hands,
The ring of his laugh and the rip of his pants.
But that rail led to glory, as certin and shore
As I’ll never climb thare by that rout’ any more–
What was all the green lauruls of Fame unto me,
With my brows in the boughs of the mulberry tree!

Then it’s who can fergit the old mulberry tree
That he knowed in the days when his thoughts was as free
As the flutterin’ wings of the birds that flew out
Of the tall wavin’ tops as the boys come about?
O, a crowd of my memories, laughin’ and gay,
Is a-climbin’ the fence of that pastur’ to-day,
And, a-pantin’ with joy, as us boys ust to be,
They go racin’ acrost fer the mulberry tree.

Sunday 13 December 2020

Today’s Tree Heroes: Edwin and Harold Hillier – Whilst it is impossible for anyone with even the slightest interest in gardening to not have come across the Hillier name, either through the many garden centres, the libraries of books they have produced on all matters horticultural and arbicultural (the veritable bibles of the growing world for all novices and jedi alike), their plant and vegetable seeds, many plant introductions through their breeding or otherwise, perhaps two of the more prominent members of this most important of family firms may not be quite so well known, nor the enormous part that each of them has played in different ways in connecting people with plants and gardens but also, as the UK’s largest supplier, with trees – which are all grown within Britain.

Edwin Hillier was born into a poor labouring family but when he was still quite young his father took the courageous step to leave all that he had known to become a servant to the Rector of Kimpton which meant not only a move to a comfortable cottage on the estate but also a regular salary and some stability for the family. Showing an interest in the natural world and great promise for turning his hand to a variety of things, the young Edwin started working as a gardener and learnt his craft in various gardens until in 1864, when the opportunity came to purchase a shop in Winchester and two acres of land and he saw the possibilities posed by growing and selling produce and plants to the expanding population who did not have land upon which to grow their own, the business acumen in Edwin started to show and within two years he had acquired two new pieces of land and a larger store. Not long after this the store was expanded again to yet larger premises. The store and nursery provided flowers, plants and he grew stove fruits which the local larger houses did not grow themselves but were eager to buy as too his burgeoning company’s provision of gardening and landscaping services. Two further land acquisitions in Winchester allowed for much more growing and developing of his own plants and trees and also the site of what would become the first garden centre. It was his interest and success in breeding that would pave the way for so many of the garden favourites the world over today. By the 1920s the company was being run by his two sons whilst he developed his passion for new plant creation, passing much of this knowledge onto his grandson, Harold, who was now working for the family firm also. Harold would later recall how long and arduous these days were, but giving great thanks for the training they gave him.

Between the war years the company continued to expand and earned a reputation for excellent service, consummate knowledge and professionalism and excellent quality plants – which by now had diversified and also included a wide range of ericaceous plants, following the gift from the Rothschilds (clients and friends) of rhododendrons from their travels which led to the Hilliers purchasing a plot with acid soils so as to grow on more specialised plants. The firm was already the largest producer of trees for the home market and for the colonies, which had been grown on in their nurseries. In fact so famous was the firm becoming that leading members of the royal family would turn up with little warning and the firm carries the royal warrant still today of HM the Queen. The trees in the expansive growing nurseries were up to heights of 40 metres by the time of the second war and the family gave the nursery over as shelter for the troops and aircraft hangars from bombing raids and also invented “mobile hedges” which could be moved around to disguise and cover up any military hardware such as aircraft that the forces wanted to keep hidden from spy planes. After the war with the Festival of Britain and other such national exhibitions, the firm was employed to landscape these areas and created the ultimate wow factor with their ability to move veritable full-grown trees into the new locations and form instant mature landscapes, something which had never been seen before on this scale.

Harold Hillier was by this time in the driving seat and, as with the rapid expansion of the middle classes and Victorian suburbs that his grandfather had been so clever to find ways of serving, was in a time of equal social change with the years of austerity and downsizing taking their toll but also the building of so many new homes for the baby boomers through the 50s and 60s, who had very little understanding of horticulture and relatively small space in which to plant. Harold was quick to identify these and as with his grandfather, whilst the commercial possibilities were not lost on him either, he wanted as many people as possible to be engaged with the possibilities of gardening and being outside. Creating manuals and detailed seed catalogues as well as starting to publish books on the characteristics of different species and making them standardised and specific to the core details that a novice gardener would want to know, he started providing by mail order seeds and bulbs and plants for a whole generation of post-war Britain. The following two decades saw a staggering growth in the company in all directions, opening a nationwide chain of high quality garden centres, expanding its tree and shrub breeding and propagation and many other services, often being at the cutting edge and creating new methods and techniques in horticulture and arbiculture and always offering advice and learning to clients, communities and governments alike and being at the forefront of tackling diseases and pathogens affecting trees and plants but always remembering their loyal customers and never compromising on their principles.

Though his personal love and knowledge of all plants was considerable, like his grandfather, Sir Harold’s real passion was for trees and the company by now was the go-to for anyone that wanted information and advice on any species or who wanted the healthiest specimens for planting (still the same today). He moved his family to a new home near Romsey and he and wife Barbara set to creating their arboretum where he could observe and study – but also enjoy – the different species in a more naturalistic setting. These would go on to become the iconic Sir Harold Hiller Gardens which, like Kew, serve a vital role in the research and protection of our trees, both native and otherwise, as well as many other plants and species which depend upon them. The royal connection continues under the Patronage of HRH the Duchess of Cornwall and the gardens were gifted by Sir Harold to Hampshire County Council. Sir Harold was knighted for his services to conservation and horticulture and charity. His lifetime of work in these areas also saw him serve as Honorary Fellow and Vice-President of the RHS, Fellow of the Linnean Society and be awarded a wealth of the highest accolades in the plant world including the Victoria Medal of Honour and the Veitch Memorial Medal. Sir Harold died in 1985 leaving a family run firm which still prospers and a huge legacy in the natural environment and generations of people who have been encouraged to try gardening and then had their hands held through their hobbies or careers by the efforts and vision of this wonderful man, who never forgot the lessons taught him by his grandfather. At his memorial service Lord Aberconway, the President of the RHS, quoted the words on Sir Christopher Wren’s tomb in St. Paul’s, “If you seek his memorial, look around you”.

Today’s Word(s): “siliqua” – Latin for “pod”, this is where the Cercis siliquastrum derives its name (as with all trees and shrubs with this name), from the pods which the tree produces to form and then distribute its seeds for reproduction.

Today’s Tree: The Judas Tree (Cercis siliquastrum)

The Judas Tree

As with yesterday’s Mulberry, the Judas Tree is not a native species to the British Isles but rather an introduction from South East Europe and Western Asia, probably during the expansion of the horticultural horizons of the C.16th, when the royal court started to lay out gardens on a large and ground-breaking scale and wanted new varieties of plants with which to achieve this, which was made easier by the Tudors undertaking an expansionist and exploratory policy for trade and discovery, each of them fascinated by cultures and traditions and hungry for knowledge.

The Cercis must have held for these devout monarchs a particular fascination for, since earliest times, legend has told of the species having once had a proud upright nature and splendid white blooms which stood erect but, shamed by the fact that Judas Iscariot chose it for his death from its branches, its flowers turned pink, stained with his treacherous blood, and it carried a stooped and slightly crooked demeanour forever more. In fact, though one can never know, it is now believed that the reference to Judas in its name is actually a misnomer from the fact that the French call it Arbre de Judée, which instead of meaning “of Judas” means “from Judea”. Certainly there is evidence to show that the tree used to be extremely common in the region until modern times and there is an account of there having been a veritable forest of them flowering in Istanbul at the turn of the last century; sadly many of these expanses of the tree have been lost to urban expansion.

An odd tradition states, probably arising from the connection with Judas, that the tree is so poisonous and toxic with a form of opioid that even bees fall down dead when they succumb to temptation and drink of its nectar. This is in no way accurate. In fact the hummingbird-shaped flowers are a very pleasant addition to salads, so too are the young pods and the roasted seeds can also be eaten and the flower buds can be pickled and eaten as a condiment, all these arising from the fact that the tree is in the pea family. Young twigs can be used to season game (which earns it the name the Spicewood Tree in the Appalachians). All seven of the varieties, which include the Redbud in North America, despite its negative associations and incorrect nomenclature, are hugely popular as decorative trees (coming in all shades of pink, from deepest purple to white) and still are as much of a novelty as they were in the middle ages as their bright flowers appear all over the tree but instead of growing as one might expect, off of twigs at the end of branches, they grow actually out of the trunks and branches which makes quite a show and this attraction continues as the blooms set and form into the pods which then stay on the tree changing colour through to late winter. Their ability to grow in any soil, from acid to strongly alkaline, and in sun or part shade make it a useful tree too especially as they will tolerate growing in dry or moist soils and can tolerate drought, though they prefer free-draining soils.

Aside from their high aesthetic value, helped by the range of colours the pretty, almost circular leaves go through from pale green in spring to a rich golden yellow in the Fall, the species has traditionally been useful medicinally with the taking of a highly astringent tea from its bark for treatment of fevers and to restore balance of the digestive system – either as a purge or the opposite – and a cold infusion from the roots and inner bark was used to treat whooping cough and congestion. Traditionally tribes in America would have used parts of the tree as a folk remedy for leukaemia, which is interesting since now tests are currently underway to establish how its antimicrobial and antioxidant traits manage to inhibit the growth of breast cancer cells. In China the bark has long been used as an antiseptic and the roots for a dye. The wood has an unusual and attractive graining and is highly attractive when polished and so is popular for turning and carving and for veneer.

