October is all about autumn colour and Persian Ironwood (Parrotia persica) must be one of the best. It can provide fiery tints of gold and crimson, enhanced by the shininess of the leaves; but in another year it might be almost entirely yellow - which is still nice. Colouring might be bold one year, or more pastel shaded in another. Some leaves might be tinged purple all year - as was mine here at Hearne HQ this year.
It comes from the eastern Caucasus and Iran and is named after a German surgeon, explorer and naturalist, Friedrich Wilhelm Parrot. Parrot was the first person credited with climbing Mt Ararat in 1829 - though Noah is said to have floated to the top in more leisurely fashion aboard an ark some years previously.
Closely related to Witch Hazels and Sweetgums, they are small wide spreading trees, usually with multiple stems and reaching heights of 20-30ft. In the wild they can be thicket forming shrubs or tall and straight reaching 80ft. It is likely that cultivated forms here are descended from an introduction of a limited gene pool of smaller shrubbier types - but I am also told that propagating from side branch cuttings will also give a tendency towards smaller spreading trees. Introduced to Kew from St Petersburg in 1841, the larger recorded trees in this country are at Syon House (45ft) and Abbotsbury in Dorset (50 ft in 1972).
A is for apple. It must be the first fruit we can spell and I can think of no other tree that has quite the fame enjoyed by the apple. Depending on variety, the fruit is picked from late summer to late autumn, but the Egremont Russets and Spartans are now ripe for plucking here at Hearne Arboriculture HQ and so the domestic apple (Malus domestica) is the tree of the month for September. Famed for its fruit, the apple is also an outstanding ornamental tree in its own right, bearing a profusion of flowers in spring that open shades of pink and fade to white.
After we learn that A is for apple, we find apples appearing in fairy tales, myths and legend, often of a magical golden or silver variety. They are used to symbolise fertility, wealth, greed, eternal life, original sin, lust, temptation, knowledge and more. Isaac Newton watched an apple drop; New York is the 'Big Apple'; there are Apple computers. An apple a day keeps the doctor away; there is the rotten apple in the barrel; there is the apple of thine eye and, of course, it was the temptation of an apple that caused Adam and Eve to be cast out of Eden...or was it?
Genesis tells us that a snake persuaded Eve to eat the apple. She then persuaded Adam and it all went horribly wrong from there. The same story appears in the Qu'ran and a very similar story, complete with sacred tree and devious snake, is found in the ancient Mesopotamian myth of Gilgamesh, pre-dating the bible by 1500 years. But Michelangelo's ceiling in the Sistine Chapel depicts the tree unmistakably as a Fig tree. He is likely to have taken his cue from the fact that Adam and Eve used fig leaves to cover their modesty after losing their innocence with the first bite, and not unreasonably may have thought that they will have grabbed the nearest leaf available. Apples aren't mentioned in the text - the original Hebrew used the word periy which means 'fruit from a branch'. It is quite possibly, as Peter Brown suggests in his book 'The Apple Orchard', an example of the evolution of language. Just as trains were 'iron horses' and cars 'horseless carriages' because horses had been the most important means of transport, so apple may have been the most important word meaning 'fruit' before settling on the fruit of greater importance than the rest. In many languages the orange is a 'golden apple' as are apricots in Cyprus. In France the potato is the 'earth apple' and in ancient Rome the aubergine was the 'apple of insanity' and so on. So whatever Adam ate, it was bound to be an 'apple'.
Thanks to the vagaries of cross-pollination, genetic combinations and mutations, every tree grown from seed is a gamble. It may be sweet or sour, thick skinned or thin, pulpy or crisp. It may be vulnerable to disease or crop badly. It is only by chance that you will grow a desirable apple this way. If the variety has 'Seedling' or 'Pippin' in its name, it will have been found accidentally this way - such as Cox's Orange Pippin or Bramley's Seedling. The only way to reproduce trees with fruit you want is by cloning them - taking a cutting (the scion) and grafting it onto a rootstock. Incredibly, this technique was well known around 2500 years ago, although early practitioners believed that the cutting grew roots down through the rootstock into the soil from where it absorbed the precise nutrients required to produce a particular type of apple. The first Granny Smith was found on a compost heap in the garden of Maria Ann Sherwood in New South Wales in 1868; the first Bramley came from a seed planted by a young girl, Mary Ann Brailsford, in her garden in Nottinghamshire in 1809; Shaw's Pippin came from a Council refuse tip in Hertfordshire . Each of the many thousands of Granny Smith and Bramleys around the world (and every other named variety) is a cutting from a cutting of a cutting from who knows how many generations, tracing a direct line back to the originals.