The species also has an interesting symbiosis with various types of soil bacteria, Diazotrophs, which attach themselves to the roots of the tree and allow the tree to break down the complicated nitrates, nitrogen dioxide and ammonia from the air which, though 78% of the earth’s atmosphere consists of these gases and they support all life, they are not normally accessible to plants in gaseous form so plants typically have to draw what they can from the soil. However, with the soils increasingly depleted of these through bad land management dating back millennia the only way man has found to restore these (as in horticulture and agriculture) is by surface treatment of crude fertilisers and feeds, which go on to have sometimes devastating consequences on other species, water courses and animals. The Judas Trees, along with other NFTs (or Nitrogen Fixing Trees) trap the gases above the ground and then convert them into a usable form (usually ammonia) and release this into the soil through the Diazotrophic relationship and this is then useable to all plants as they are able to absorb it through their roots to get their vital feed. This not only effectively purifies the air but also puts essential feed back into the soils – where it rejoins the carbon cycle in a contained and usable fashion instead of the previous harmful one, the plants absorbing the chemicals through their roots which then feed the plants and these then grow, transferring the chemicals into their trunks and leaves and when these are then shed they then decompose back into the soil to be reabsorbed again and again over time. The trouble happens when too much of the matter is burnt and the burning process converts the chemicals into a gas, a small amount of which is fine but with practices such as the burning of the rainforests or the increased rate of wild fires too much of this gas is being released in a too short a time for the natural processes to trap the minerals, which are then lost to the soil resulting in it becoming less and less able to support life. It is not yet fully understood how this relationship came about between bacteria and particular trees, but the Judas Trees dating back to the Eocine (up to 56million years ago) has given it plenty of time to make friends of all sorts.

Today’s Poem: “The Ballard of the Judas Tree”, by Ruth Etchells

In Hell there grew a Judas Tree
Where Judas hanged and died
Because he could not bear to see
His master crucified
Our Lord descended into Hell
And found his Judas there
For ever hanging on the tree
Grown from his own despair
So Jesus cut his Judas down
And took him in his arms
“It was for this I came” he said
“And not to do you harm
My Father gave me twelve good men
And all of them I kept
Though one betrayed and one denied
Some fled and others slept
In three days’ time I must return
To make the others glad
But first I had to come to Hell
And share the death you had
My tree will grow in place of yours
Its roots lie here as well
There is no final victory
Without this soul from Hell”
So when we all condemned him
As of every traitor worst
Remember that of all his men
Our Lord forgave him first.

Monday 14 December 2020

Today’s Tree Hero: Anders Sparmann – When considering who to write about today it seemed fitting to bring you the person who discovered today’s tree species, Anders Sparmann, who was born in Tensta, Uppland in Sweden in 1748 and was the son of a clergyman. By the age of nine he was enrolled at the University of Uppsala, an establishment prized for its research and the oldest university in Sweden, founded in 1477 which carries the motto, “Gratiae veritas naturae” – embrace natural sciences and at the time that Sparmann was there the seat of learning was in one of the great powerhouses of Europe and had benefitted not too long before by a huge financial gift from King Gustavius Adolphus which ensured that this Oxford of the North would continue to prosper. A tradition of students in Sweden wearing a white cap comes from this fine seat of learning. Sparmann started his studies at the age of 14, when the esteemed botanist, zoologist and physician, Carl Linnaeus, was teaching there and Sparmann soon became one of his most outstanding pupils. It was Linnaeus who standardised the two name naming system that we all still use today for plants and animals – for example Homo sapien or Sparrmannia africana.

By the age of 17 Sparmann, graduated from university, joined a two year trip to China as ship’s surgeon and immediately relished the opportunity to use the training he had gained from the esteemed Linnaeus as he explored and noted all the plants and animals. It was at this time he first met the explorer Carl Ekeberg, who would become an important friend and sponsor to Sparmann. He enjoyed travelling and exploring so much that he then soon after travelled to South Africa in 1772. At this time of almost all European nations expanding around the world, driven by a need for resources and for new crops such as sugar and tea as well as spices and silks from the orient, and requiring fuelling stations for the ships’ lengthy journeys to India, the Far East and Australia, South Africa was seen principally for its geographical ability to refuel the vessels and held no great fascination for most – not true of Sparmann who, upon the ship’s reaching land was so driven by a natural curiosity and a chance to put some of his considerable learning into practise, bravely ventured inland alone and started to engage with the tribes people he met; he is credited as being the first westerner to engage with the local communities and to communicate with them, documenting some of the knowledge they held of the local flora and fauna as well as taking careful notes of what he himself encountered and sending samples home. One of the plants he discovered and recorded on this early trip was today’s tree, hence it having been named after him.

His excitement and success of this time, supplemented by an income as tutor, spurred him on and he was still exploring the Cape when James Cook, on his second voyage, arrived and upon having been charmed by this eager and intelligent young man who shared all of his enthusiasm for exploration and knowledge and wanting to encourage him in his endeavours, allowed Sparmann to join his ship as Assistant Naturalist to Johann and George Forster and they then sailed to New Zealand, Polynesia, Easter Island, South America, the Arctic Circle and other locations before returning to the Cape 28 months later, during which time Sparmann collected much information and sent samples home, helping to form one of Sweden’s largest natural history collections. Upon returning back to the Cape Sparmann then continued exploring the coastal region, earning an income as a doctor, but also employed the frontiersman Daniel Ferdinand Immelman (who had just escorted botanist Carl Thunberg) as guide to take him on an extended trip inland. In 1776 a return to Sweden, where he had been awarded a doctorate in his absence for his findings and research, allowed him to write up much of his notes from his travels and give lectures and talks and collate his collections – whilst still studying, teaching and practicing medicine. He was elected a member of the Royal Academy of Sciences the following year and was soon the keeper of the Academy’s natural science collections and leading professor on the subject and that of pharmacology, publishing many important works including accounts of his travels with Captain Cook and the various discoveries he made during his extensive travels, many of which were new to science.

Today’s Word(s): “haptonasty” – the process by which a flower’s stamens have the ability to move so as to have greater exposure to the pollinating insect.

Today’s Tree: African Lime (Sparrmannia africana)

The African Lime

The fast-growing evergreen Sparrmannia from the open woodlands of the Eastern and Western Capes of South Africa has many names in its native lands including Cape Stockrose, Cape Hollyhock, African Hemp (it is not related to cannabis but was once used to make an inferior fiber) and African Lime or African Linden (it is related to Lime / Linden) in English and Kaapse Stokroos and Wilde Stokroos in Afrikaans. It is described as hardy in native lands but would struggle with a less than very mild winter in the UK, even in a protected place, though trials are under way in the Deanery garden, where cuttings that have been taken from the stockplant in the greenhouse will be planted out in the main herbaceous border this Spring to be a striking addition to some of the other more tropical plants, such as the purple sugar cane, eucalyptus, euphorbia mellifera, cannas and gingers, and some of these trial plants will be left in the beds at the end of the year to see if it is possible to wrap them to protect against frost – as we already do successfully with the bananas that also grow in that bed, making an impressive show in front of the C.11th walls. The species has a dense habit of large (over 10 inches), hairy, heart-shaped or lobed leaves which are an attractive bright green and they have a long flowering season from August until October of large clusters of beautiful white flowers, though we find the plant in the greenhouse tends to flower on and off all year, maybe because of the heat. Despite its classification in the UK as a greenhouse / conservatory plant it has been given a RHS Award for Garden Merit. The flowers are pretty but the most striking thing about them is the long very pronounced bright yellow stamens which move when a pollinator lands on the sweetly-scented flower in order to improve their exposure to the visitor and these also have the ability to rotate, like the bee’s very own Lazy Susan, through the process known as haptonasty.

The stems are extremely fibrous which has seen them used traditionally for rope-making and they root extremely easily, just sticking a section of the stem or trunk into the ground will see them take root and start to grow – we have even found them growing from cut leaves and stems in the compost bins! The rate of growth is impressive and can see the plant put on over six feet in one growing season. As a member of the Mallow family it is very accommodating to different light and heat conditions (within reason) which allowed it to be a very popular houseplant for centuries when it was taken back to Sweden by the explorer Anders Sparmann, who was the first European to discover it during his travels with James Cook in 1776. There is a lot of contradiction over how much light the species needs to prosper. It grows on woodland edges in native South Africa which has led to some thinking it ought to be in full sun when grown here and some in part shade. Where we have it in the greenhouse it happens to be under a section which is covered by an open reed screen as below the tree we keep the orchids but even where the tree spreads out beyond this in summer months the only detriment seems to be a little bleaching of the leaf – but this is in the extreme case of being under glass, and even then we do not get any scorching, but the trials this coming season will allow us to test different locations to see how the plant responds.

Today’s Poem: “Homeland”, by Michelle Frost

Note: Sadly I was unable to locate a poem on the Sparrmannia and had not time to write one but I thought this poem was really powerful in capturing the essence of our tree’s homeland as it grows here, thousands of miles away from its home, as the poem explores the essence of what is “home” to each one of us, especially the pain of, for whatever reason, not being able to be there – especially as we come to the end of Advent and look towards the twelve days of Christmas which starts next Thursday evening with so many being prevented from being at home this year. We think also of so many dear friends who are not able to be in their homeland more permanently.

Within my soul, within my mind,
There lies a place I cannot find.
Home of my heart. Land of my birth.
Smoke-coloured stone and
Flame-coloured earth.
Electric skies. Shivering heat.
Blood-red clay beneath my feet.

At night when finally alone,
I close my eyes – and I am home.
I kneel and touch the blood-warm sand
And feel the pulse beneath my hand
Of an ancient life too old to name,
In an ancient land too wild to tame.

How can I show you what I feel?
How can I make this essence real?
I search for words in dumb frustration
To try and form some explanation,
But how can heart and soul be caught
In one dimensional written thought?

If love and longing are a “Fire”
And man consumed by his desire,
Then this love is no simple flame
That mortal thought can hold or tame.
As deep within the Earth’s own core
The love of home burns evermore.

But what is home? I hear them say,
This never was yours anyway.
You have no birthright to this place,
Descendant from another race.
An immigrant? A pioneer?
You are no longer welcome here!

Whoever said that love made sense?
“I love” is an imperfect tense.
To love in vain has been Man’s fate
From history to present date.
I have no grounds for dispensation,
I know I have no home or nation.

For just one moment in the night
I am complete, my soul takes flight.
For just one moment… then it’s gone
And I am once again undone.
Never complete. Never whole.
White skin and an African soul.

Tuesday 15 December 2020

Today’s Tree Hero: Beatrix Farrand – Born into a wealthy and well-connected family in New York City in 1872, Beatrix’s mother was Mary Cadwalader Rawle, renowned beauty and socialite and successful author, and her paternal aunt was Edith Wharton. Coming from a family of pioneering and independent-minded women was formative in the young Beatrix’s being as too was a love of nature and of gardens and it was the combination of these three things mixed with her determination and keen mind that would go on to shape the whole of Beatrix’s life. The mere facts that there was no course to study landscape gardening, or indeed really gardening at all, at that time and that, as a woman, no formal training or career would commonly be open to her and that as a young lady from a good family she was supposed only to think of training herself to be a good wife and run the home would not get in the way of this young woman’s determination and aspirations.

With no formal options available to her whereby she might learn her desired trade she instead moved into the home of botanist Charles Sprague Sargent, someone she had met and gotten to know through an introduction when she was just 20 and who by this stage was regarded as one of the greats amongst the horticultural world, being both a professor of the subject at Harvard and founding director of the beautiful Arnold Arboretum in Boston. He was impressed by her determination and intelligence and observational skills – one such example being her identifying an indigenous species of Hawthorn which he named in her honour. During her time studying with him he taught her not only the principles of landscaping but also a thorough understanding of botany and also of the basics of surveying which gave her a taste for more so she enrolled herself at the Columbia School of Mines where she learnt elevation rendering, engineering, obtained a fine knowledge of surveying and also became an accomplished draftswoman. This training was then augmented with her studies in England with William Robinson and Gertrude Jekyll and her extensive reading but also with deeper studies, which she had been undertaking since she was little, at her beloved family home in Maine, the Reef Point Estate on Mount Desert Island. Her time with these most eminent of horticulturalists and her own personal studies led her to favouring the use of naturalistic planting schemes with heavy reliance upon native species, from the largest trees to the smallest flowers and this preference would show out in many of her later works.

Farrand started her work originally from the upper floor of one of her mother’s properties in downtown Manhattan in 1895 and at this time it was still illegal for women to be involved in public works and so she sought out clients with private gardens, initially for the smaller gardens of the family’s neighbours, which afforded her the opportunity to gain practical knowledge and perfect her craft and to gain confidence in her abilities. However, with her mother and aunt’s boasting of their young relative’s abilities to their friends, it was not long before the young Farrand found herself being sought out by the highest levels of society in the US – so successful was she that within only three years she was the only woman founder of the American Society of Landscape Architects, though she always preferred the term that she had learnt in England, Landscape Gardeners – which rooted her and her profession in nature and plants rather than the office and construction.

Significant projects also started on public works, the attitude to women working in this profession having been blown away, in no mean part because of this pioneering woman’s hard work and abilities, and she was soon employed to design the landscaping around the vast new National Cathedral, overlooking Washington; the beautiful gardens of Bellefield, neighbouring the Vanderbilts’ estate at Hyde Park, overlooking the Hudson, which she did with the iconic architects McKim, Mead and White. This firm was responsible for many of the most important buildings in New York and around the country including the old Pennsylvania Station (which was tragically demolished to make way for Maddison Square Gardens during a low point in American preservation and style), the Brooklyn Museum, the Morgan, Columbia University, many of the clubs including the Colony, the Met and the University Club – which is as beautiful a building as can be found in the City with the most stunning interiors (and serves the best Sunday brunch!); outside of the city projects included the elegant Hyde Park and the impressive Rhode island Capitol building – which has the fourth largest dome in the world after St. Peter’s, the Capitol in DC and St. Paul’s. This partnership was exciting and inspiring and ultimately hugely successful for each party who both benefited from associations with the other both reputationally and professionally. Further commissions for Farrand would include one for the Wilsons in the White House; for J Pierpoint Morgan at his new library, where she would remain consultant for a further thirty years. Connections to the Rockefellers were also substantial and not only did she assist with many of the private gardens at various homes, such as the Abby Aldrich Rockefeller Garden, but would also design the Peggy Rockefeller Rose Garden for the New York Botanical Gardens. She also designed the campus for Princeton where she is still revered and her vision for the campus – which she turned from an open field into a sylvan paradise with planting which perfectly accentuated and enhanced the Gothic built architecture, the two working in perfect balance – as all architecture and gardens should – is still strictly adhered to, though she did have many run-ins with architect Ralph Cram who, as with so many architects even today, had a pompous and self-important attitude towards the vital relationship between horticulture and architecture based in ignorance and arrogance, however, as with so many other plant lovers through time, none of his interference would ultimately be allowed to put her – or her clients – off. The nursery she created to grow the trees and plants for the campus and maintain them is still thriving.

Some of her most impressive gardens though are the stunning ones at Dumbarton Oaks in Georgetown (which are some of our favourites anywhere) where her ability to create different moods and temperaments which keep perfect track of the seasons whilst utilising the natural topography of the grounds which sit on the edge of the creek and at once creating a feeling of intimacy but also of vast expanses in a not huge area in the work of pure genius. Blending techniques to those of Gertrude Jekyll with her knowledge of classical garden styles Farrand was able to facilitate a whole range of rooms which could be used for the various requirements of the owners of the house (Mildred and Robert Woods Bliss), diplomats of the highest level who would regularly use the house for entertaining the great and the good of the US as well as foreign dignitaries (it was in Dumbarton Oaks that the pre-cursor to the United Nations was drawn up). Still today the gardens provide a dramatic setting for the mansion as well as an escape from the surrounding neighbourhood. Central to many of Farrand’s designs, as with so many of her forebears, was the use of trees. Utilising some trees that were already in the landscape to give distance and a perception of more space; retaining some within the space to give the gardens heritage and architectural features to harmonise or contrast with new introductions and to plant new specimens to do similar tasks as well as to introduce specific interest through individual species. Trees are used to mark the punctuation marks on the stately front lawns; to give shade for relaxing under; for the points of interest to encounter or to head towards or even which lead one through the gardens; to screen and enclose with beautiful great walls of green or to produce different lights and shades – or none – for the benefit of different plantings. There are some which are strictly and meticulously maintained in the centre of the garden and some at the edges which appear to be allowed to grow wild as one heads towards the woods which give one a feeling of walking out towards the wilds or a “forgotten willow” which dangles down into a reflecting pool surrounded by a naturalistic amphitheatre beneath the formal terraces… not a single tree has been wasted and not one is accidental and each, either individually or cumulatively is a masterpiece and sign of Farrand’s brilliance. Certain species have been included which speak of personal connections of the clients and some which connect the important political house to the natural flora of the nation as it looks out over the forests. This, above a creek which runs into the Potomac and not too far from the great river and adjacent forests themselves, connects to the Founding Fathers and she cleverly takes this further with her inclusion of the kitchen gardens. These had a practical use so as to provide the diners with home grown produce but also the designs have echoes of not only the French heritage of the clients’ past postings but also of her own time in Surrey and Sussex whilst having undertones of not dissimilar gardens of significant heritage value for the States at Mt Vernon and Monticello where each President used their kitchen gardens (and wider farming estates) as inspiration for how they wanted to create their new country. It is nice to imagine too that this gave her the chance to connect with memories of her much-loved grandmother, herself a keen gardener, who had the first espaliered fruit garden in Rhode Island. Certainly the beauty and elegance of what Farrand created in Dumbarton Oaks, this most important of houses, was not only a fitting showpiece to go with the architecture, art, porcelain and library of the home (as well as also being a wonderful family garden with all that an extensive family would require), but one which would mould the minds of visitors as they sought to create a better humanity for the world as a whole, drawing on all that was American with its roots in both France and England.

Today’s Word: “petioles” – sometimes called stipules, these are the stalks which connect the leaf blade to the stem and which turn the leaves to face the sun. The arrangement and appearance of each these is species-specific which helps give each their own character; in the case of the Wild Cherry they are bright red.

Today’s Tree: Wild Cherry (Prunus avium)

Wild Cherry trees

An indigenous tree, and one of three species of prunus in the country, two of which are cherries – the other being Prunus padus, or the Bird Cherry, and the third being the Blackthorn (Prunus spinosa). There is much misinformation and confusion attached to this lovely tree in that for centuries it was believed to be just a cultivar and thus a variety of another cultivated form of cherry (even Linnaeus believed this) or that it only came to these islands in recent centuries but archaeological evidence dating stones from these trees back to times long before the Iron Age now prove that these trees are in fact a species in their own right and indigenous to Britain. This lack of understanding may have led to one of the other puzzling issues, which still results in a degree of confusion today – the nomenclature of the two cherries: Prunus avium, despite meaning Bird Cherry in Latin, is actually the Wild Cherry and the Bird Cherry is Prunus padus. Perhaps this arises from some confusion over the two at the same time as the issues of origin were being discussed? Both are indigenous, in case you were wondering!