While the scion dictates the type of fruit you get, the rootstock has a big influence on other things, such as tree size and vigour. East Malling Research Station, established in 1913, worked to catalogue all root stocks across the UK and Europe. By 1924 they had released categories M1-M24 allowing growers to predict rate of growth and tree size, leading orchard owners to move away from big trees to dwarf stocks that produced smaller trees giving ten times the yield per hectare that were easier to harvest. The dwarfing M9 rootstock, originally from France, is now used for around 95% of eating apples in the UK and 90% in the US and South Africa. East Malling's work is estimated to have contributed almost £9 billion to the global economy. The rootstocks used to have names (M9 was Paradise) but are now merely coded, which is a shame. Propagation of rootstocks is possible thanks to the ability of cut trees to re-sprout shoots that can then be separated with enough roots to develop into separate trees.
This progress is transforming orchards. Traditionally orchards resembled parkland with larger old trees on grazed or meadow land with hedgerows, providing a very rich and diverse habitat. The trend is now for smaller trees, more closely planted in tight rows.
It is not just the character of orchards that is changing, they are also disappearing. Once a quintessentially English part of the countryside, traditional orchards have disappeared at an alarming rate. Natural England published the results of a survey in 2011 which estimated 63% had disappeared since 1950. The Peoples Trust for Endangered Species now has this at 90% on their website. They are being lost to intensification of agriculture, development pressures, neglect and competition from imports. Traditional orchard management created a rich habitat that supported many species such as the endangered noble chafer beetle and in 2007 they were designated as priority habitats in the UK Biodiversity Action Plan (BAP). Orchards are also a stronghold for mistletoe.
As orchards disappear, so do older varieties of apple. You won't find a Cornish Gilliflower, Hubbardston Nonesuch, Cat's Head or a Hoary Morning in Tesco. Around half the eating apples sold in Britain are Gala and Braeburns, with a reviving Cox's Orange Pippin having about a 25% share of the market. The problem has been that many of the older varieties don't meet the standards demanded by the supermarkets. The supermarkets claim to give us what we want and that demand has apparently seen a decisive shift to bigger, shinier, prettier and sweeter fruit in recent decades. Many of the older varieties may not have made such good eating, but the loss of available variety is, I think, a shame. The British apple industry is said to have dipped into decline with membership of the EU and the sudden arrival of imports backed up with aggressive marketing campaigns - I remember all the French Golden Delicious adverts with the 'Le Crunch' slogan in the 70's. There has been some recovery of the industry but it has meant growing the varieties demanded and, perhaps ironically, the availabilty of seasonal EU workers. Growing and harvesting apples is labour intensive and this labour is by far the biggest cost to the orchard owners. The exception is perhaps cider orchards which are generally smaller fruit varieties with a high tannin content, larger trees, and less careful harvesting. But if the big cider producers want consistency, I imagine they will rely on certain varieties at the expense of others - it will be a sad day if the Slack Ma Girdle cider apple dies out.
After British DNA analysis confirmed Kazakhstan as the apple's origin, studies have estimated that we have lost some 80% of the original population gene pool, but also that the domestic apples in cultivation probably only contain some 20% of the available remaining gene pool. Preserving what remains is vital to developing new varieties and selecting for resistance to new diseases. The Americans are leading research into these wild orchards (the British efforts collapsed when funding was slashed) but we might see some new varieties emerging as a direct result. In addition to these studies, there has also been something of a resurgence of interest in the older varieties, with enthusiasts growing and sharing non-commercial varieties. In 1990 Common Ground, a charity fostering links between communities and the natural world, organised 'Apple Day' at Covent Garden. Aimed at raising orchard awareness and regional distinctiveness, there are now Apple Days all around the country every October. If you can find one of the events you'll get to try local varieties, apple cake and probably some scrumpy too.
Once you are growing an apple tree, you want a good harvest of nice fruit. At least you would think so - but I've visited so many houses where I've seen a bowl of supermarket apples in the kitchen and a tree and lawn laden with apples in the garden. Nevertheless, a frequent question I am asked is about pruning apple trees since people seem to believe that they must be pruned and, indeed, an old saying is that you should thin out the branches until you can throw your hat through the crown or, in Monty Don's words, a bird can fly through. The idea behind this is that you open the crown so that light and warmth can ripen the apples while the more open airy structure will be less prone to disease. Some orchards will also pick off developing apples if there are too many, so that the tree can concentrate its resources into producing fewer but bigger and better fruit. This thinning also avoids the risk of bumper crops one year followed by trees resting and producing very little the next year.