The Wild Cherry, unlike the Bird Cherry, is widely distributed through the country and through Europe and into Asia, though not so frequently in the Southern countries and hardly at all in the far North, though southern parts of Scandinavia do have some. As they grow in all soil types this would seem to indicate that, though fully hardy, they do prefer a warm but not too hot climate. Some fruiting trees, such as apples, do also require cold in winters in order to stimulate the flowering and fruit so this may be why they tend not to grow too far into the Iberian Peninsular.

Without a doubt the most attractive of the indigenous trees, the white to palest pink, with a deeper pink hearted blossom appears in Spring and covers the tree with such opulence that they make a real show. As the blossoms start to fall then these are replaced by the vivid green leaves which cover the developing cherries until they ripen and turn a vivid red – though the birds tend to watch these and know just when to take them which, in early to mid Summer in the UK tends to be from about 3.30am so by the time one has come down to gather them they have usually been cleared by a flock of every bird in the garden – which does make quite a show! The verdant tree then continues in relative peace through the season until it starts to put on a spectacular show of orange and deep crimson in the Autumn before falling to leave a beautiful structural tree through the Winter. This is a great tree for any garden throughout the year. The species is also a great tree for wildlife as the flower pollen feeds pollinators; the cherries are a favourite of all sorts of birds, large and small, as well as mammals including badgers, yellow-necked mice and dormice and the foliage is an important food source for many insects, including many varieties of moth larvae. It is also an attractive tree to many birds to nest in, not least the robin.

These are strong trees and ironically, for a tree species long-considered a simple cultivar itself, its rootstock is often used for many of the cultivated forms of cherry to give them strength – most of which in fact come from this species originally. The cherries are slightly on the sour side but they do make delicious pies and preserves and also a warming cherry brandy or kirsch. The resin from the tree (which does look like liquid amber) was thought to have strong curative properties for everything from coughs to eyesight and even used for cosmetic purposes and the wood, being highly attractive and of good strength has always been desired for making furniture and veneers and decorative items and when soaked in limewater takes on a fine red-coloured hue which is often used to make stringed instruments. The wood also gives off a very sweet odour in its smoke as it burns, similar to that of its flowers. Typically, unlike other tree species, the squirrel does not strip off the attractive bark but it is not known why not. It was long considered in Scotland (where the species is called Gean) to be an auspicious tree when met and to tell of one’s fate though also had connections to witches as was seen as being mysterious. The cherry was believed to be the secret to the immortality of the gods in earlier cultures and equally in Japan and China, where they believed the phoenix slept each night on a bed of cherry blossom which was what gave it its immortality; in Buddhist tradition it is associated with femininity and fertility. Sadly there was a suspicion that it harboured a pathogen that damaged wheat so for many years farmers removed the species for fear of harm to their crops but it has now been confirmed that the virus in question actually comes from neighbouring grasses and the cherries play no part in this and were wrongly accused.

Today’s Poem: “The Secret”, by Anon

We have a secret, just we three,
The robin, and I, and the sweet cherry-tree;
The bird told the tree and the tree told me,
And nobody knows it but just us three.

But of course the robin knows it best,
Because she built the – I shan’t tell the rest;
And laid the four little – something in it –
I’m afraid I shall tell it every minute.

But if the tree and the robin don’t peep,
I’ll try my best the secret to keep;
Though I know when the little birds fly about
Then the whole secret will be out.

Wednesday 16 December 2020

Today’s Tree Hero: Mary Somerset – As with our hero yesterday, Mary Capell was born into privilege and wealth with expectations of what her life would be being limited to that of an home-maker, mother and dutiful wife.  However, similarly free-spirited and independent-minded as a result of having been brought up by loving and empowering parents as well as turns in history would see her manage to achieve a staggering amount during her lifetime.

Born in 1630 on her parent’s large estate in Hertfordshire, Hadham Parva, her father was Sir Arthur Capell, 1st Baron Capell of Hadham and mother Elizabeth Morrison, and she was the second of seven children.  Portraits of the family which today hang in the National Gallery and the Metropolitan Museum and other national collections, show a happy and relaxed young beauty growing up in a loving family and these are uncharacteristic of the time as they are so naturalistic and relaxed and not at all like many of the contemporary portraits of more staid and formal characters.  Accounts correlate also to this having been the case, as they do to the capability and intelligence of the young Mary, immersed in the protective enclave of her family’s gardens and estates.  At the age of 18 Mary married her sweetheart, Henry Seymour, Lord Beauchamp, son of the Duke of Somerset, and they had two children and enjoyed a happy life until the horrors of the Civil War and then the dystopian years that followed would destroy all of that with the murders of not only her father but also her father-in-law and her husband by the roundheads and so many of their friends.  It was during this time that Mary showed her metal and strength of character when she was not only mistress but also master of the house and responsible for gathering militia to the cause as well as defending the house from attack and keeping the accounts, all of which she did bravely and well despite the constant threat to herself and to her young family.

The widowed Lady Beauchamp continued to run the estate and bring up her two children and then, before order had been restored to the country and those responsible for the tyranny were dealt with, she met and married her second husband Henry Somerset, who was a prominent Welsh politician who had been born into the wealthiest family in the Kingdom and grew up at Raglan Castle and had been promised the hand of Charles I’s youngest daughter before the war and murder of the King.  As a result of the loyalty of the family to the crown through the troubles, which included the destruction of their castle home and brave fighting with the loss of many friends and family members, the restored Charles II bestowed on the couple a dukedom at which point the new Mary Somerset, styled Lady Herbert because of her husband’s then title, became the Duchess of Beaufort.  Home now would become the extensive and very beautiful Badminton as well as Beaufort House in London, where she was renowned for being a fearsome employer who, though fair, would regularly take to inspecting works around the estates herself to ensure all were properly employed and nothing was wasted – doubtless a result of her time during the dark years.  She raised seven more children by the Duke and all of this whilst coping with times of “melancholia”, which she would escape from with her growing interest in plants.

Having now been responsible, albeit sometimes in part, for the several significant gardens of her family and her own homes, from the 1690s the Duchess showed her abilities at horticulture, soon becoming one of the most distinguished lady gardeners of her time.  Her voracious collecting ability and access to new seeds and plants from around the world, coupled with constructing one of the first greenhouses in the country, or “tropical stove” as they were then called, and then growing them on in what she called her “infirmary”, saw her collection grow into one of national significance.  At a time when women, regardless of wealth or standing, were barred from membership of any of the horticultural and academic institutions (and women working in gardens were only trusted to so some light weeding, and then only under the direction of men) it is notable that she was often contacted by the most distinguished and learned botanists and plantsmen of the day to ask for her advice or to be sent seeds newly arrived from the Americas or the Orient or Africa as she was most likely to be able to germinate them and have them grow.  One account from her friend and London neighbour, where they both lived next to and helped build up the Chelsea Physic Garden, Hans Sloane (long term President of the Royal Society), which gives an insight into the gardening world at that time as well as the abilities of Somerset:

“The plants themselves have been likewise brought over, planted, and throve very well at Moyra, in Ireland, by the direction of Sir Arthur Rawdon; as also by the order of the Right Reverend Dr. Henry Compton, Bishop of London, at Fulham; at Chelsea by Mr. Doudy; and Enfield by the Reverend Dr. Robert Uvedale; and the Botanic Gardens of Amsterdam, Leyden, Leipsick, Upsal, &c. but especially at Badminton in Gloucester-Shire, where they are not only rais’d some few handfuls high, but come to Perfection, flower and produce their ripe Fruits, even to my Admiration; and that, by the Direction of her Grace the Duchess of Beaufort, who at her leisure Hours, from her more serious Affairs, has taken pleasure to command the raising of Plants in her Garden.”

Alongside her considerable growing and collecting – which also saw her first identifying many species of plants to science and introductions to horticulture (including pelargoniums, ageratum); her keen eye for identification; ability for crossbreeding and early hybridisation (including the blue passionflower), Mary Somerset also was an avid supporter, both financial and with her abounding knowledge, of some very important new collections, such as the Physic Garden; of many of the gardeners and botanists of her day; and of ventures to collect more samples.  With enormous great fortune to scientists and researchers today, the Duchess was also an avid documenter of her plant collections and made extensive collections of pressed flowers and notes which enables a much more detailed knowledge of the horticultural world and of particular species of that time through her beautifully executed works.  At a time before Linnaeus would standardise nomenclature and centuries before Wallace and Darwin would show how each of these plants would be linked through evolution, she worked with the finest botanists of her day, such as William Sherard and James Petiver, to ensure she was arranging and documenting her observational findings in the most fitting ways. Unusually at the time, what set the Duchess apart from her contemporaries, few of whom seem to have been anywhere near as successful in their growing ability, was the fact that she was as hands on in the garden and being involved in the growing and care of the plants as she was at pressing the samples and noting her findings – often this would have been done by different individuals with the inevitable gaps of knowledge or misinterpretations.  What she collected she then grew and watched develop and then documented and then collected and then pressed and then catalogued – this was such a rare example of proper systematic scientific research at this time which make her findings all the more reliable and important.  These findings include, but are by no means limited to, a twelve volume herbarium of her pressings with notes which is now in the Natural History Museum; manuscripts of her flora, which she had the Dutch artists Kickius and Frankcom illustrate (which also shows the influence of the Dutch through the marriage of King William to Queen Mary – a reminder that these were still relatively politically difficult times in which the Duchess was achieving all of these accomplishments).  This collection ran to a two volume florilegium of 68 folios of her favourite exotic plants, historically important to show when the introduction to this country was of some of these species.  It is a slightly amusing irony that for a woman who was automatically barred from the coffeehouse groups and membership of societies and associations because of her gender, she let none of this get in her way as she carved out her own way to obtain knowledge and indulge her interests and become one of the most important horticulturists of her day that all the members of these associations would consult and rely upon – whilst also keeping and protecting her vast homes, raising nine children and caring for two husbands.

Today’s Word: “umbel” – a cluster of flowers which are individually stemmed to a main flower stem, often in a flat or slightly domed arrangement.  This includes many hedgerow perennials and annuals such as those of the parsley family, carrots, aniseed and Elder, in which case the flowers turn into the black berries.  These flowers are especially important for larger butterflies, such as the Swallowtails, which need a larger surface on which to land.

Today’s Tree: Elder (Sambucus nigra)

This slightly odd and unusual tree / large bush which is full of contradictions is so much a staple of our countryside and so well known and yet, whether it is growing by itself or as part of the woodland edge or hedgerow, it is rarely noticed apart from when it is covered in the flat clouds of highly-scented white flowers in May / June or in the large umbels / clusters of black berries which follow – until the birds have eaten them hungrily; mammals also love the berries and as a consequence Elders are often found near to badger sets and rabbit warrens.   The bark has a slightly unpleasant smell and a shrubby fissured appearance and is not very strong and contains a pithy inside (which is often used as a material to give stability and substance to small samples of other materials under a microscope by scientists).  It was always fun as a child to snap small twigs off the tree and easily remove the contents of the stick, whilst leaving the bark intact, to form a peashooter.  Tradition states that this was made into an old form of pipe, a little like the bag pipes, which were popular in ancient Greece.  This makes the fast growing trunks which grow from a short trunk, or “bole”, reasonably supple and yet once the main trunk gets to a certain age this wood is then one of the hardest of any indigenous species and can stand forgotten for years before it starts to deteriorate.  Typically the tree is quite densely foliaged with many of these upright branches being covered in attractive leaves which change to a variety of different colours in Autumn typically yellow but also cream, pinks or just fall whilst still green – possibly as a result of the soil conditions.

The tree has always been very useful to humans in providing dyes of different colours – black and grey from the bark, yellow and green from the leaves, blues and purples from its berries and these were used to make the Harris tweed; the tart berries, which are high in vitamins A and C, can be used in wine (which can also be served hot in winter in place of mulled wine), pies and crumbles, especially when mixed with sweeter apples, or in preserves or syrups with other hedgerow berries; the flowers to make a wonderful tea, cordial or champagne; the wood, when of sufficient grade, is an attractive yellow-white colour and used for carving and the smaller stems for craft items.  The species has several cultivars and is an attractive addition to the garden, bearing in mind that all parts of it are slightly toxic, so when preparing any parts for consuming these should always be cooked first.  Boughs of the Elder used to be hung by doors to dairies to keep insects out.  Medicinally it has had so many uses for so long that it was known as the medicine chest of the country people believing that it was capable of fixing almost any ailment.  Flowers in hot infusions for treating colds and coughs (decongestant abilities); fevers and flu (they stimulate the circulation system and cause one to sweat the illness out); measles and similar conditions (by fortifying the immune response and bringing out the rash for a more speedy recovery); as a treatment to hay fever and asthma (their relaxant abilities help relax the bronchospasms).  The diuretic properties of the berries help reduce fluid retention and remove toxins from the organs and the bark reduces the effects of rheumatism, gout and arthritis – countryfolk would often have carried a twig close to their skin to help with these conditions.  The elderflower tea made from flowers helps to relax and give good sleep and as a lotion can help soothe and heal cuts, wounds, burns, sunburn, ulcers and all manner of other skin-related issues; an eyewash can help conjunctivitis and a wash can be used to tone and condition the skin and prevent freckles – which it did by keeping pores open.

There are few trees which have quite so much folklore attached to them than the Elder, dating back to earliest times, again much of this being highly contradictory.  Some portray the Elder as being the protector and nurturer and overwhelmingly good whereas others are overwhelmingly negative.  In Serbia a twig of the tree was always taken into weddings to bless the marriage; in Scandinavia and Germany the elder dryad or mother lived in the tree and knew and watched all – and whose permission it was essential to obtain if one ever wished to cut the tree without being plagued by bad luck (“Hyldemoer, Hyldemoer permit me to cut thy branches”); in Britain it was thought to protect from lightning and the devil and evil-doing and cribs made of it would protect the baby; in Denmark if one stood under the boughs of a tree on Midsummer Eve then one would see the Fairy King and his procession pass by.  However, bizarrely, there is an equally negative strain of beliefs against the species – that the witch in the tree was not a good one but an evil one wishing harm; that cribs made of this wood would ensure that fairies would come and pinch the baby all night and keep it from sleeping; that to bring the wood or foliage into the house would bring harm to the home of the family, a death if burnt in the home and many more such superstitions.  In earliest times it was reputed to have been the tree upon which Christ was crucified and other stories talk of it being the one upon which Judas killed himself so the species took on associations of death and pain and suffering and shame and ill will.  This is particularly interesting since there is now a school of thought which believes that this may have given rise to the belief that the number 13 is unlucky, since the Elder was the Druidical 13th letter of the alphabet (when all letters, and months of the year, were identified by different trees).  It could also be thought, however, that as with other instances of early Christian movements, sceptical of the power vested in the pagan traditions and beliefs that could not be turned to Christian beliefs, as had happened with the midwinter Beltane celebrations being turned to Christmas, and so negative propaganda was promulgated so as to break the connections with the old, more mysterious and unquantifiable beliefs – maybe this is what happened to the poor Elder which provides so much to humans for healing and feeding and is also an important tree for wildlife large and small including to the beautiful swallowtail butterflies.

Today’s Poem: “The Kitten and the Falling Leaves”, by William Wordsworth

See the kitten on the wall, sporting with the leaves that fall,
Withered leaves—one—two—and three, from the lofty elder-tree!
Through the calm and frosty air, of this morning bright and fair . . .
—But the kitten, how she starts; Crouches, stretches, paws, and darts!
First at one, and then its fellow, just as light and just as yellow;
There are many now—now one—now they stop and there are none;
What intenseness of desire, in her upward eye of fire!
With a tiger-leap half way, now she meets the coming prey,
Lets it go as fast, and then, has it in her power again:
Now she works with three or four, like an Indian Conjuror;
Quick as he in feats of art, far beyond in joy of heart.

Thursday 17 December 2020

Today’s Tree Hero: Kenneth Watkins – Born in Bromley, Kent in 1909, the young Ken was educated in London and went to work initially at the London-based tobacco company, Murrays, but with hopes of escaping the city, where the pollution of the time had resulted in his having terrible asthma, he took an apprenticeship on Exmoor and started farming with his brother Leon in Diptford.  To supplement their incomes they also worked as agents selling local farm machinery and, each with a keen business acumen and always open to trying new ventures, the brothers soon had set up a partnership with another local agent, Watkins and Roseveare, which thrived.  Due to Watkins’ asthma he was not allowed to go to war to fight so instead he worked with MAFF (the Ministry of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food), the precursor to what would become DEFRA (the Department for the Environment, Food and Rural Affairs) and was able to provide vital knowledge that was helpful to the department and the war effort.  The Axis blockades of the islands and their barring anything to come in from the Empire, as had been the previous situation, saw the need for the then antiquated and inefficient farming industry to be transformed to provide food for the whole country, its fighting servicemen and the millions of immigrant refugees and service personnel from all the free nations that were fighting the war effort and based in Britain, no mean feat when all the agricultural workers were overseas trying to defend the world and all resources had to be poured into defence.  This period taught Watkins much but he would also see the biggest and most savage re-organisation project of the land in history as the much needed “Dig for Victory” campaign saw millions of acres under agriculture for the first time for increased food production or otherwise being used for the war effort as airfields, camps, field hospitals etc were needed and this included the felling of forests and ploughing up of ancient meadows.  Much of the agricultural work was done by the army of “Land Girls” who were mostly city-dwelling women who were brought to the country for the first time to work the farms – and needed much initial training and supervision to educate them as to how to do things (though in a staggeringly short time were incredibly proficient working so hard to keep the country fed!).  During this time Watkins also continued to run his machinery company which was undertaking vital repair works in addition to supplying important tools.  This company expanded further after the war and started selling and repairing cars – racing cars was a lifelong passion of Watkins who raced in Formula 500 through the 30s, 40s, 50s and 60s with success at various meets, including at Silverstone.  Another passion of his life was his wife, Mary, whom he married in 1959.

During all this time, still intrinsically connected to the land, Watkins could see the damaging effects that man was having on the environment and had seen the near catastrophic impacts to wildlife from the 1930s to the post war period and beyond when nature was pushed aside in the country’s need to produce as much food as possible.  This drive, though understandable 80 years ago and despite the production levels having risen through agricultural modernisation, was at the core of the CAP, which had not adjusted its attitude since the starving post-war years in Europe and which is still having as devastating an impact on the environment in some ways now with vast overproduction of food which often just goes to waste and policies and subsidies which frequently force farmers to damage the natural world rather than help it.  It was this situation in the 60s and his concern for wildlife which saw Watkins join the Devon Wildlife Trust and become its Chair, earning him the MBE for his services to nature.  In 1972 the Watkins brothers sold their firm, then one of the nation’s largest agricultural machinery companies, and by this time each had farms in Hartford.  This was the year that he, along with his wife and brother and a few friends, founded the Woodland Trust.