Finally, in late summer or autumn, you can pick your apples to eat, or cook, or make cider or brandy. And perhaps an apple a day will keep the doctor away. Stem cells from a Swiss variety have been used to boost skin growth and reduce wrinkles - a capacity that is being studied by researchers working on the prevention of certain cancers and vascular diseases.
Brown, Peter: The Apple Orchard 2016
Stafford, Fiona: The Long Long Life of Trees 2016
Stuartia pseudocamellia is another of those fantastic trees that has it all. Magnificent flowers, attractive flaking bark and fabulous autumn colour. What more could you want? But they are slow growers and Hugh Jonson suggests you plant one without delay and forget about moving house. Despite their beauty, I rarely see them so it was a real pleasure when I found a group of three the other day, growing at Trehane Nursery, Wimborne, where my daughter was working picking blueberries (another super autumn colour plant).
The Stuartias are in the Tea Family and are native to eastern Asia and the United States, but only one reaches tree size here - the Stuartia pseudocamellia (or Deciduous Camellia) of Japan where it reaches 60 feet - introduced here in about 1880. They are named after John Stuart, Earl of Bute (1713-92) an amateur botanist and chief advisor to Augusta, Princess Dowager of Wales, when she founded the Botanic Garden at Kew, and was Prime Minister under George III. A portrait of the Earl at Kenwood House featured an American species of Stuartia which was sent to Linnaeus with a dedication in which the family name was mis-spelt "Stewart" and Linnaeus went on to describe the genus in 1746 as Stewartia. The mis-spelling was emended by L'Heritier in 1785 but Linnaeus's mistake has taken root and the two spellings are regarded as synonyms. I find it most frequently spelt Stewartia in texts but will stick with Stuartia simply because W. J. Bean does so in his Trees & Shrubs Hardy in the British Isles - the tree man's bible.
They like a sheltered sunny position and prefer an ericacious soil but if you have any lime free soil it's worth giving it a try. That said, some say it can be hard to establish - I planted three several years ago and they all died; but if the truth be known that was more due to the fact that while I wasn't looking they were swamped and shaded out by nettles, brambles and other weeds, rather than anything else.
The Cypresses are confusing. They are in the Cupressaceae - the biggest living conifer family of thirty genera - including Junipers, Thuja, Swamp Cypress, Redwoods and Dawn Redwood - amongst others. Cypresses themselves are separated into 16 species of True Cypress (Cupressus) and 6 species of False Cypress (Chamaecyparis). To make matters worse the two can hybridise (the infamous Leylandii) and they should probably be lumped together. Worse still, they can be very similar in appearance and there are countless varieties and cultivars. I gave up any hope of learning them many moons ago.
There is no particular reason why a Cypress is our Tree of the Month for July - they pretty much do what they do all year round, but a study for the Department of the Environment in 1993 found that the commonest town trees in England were 'Cypress types' and so I should include them in the blog at some juncture. They comprised an astonishing 22% of the urban tree population (the next most common species was Sycamore at 8%). They certainly have their uses but many an English gardener has underestimated their speed of growth and potentially huge size and after decades of dealing with the wrong Cypress in the wrong place, or neighbours at war over a 'monster hedge', I have a slightly jaundiced appreciation of them.
The natural form of the tree can be quite broad but there is a long history, dating from the Romans, of selecting for the narrower forms known as the Cupressus sempervirens 'Stricta' group. Cultivars grown from cuttings are marketed under various names like 'Green Pencil', 'Green Spire', 'Nitschke's Needle' and even a golden form raised in Australia, 'Swaynes Gold' . In both broad and narrow form the tree spread from the Mediterranean basin to Italy, Spain, east to Iran, and south to Tunisia. They became the 'must-haves' in Mesopotamia, Roman villas and in the gardens of Muslim rulers of central and western Asia, Persians and Ottomans. It features on Persian rugs, pottery and on tiles in the Blue Mosque. The tree was introduced to Britain in the 15th Century and it can be a useful addition to our palette in formal situations. But it doesn't belong in our countryside; an Englishman's trees don't spear the sky, they billow into it thank you. And they look best in bright sunshine anyway....
The Italian Cypress can live for hundreds of years, reaching 45m height in favourable conditions. At Somma, in Lombardy, there grew what was, perhaps, the most famous tree in Europe. It was the broader form and grew close to the Simplon road, which Napoleon is said to have diverted in order to save it. This tree, which was reputed to have been planted before the birth of Christ, was blown down in a storm on 2nd September 1944.