The intention of their new charity was to tackle some of the issues of the utter devastation that had been wreaked on British woodlands over the previous century, starting with the impacts of the Industrial Revolution and the huge population increase and land clearance for new towns and urban sprawl of the Victorian era.  The plan was to buy a few woods and conserve these, learning from what the woods taught them and implementing any changes needed to enhance the ecosystems for flora and fauna alike.  The first wood was within the Avon Valley but within five years the small team had acquired another 22 woodlands in six different counties and charged with early success they decided to go national and to protect woodland areas throughout the UK and employed their first paid employee to help them.  By 1979 the Trust had planted over 41 million trees and cared for the conservation of woodlands but all still from the office at the beloved family home, the former rectory named Butterbrook where they even had a pet badger, Meles, who lived around the house; the scale and the geography of the enterprise they were now overseeing necessitated a move from Devon and so the office was moved to the more central Grantham which gave space to the expanding team of 300.

The mission statement of the Woodland Trust today is “We want to see a UK rich in native woods and trees.  For wildlife.  For people.  Help us plant trees, protect woods and inspire people” and this is what this most important charity does every day.  They have now planted over 43 million trees, saved over 1,172 woods, restored over 34,000 hectares of woodland and act as a vital resource of information for conservationists and governments and enthusiasts alike not only on the species of flora and fauna but also in tackling the many threats to our trees and wildlife.  Its three main aims are: 1. To protect ancient woodland which is rare, unique and irreplaceable; 2. To restore damaged ancient woodland; 3. To plant native trees and woods with the aim of creating resilient landscapes for people and wildlife.  The Trust is the largest conservation body of its type and maintains ownership of 247km² with sites in all four regions of the country and works through local and national initiatives to bring people and communities closer to their woodlands.

Ken was awarded the OBE in 1989 for his services to conservation and in 1995 was awarded the Sir Peter Scott Memorial Award by the British Naturalists’ Association.  He passed away after a short illness on 13th November in 1996 and his ashes are scattered in his much beloved King’s Wood, near to the family home.  His Times obituary described Ken as “A benevolent despot, a tough and single-minded decision taker but at the same time full of kindness and compassion for the friend out of luck” – and for him, who loved trees and woodlands so much, this clearly included them as his friends.

Today’s Word: “lenticel” – this is a raised pore on any part of a tree, most commonly on the trunk but in the case of the Alder also on the female catkins, which she keeps all year round and look like little pine cones, which act effectively as a vent or gills to allow air exchange between the atmosphere and the internal tissues of the tree.

Today’s Tree: Alder (Alnus glutinosa)

As one of the most common trees for waterside settings, the most common in wooded wetlands, it is immediately recognisable by its tall, elegant, upright form with billowy clouds of healthy green leaves which provide a dense foliage cover to the often mossy, lichen-covered trunks.  Though a member of the Birch family, the leaves are a beautiful mid-green colour with serrated edges, not unlike a beech, but these have a racket shape instead of the tapered end of the other.  As with other pioneer species of tree that we have looked at, the Alder is one of the best NFTs, of Nitrogen Fixing Trees, in that it is able to take in the gas from the atmosphere and transfer it down into the soil, effectively cleaning the air and feeding the ground, through its relationship with a bacterium – in this case Frankia alni.  This means that the species can effectively feed itself the nutrients it needs if they are not in the soil and so can colonise and establish itself in locations that other trees would struggle in but over time, with the nutrients that the species puts into the soil, other species then have the ability to grow in these locations.  The indigenous range of this tree, also known as the Black Alder or the European Alder, is throughout all areas of the country and almost all of Europe except for the extreme Mediterranean, though we have encountered some thriving colonies of Alder in even the most arid regions, where they are able to have their toes in a ravine or by a stream; this would indicate that water really is the only constraint on this tree’s ability to grow in any particular location although, even given the right conditions, these short-lived trees get pushed out by secondary and tertiary stage tree species who grow up and take the light which the Alder saplings need, though they can still survive on the edges of mixed woodlands or by waterways where there is more light available.  Thanks to human activity, the tree can be found almost throughout the whole of the Northern hemisphere, so successful a colonizer is it, and in some areas to the detriment of local native species and so has been outlawed, such as in Indiana.

The leaves are often sticky (which is where the tree gets the second part of its name, glutinosa) and unusually do not tend to change colour before they fall, even though they stay on the tree quite late into the season.  The species is monoecious, having both male and female catkins on each tree – the male are long and elegant and dark yellow but the female are red, squat and resemble small pine cones and pollination is by wind (also not unusual in pioneer communities which cannot be sure of having insects present to pollinate them so evolution has provided an answer). The seeds have little air-filled wings, which enable them to drift in the air but also to float on water – which are the two ways in which the seeds are distributed, again finding a way to reproduce using the elements where there may not yet be birds or animals to distribute seeds.  Incredibly the seeds often germinate whilst on water so that when they touch land they can instantly start to grow, thereby not wasting any time which in areas of the south with seasonal rainfall or in the north with shorter growing seasons again helps this tree to prosper.  The empty cones stay on the tree all winter, which is a tell-tale sign for identifying the species when the trees are without the leaves.

The roots of this pioneer species are deep which delve down for minerals and nutrients which have been washed down the soil layers by precipitation but which also help to reinforce the banks of the waterways and prevent soil erosion and as the roots often grow above the bed in the water they provide further protection by slowing the current by the banks, which in turn provides double protection for young or small species of fish, amphibians and mammals.  The shade they provide helps reduce evaporation of the water and gives further shelter to water-dwelling creatures from predators but conversely the branches can provide vantage points for predatorial birds such as ospreys or kingfishers.  The regular proximity to water means that Alders are usually located in above average humidity which makes them an attractive host plant for rare lichens such as lungwort as well as another 50 or so species of fungus, some having developed such symbiotic relationships with the species that they can only be found on this tree.  Similarly, many of the 150 species of invertebrates that live on Alder can only be found on this particular species including the Alder Kitten Moth.

Not surprisingly for a tree of such heritage and significance, there are many folklore associations from earliest times.  One common theme is that of hiding, possibly due to the thick copses or carrs that the trees can make as a thicket within the forest, usually surrounding a bog which wards off people.  One story from Ireland talks of star-crossed lovers who fled Ulster to Alba from the intended husband of the young girl and they hid in the Alder woods till it was safe.  The green dye for Robin Hood would most likely have been made from this tree and it was believed that fairies used similar techniques to conceal themselves.  It was thought a favourite of woodworm, people would put a cut of Alder into cupboards so that eggs would be laid in that instead of the furniture.

For those going on a long walk, the placing of the leaves inside the shoes has always been thought to reduce swelling and there is some sense to this since, like the Willow, the leaves do contain salicin and in fact Alpine farmers use packs of leaves for the same reason to alleviate rheumatism and swelling; a syrup helps sore throats; ground bark forms an ingredient in toothpaste; the inner bark can be boiled with vinegar to beat dermatitis, lice and scabies.  Tests into effectiveness against cancer and MRSA are being conducted.

When left underwater the timber becomes extremely strong and almost like stone and takes a huge length of time to break down and because of this the wood has been used for lock gates, sluices, and all manner of other tasks including the piles which support most of the buildings in Venice.  Out of the water the wood breaks down fairly quickly if left out in the weather.  When cut the light-coloured wood turns red – which has borne many a superstitious story, and then fades to a rich brown and is then a popular one for carving and veneers, though also plywood and pulp.  They are often made into electric guitars, furniture and many more items besides including clogs, since the wood holds some of the properties of the Willow’s ability to absorb shock without breaking.

Today’s Poem: “The Alder Tree”, by Charles Mackay

Alder tree, O alder tree,
Over his grave reclining;
I’ve braided a wreath of the fairest flowers
That ever were fed by the spring-time showers
Or nursed by the summer shining.
Short, but lovely, their lives have been,
Like his in the damp sod sleeping,
And I strew them now on the hillock green,
Where a mournful watch I’m keeping.

Alder tree! O alder tree!
Is it a voice of sorrow
That sighs ‘mong thy leaves in the silent night,
When the radiant hue of the moonshine bright
Announceth a pleasant morrow?
‘Tis a voice of wailing, O alder tree,
‘Tis the evening breeze that weepeth,
‘Tis the nightingale singing a song like me,
O’er the grave where my loved one sleepeth!

Friday 18 December 2020

Today’s Tree Hero: Mindy Maslin – Just over thirty years ago social worker and keen environmentalist Mindy Maslin, now nicknamed the “Tree Lady” in her hometown of Philadelphia, was keen to find out more about plants and to be involved in gardening and so started volunteering for and then joined the pre-eminent society of its type in the country, the Pennsylvania Horticultural Society (it is the PHS that is responsible for running the hugely successful American version of the Chelsea Flower Show each year). At the time of joining she did not know much about trees, though loved to find time sitting under an oak or else just looking at her favourite tree the lovely Gingko / Maidenhair tree and was passionate about all the things they offer and at a time when so many were being lost she wanted to see if there was something she might do to be more engaged and pro-active in helping to save them in her city. Within a year she was starting up her new initiative, Tree Tenders.

Tree Tenders was founded by Mindy in connection with the PHS in 1993 and is the oldest volunteer tree conservation movement in the United States, running community-based education programmes throughout the state and influencing initiatives elsewhere, acting as a blueprint to many. The programme teaches people about the biology, the different characteristics and advantages of different species but also the stress points for them and the risks and problems that they are facing, at levels specific to those that the initiative is engaging with and sometimes specific to the neighbourhoods or communities that they are working with. This last point is crucial for the success that the program has seen since having won people over to the need and desirability of trees the next stage is to get permissions and financing for preserving existing trees and planting new replacement or additional ones so the teaching of how to engage more of the community in the movement and also to make the trees a noticeable and political issue to ensure that policy changes are made to protection is vital and gives individuals the tools they need to achieve their own goals often whilst working in collusion with others. To date the free education program has seen over 5,500 Philadelphians be trained directly and each of these then has gone on to train and encourage others through 100 neighbourhoods and about 60 surrounding counties.

Armed with an excellent reputation built up over decades for activating people in their communities, with the knock on benefits of this building relationships between strangers and making friends across community and racial divides, and underpinned by its close ties to the PHS and other partners, Tree Tenders is able to work in connection with the authorities, sometimes as a pressure group but on good terms and with good results. Planting 60 species of trees across this area, including Mindy’s favourite Gingko, choosing species which are most appropriate for the locations for maximum growth success with the aim to reduce car pollution and the heat island effect, reduce surface runoff and associated local flooding issues and to enhance the local areas. This project, as with other similar initiatives such as the New Haven Farms programme which works along similar community-engagement lines and predominantly in underserved communities, has found that where trees have been put into neighbourhoods and the communities have been engaged with the projects, these have not only become nicer places to live aesthetically but also have the knock on benefits of having closer communities, reducing criminality and in some cases improving heath and diets and learning and employment opportunities by giving people something outside and physical which requires a degree of interest and interaction with others. The presence of trees has been seen to make an area more desirable to homeowners and businesses and so can also improve the local economies and through her work Mindy has been able to show authorities that the removal of trees may save a small amount of maintenance costs but ultimately reduces tax income and increases crime and thus cause additional costs in policing and other resulting social issue costs. Central to much of the success has been Mindy’s passion and her managing to find the right way to engage with individuals and professional parties / authorities to make the issue of trees relevant to each. This no doubt comes from her great care and interest in people as much as in trees and also her ability to find pragmatic solutions. One example of this is in areas where traditionally authorities have not planted trees because of the difficulties of overhead wires – so she found trees which grew up to a maximum height, her “underwire trees” and the authorities then were able to plant these with no detrimental effects to cables but a huge boost to the appearance and the biodiversity of the area. The fact that a whole spectrum of different people from complete novices to expert professionals get involved means that information and learning and passion and excitement is shared in all directions, at all different levels of ability. This is all carefully overseen and managed by the expert organisational skills of Mindy, who is keen for younger people to be involved as well as older ones which means that whole families can benefit from the participation.

Today’s Word: “pome” – coming from the old French word, “pome”, the modern French being “pomme”, the word entered the English language in the C.14th and denotes any fruit that come from the Malus species which have a apple-like structure of skin enclosing the flesh of the fruit with a central core, often with the shrivelled remains of the sepals, style and stamens opposite the stem.

Today’s Tree: Crab Apple (Malus sylvestris)

A Crab apple tree

As is the case of the Blackthorn and the Wild Cherry, already looked at, the Crab Apple is the forebear of fruit that we rely upon so much and which is so common place today, the larger apple – of which over 6,000 varieties come originally from this humble little tree. Although upright and able to grow to 10m where conditions are right, often they do have a rather contorted and gnarled appearance and the stems have spines and it could be this “crabby” appearance which has caused it to be called the “Crab Apple”, there is no doubt that the second part of the name refers to the fruit which are perfectly formed miniature apples in a variety of wonderful colours, starting green and then developing into shades of golden yellow, bright orange, brilliant red – which make a wonderful show in late summer when the trees are festooned with them or even later when they start to fall and make a bright carpet of fruit at the foot of the tree.

The appearance of the tree is also highly attractive throughout the seasons, starting with a cover of the prettiest sweet-smelling apple blossom of palest pink (though some cultivars are also pure white or dark pink) is much-loved by bees and the leaves develop from bright green into an assured deeper hue through the summer before turning to a range of wonderful golds, oranges and yellows and dropping, sometimes, depending upon the variety, leaving much fruit still on the branches which are an attractive food source for birds which might not like to spend much time on the ground. For those that do, there is much fine bounty for everything from the tiniest tits to the largest carrion and in the Deanery gardens it is common to find jays and chaffinches and blackbirds and the odd crow gorging themselves merrily (usually with Leo looking on!). These are often an important source of nutrients for small and large mammals and again here the voles and mice and squirrels and occasional hedgehog adore these. Sadly so many of the birds that used to be associated with the species have become rare or extinct in the past few decades such as the grosbeak, the orioles and the waxwings but accounts of trees full of these spectacularly beautiful birds abound and what a sight that must have been!

The species has a long tradition of being associated with love and marriage and with fertility, probably arising from the fruit but this also led to the Celts naming the tenth month after it and this runs from September 2nd to September 29th in our current calendar, which is when they fruit. A Victorian rhyme from Scotland went: “On Halloween look in the glass, Your future husband’s face shall pass” – a belief that were one to eat an apple and look into the mirror then one would see the face of their future love. It was said that if the pips explode when thrown into the fire with the saying of the name of one’s love then the love is true and the match will be a happy one and the wood, which burns beautifully and gives a nice odour, was often burned in traditional fertility rites. All parts of the tree are seen as being magical in some way or another – the wood was often prized for wands and it was a favourite tree of the witch, but of good. It was a sign of purity and innocence but also of knowledge for millennia in many cultures – which is why it was used by Lucifer to tempt Adam and Eve but also why it was used by Catherine de Medici to poison Cardinal de Coligny in the Canterbury Precincts (when his manservant, an agent of the Queen Dowager, gave it to him whilst he was under the protection of Elizabeth I and the Dean and living in Meister Omers) and more latterly of Snow White by the Evil Queen. In each case the symbolism of the harmless, healthy apple helped to lower the inhibitions of the victims to be in some way corrupted or harmed by others. These were clearly not crab apples but the qualities of the fruit and the tree are the same and of course route from this parent species.

Dreaming of apples symbolises prosperity; bobbing for apples makes the winner blessed by the Goddess for a year since apples were the symbol of Avalon (Avalon means apple orchard) and capturing one from the water represented crossing the water to the holy island. A slightly odd tradition from Lower-Saxony held that the baby should be bathed first in water that had been poured over the roots of an apple tree to ensure the child would have rosy cheeks. Conversely, because of the corruption by evil of the symbolic purity of the apple, it can also be used to represent negative forces. This may have been another example, as with that of the Elder, where the power of the apple needed to be beaten down by the early Christian church in order to establish itself as the lead authority over Celtic traditions; there is an interesting coincidence in that Celts also believed that a huge apple tree grew in the centre of their version of Paradise. Such depictions can be seen vividly in sculptures and paintings of Christ as a baby in the arms of Mary, especially in Northern Spain, where he is seen eating the apple as if to say that he had come to rid the earth of evil and return us to the time of paradise in the garden of Eden before the eating of the fruit from the Tree of Life. The power of the apple as a force for good is still recognised even by the church today, as at Wassailing – which is the practise of wishing good health and a bountiful harvest for fruit trees whilst giving the blessing in an orchard, or having apples by the altar.

The trees blossom over a long period and so orchard growers tend to plant them within orchards so as to be pollinate the commercial species – certainly we have noticed a crop increase in our own orchard since planting the Crab Apples in the surrounding areas at the same time as we installed the hives (which has also increased fertility in the gardens) and our bees love to visit them to make a sweet-flavoured first crop of honey.

The fruits of the tree lack the sweetness of their larger children but do carry the apple flavour and so make excellent jelly and as they are high in pectin with a not overpowering flavour, they can be added to soft fruits to make jams of those. They are also fine roasted and served with pork and can be candied to serve as miniature apples to dress desserts, which look very attractive. The little apples have all the same qualities of their larger relatives and a traditional apple wine, which should ideally be casked for two years before drinking, was considered a good cure all and still today they are a good thing to have in a regular diet as they are high in potassium, iron, Vitamins A and E; they help the body detox and are beneficial to the brain, liver and bowls and are used to treat headaches, gout, rheumatism and high blood pressure. “An apple a day keeps the doctor away” carries true for these little gems too, though usually when mixed with other fruits to sweeten their taste. The fine texture of the wood, which has a slight pinkish hue, is very good for carving decorative items and the bark was traditionally used to produce a yellow dye for wool.

Today’s Poem: “The Crab Apple Fairy”, by Cicely Mary Barker

Crab-apples, Crab-apples, out in the wood,
Little and bitter, yet little and good!
The apples in orchards, so rosy and fine,
Are children of wild little apples like mine.
The branches are laden, and droop to the ground;
The fairy fruit falls in a circle around;
Now all you good children, come gather them up:
They’ll make you sweet jelly to spread when you sup.
One little apple I’ll catch for myself;
I’ll stew it, and strain it, to store on a shelf
In four or five acorn-cups, locked with a key
In a cupboard of mine at the root of the tree.

Saturday 19 December 2020

Today’s Word: “corymb” – not unlike the previously-mentioned umbel, this is an arrangement or a cluster of flowers, each growing on separate sub-stems from a main stem, with an ultimately flat top. These are produced on the Guelder Rose but also on plants like Hydrangeas, Hawthorns, some Maples and Rowans. The word originally comes from the Ancient Greek word, “korymbos”, which literally means “a bunch of flowers”.

Today’s Tree: Guelder Rose (Viburnum opulus)

Guelder Rose

They certainly got the name of this lovely native tree correct when they called it opulus as it is by far the most opulent of any of our species and packs a lot in for one of usual diminutive size of only 4-5m. The deciduous Guelder Rose comes from the large family of Viburnum plants, which include over 170 other species, and there are 4 other species within the close subsection of opulus, the two that most would be familiar with are the one pictured above and a cultivar of this one named “Snowball” which has beautiful ball-like flowers, both of which we have in the garden but only the former has the berries as the latter, though extremely beautiful in flower, has been made sterile in the process of creating it. The presence of the berries on the natural form makes it a popular member of the hedgerow – especially to the birds who love the fruit, and due to its relative smaller size and a typically bushy habit it is often used for cover plantings and included in native landscaping projects. The species also grows well in shade through to full sun which makes them useful for many gardeners. Its native range is through the UK, most of Europe to Northern Africa and Central Asia and though it prefers a damp alkaline soil it is tolerant of most others also which makes it very adaptable. It has become naturalised in North America, where it is called “European Cranberrybush”, though it is not a cranberry. In fact, even the name the Guelder Rose is incorrect for the plant that we are considering today. This name comes from Guelderland in Holland, where the snowball-flowering cultivar was first developed from the native form and the name has attached itself to both forms but our forebears would have known it as King’s Crown, Red or Rose or Water Elder (superficial resemblance to Elder but not related), May or Whitsun Rose, Dog Rowan (superficial resemblance to the flowers), Silver Bells, Whitsun Bosses, Marsh Alder, Gatten, Ople Tree or Black Haw, depending upon where in the country one was.

The very attractive mid-green leaves are not dissimilar in appearance to those of the vine or a maple, though smaller, and turn wonderful pink-red colours in Autumn, produced in profusion on a small thicket of twiggy rather scruffy, flaky barked stems (which are a perfect habitat for small insects) and then the beautiful creamy white flowers appear in late Spring, usually for quite a long time and because of their structure these will also not be damaged by any wind and rain and are hugely popular with our bees – who only have a few feet to travel for the nearest of these plants. Interestingly, as is the case with other corymb-flowering plants like the Hydrangea, the smaller fertile flowers are at the centre of the arrangement and are surrounded by much larger conspicuous infertile ones. It was these which were manipulated through breeding into forming the snowball bushes, hence their infertility. This gives a nice conspicuous and attractive “landing pad” to pollinators who can then move onto the fertile flowers which protect their valuable pollen in the protected middle area. In Summer the fruit colours up nicely and looks very attractive, superficially like little bunches of orange-red currants – though being very acidic they do not have the same flavour and are slightly toxic but are edible in small quantities and can be turned into a nice jelly or preserve. The bark, which contains viopudial, is an antispasmodic and mild sedative, has long been used to relieve cramps and has earned it the name “Crampbark” and helps to lower blood pressure. The berries have anti-scorbutic properties and turn black when dried and have been used for producing ink for scribes, Chaucer called the tree the Gaitre Berries.

As can be seen from the number of names it has in England alone, culturally this species has played a big part, though most noticeably in Central Europe into Russia. In the Ukraine it figures in many folk songs and poems and traditional art forms as for millennia it was the Slavic belief that “kalyna” was associated with the birth of the Universe, from the time of the Fire Trinity of the Sun, the Moon and the Star and its berries represent one’s home and native land, blood and family origins. “Kalyna” also represented a young lady and its name and all it signifies formed an integral part to the song of the Insurgent Army and still today the Ukrainian army uses the insignia of a cluster of berries. In Russia, where it is “kalina”, the tree is a national symbol, where the local name comes from the word “raskalyat”, which means to make red hot – like the colour of the berries; it also has been used as a symbol of passionate love, especially when coupled with raspberries and it has for centuries been a core image for khokhloma, the traditional wood painting. The influence of these two cultures on neighbouring Romania has seen the word for the species there, “călin”, is a popular Christian and surname. In Scandinavia, where it is known as water elder, the dangerous water spirit, Nix, would wait underneath playing enthralling music to lure people towards him like a Siren so that he might drag them under the water – one is safe if one carries a twig of the plant in one’s pocket.

In Britain it has been known as the Whitten, a sacred tree used for millennia to represent the time of year which covered Halloween, traditionally a season of death and rebirth but also (as with other equinox periods when the day / night lengths and associated seasons visibly change, especially Midsummer and Midwinter) when the boundaries between worlds is very thin, both of the magical/non-magical and the living and the dead and so picked up all manner of stories and legends associated with these different realms and the access to or from them for different beings. Associations also include inspiration, love and wisdom and in Christian tradition its white flowers at Whitsun-time have seen it symbolise the purity, life-giving, bracing wind of the Holy Spirit and the red berries, the reddest of all native fruit, symbolises the burning fires of the Holy Spirit and the fruiting of what it brings as well as the life-blood itself and is the liturgical colour for Whitsun.

Today’s Poems: “The Guelder Rose”, by Cicely Mary Barker

There are two little trees:
In the garden there grows
The one with the snowballs;
All children love those!

The other small tree
Not everyone knows,
With her blossoms spread flat –
Yet they’re both Guelder Rose!

But the garden Guelder has nothing
When her beautiful balls are shed;
While in Autumn her wild little sister
Bears berries of ruby red!

“The Guelder Rose”, by Margaret O Driscoll

Fragrance drifts from the Guleder Rose
Lacey blossoms of Summer cream
I sit under its leafy shade
Drifting into a daydream

Embroidered bright red Kalina berries
Beloved emblem of Ukraine
The smiling market seller holds
Kalina berries in the Winter rain

Sunday 20 December 2020

Today’s Word: “dogberries” – the fruit of the Dogwood, small black berries which develop in clusters.

Today’s Tree: Common Dogwood (Cornus sanguinea)

Common Dogwood

A native of Southern England, the Dogwood, likes sun or part shade so is often found at woodland edges or clearings but also can be found in hedges and often more of a dense shrub, the species can grow up to 10m where conditions are right. The trunks are grey and smooth, developing a rougher texture with age, the older stems are green but in winter it is impossible to miss the striking red of the younger shoots which brighten with the frosts (cultivars offering a range of other colours from bright golds and oranges through to pinks and darkest reds) and it is this blood-red colour which gives the species its name, sanguinea, or common name of Blood Wood. This name is also particularly poignant since legend tells (as with other species we have mentioned though!) that the crucifix upon which Christ was killed was made from the trunk of this tree, certainly there is testimony to the fact that this wood was used for crucifixes as the wood is so hard. The common name comes from another use, that of skewers – the twigs, which are straight and tough, were made into butchers’ skewers which used to be called “dags” or “dogs” so it became known as “dogwood”. The twigs were used to make arrows for the same reason. An alternative reason for the name has been put forward that it used to be used to cure mange in dogs by washing them in water with dogwood extract.

Of the American Dogwood tradition states that the Cherokee believed there was a race of little people that lived in the dogwoods and they lived in perfect harmony with nature and tried to teach the people how to do this also, they were very kind and amiable and used to watch over babies to keep them safe. One legend states that in the Garden of Eden the devil, trying to weaken Adam’s will by knocking all the blossoms off of the tree, his favourite in all the garden, climbed up a Locust Tree and over the wall so as to do this, but upon finding that all the flowers were in the shape of a cross all he was able to do was to take a bite out of each petal before he ran away – but not before the Locust Tree was covered with thorns so that the devil might never use this route again. Another biblical reference states that the species had grown much bigger in the time of Christ and was used for crucifixes (which there is some evidence for) but that since the tree that was used for Christ’s cross was so sad to have been used thus, Christ took pity on it and made all future trees of the Cornus too small and weak to be used for such a purpose but to still carry the lovely leaves and flowers of which he was so fond.

The red osier stems of winter fade a little as the spring starts to develop and the bright green leaves start to grow, soon joined by clusters of pretty little star-like cream flowers which in turn develop into dark black berries, which often stay on the tree into winter and which are popular with birds, blackbirds and thrushes especially.

Dogwoods are native to most of the Northern Hemisphere, though the one we are concentrating on today grows through to Central Europe. Although the flowers are attractive they are by no means as dramatic as the ones of the Asian dogwoods, which include kousa chinensis, or the North American ones, which include florida, both of which have flowers of such magnificent beauty and colours that they rival Magnolias. The habit of growing at the edge of the woods gives rise to a spectacular show in the States where the woods have complete skirts of white or pink. Their beauty makes them highly desirable to gardeners especially since they flower long before many other plants such as roses and can be grown in most situations, though they do best in moist soils and sun is required for best stem colour. The bark is rich in tannins and has been used as a replacement for quinine to treat malaria and babesiosis or can be turned into a tea to treat pain and fevers, the leaves turned into a poultice to treat wounds.

Today’s Poems: “The Dogwood Tree”, by Anon.

When Christ was on earth, the dogwood grew
To a towering size with a lovely hue.
Its branches were strong and interwoven
And for Christ’s cross its timbers were chosen

Being distressed at the use of the wood
Christ made a promise which still holds good:
“Not ever again shall the dogwood grow
To be large enough for a tree, and so

Slender and twisted it shall always be
With cross-shaped blossoms for all to see.
The petals shall have bloodstains marked brown
And in the blossom’s center a thorny crown.

All who see it will think of Me,
Nailed to a cross from a dogwood tree.
Protected and cherished this tree shall be
A reflection to all of My agony.”

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