Carey F. The Tree, Meaning and Myth. 2012
Land Use Consultants: Trees in Towns. 1993
Stafford F. 2016. The Long Long Life of Trees
Medlars are in the Rosaceae family and closely related to the Hawthorn. They are native to south east Europe and south west Asia but are an ancient introduction. Occasional wild trees, often with some thorns, are found in south east England, leading one eminent botanist to suggest in his Flora of Sussex (1937) that they were native there. Like Quince and Mulberry, they were once far more common in our gardens and orchards but, much more so than the Quince and Mulberry, they have fallen seriously out of fashion and I have seldom encountered them in a thirty year career in arboriculture. Despite its attractive flowers and good autumn colour, which make it a good tree for a small garden, it seems that people considering a fruit tree these days will stick with Apples, Pears and Plums. And have to say I find it understandable since, having planted a Medlar which grew well until being muscled off its more vigorous Hawthorn rootstock, I never summoned the courage to eat the fruit - but it's still worth planting just for the flowers.
Flowering is in late May or early June. This year, like everything else, they were early and in full flower in mid-May. They are not displayed in profusion like the more commonly planted fruit trees - but what they lack in numbers, they make up for with luxurious large white single flowers produced on short woolly stalks.
So why has the tree, or more precisely its fruit, fallen out of favour? I suppose it's not the most attractive fruit in the world, but shops sell Ugli fruit which is named because it is, well, ugly, so that can't be the only reason. That said, one thing that made it harder for me to sample the fruit from my own Medlar tree was learning that, because of its appearance, the French call it 'Cul de chien' which translates as a 'dog's arse' - if you'll excuse my french. I later learned that Shakespeare and Chaucer refer to it as an 'open arse' which is worse - and I can't even blame the French. This information did not help as I rather dubiously studied my first crop when it was ready to eat. And it is when it's ready to eat that caused my courage to finally fail me as I pushed my first fruit around the plate and finally reach for some cheese and crackers instead.
A dry apple sauce doesn't sound too bad but I haven't seen any description of it as delicious, or even as quite nice. Bob Flowerdew, when on Radio 4's Gardener's Question Time, advised "I'd strongly suggest that you wait until the frosts have hit them hard - in about mid-November. At that point you pick them and stand them in a place that's frost-free but very cool and they slowly rot - it's called 'bletting'. When they've reached the consistency of a rotten pear you tentatively peel them. There's an old recipe which involved cream, liquors, and sugar, so I'd recommend you mix the cream, sugar and liquors together and quietly slip the medlars into the dustbin". On the other hand, celebrity chefs are always looking for a new angle these days and I saw one recipe for a Medlar jelly to serve with roast pork or game - but I doubt it will catch on while a superior apple sauce comes in jars from the supermarket.
If you are surprised by Shakespeare's rather crude reference to the fruit, as I was, it may be that you have seen or read the commonly bowdlerised versions. So here in uncensored glory is Mercutio in Romeo and Juliet:
If love be blind, love cannot hit the mark.
Now will he sit under a medlar tree,
And wish his mistress were that kind of fruit
As maids call medlars, when they laugh alone.
O Romeo! that she were, O! that she were
An open arse, thou a poperin pear.
Romeo, good night: I’ll to my truckle-bed;
The Dove tree (Davidia involucrata) is a spectacular tree that you don't see very often, but is not so rare that you won't find one growing in larger collections or in the gardens of the aristocracy-come-National-Trust somewhere within reach. I think I saw my first at Heligan in Cornwall but am now lucky to have two closer to home at Deans Court and Canford School, Wimborne. But I have only once encountered one in a smaller private garden, in Lyndhurst, in the course of my work, but what a surprise and a treat it was. When in flower, they attract the attention of even those that are least interested in trees or horticulture. If you come across one in a public place flowering in May, the chances are that there will be several others looking at it at the same time, and if you eavesdrop on their conversations, you will probably hear them expressing wonderment at its beauty, and puzzlement at what on earth it could be - at least that's been my experience.
To protect the bracts, Dove trees should not be placed in an exposed location. They are also susceptible to drought and can be damaged by a late spring frost. They perform best on a good loamy soil and can reach 15-20m. To get maximum impact from the flowers it really needs to be grown as an isolated specimen in plenty of space so that it can spread to its full potential and you can walk around it, admiring it from all sides. There is a little wait between planting and flowering - often five to ten years. The fruit that develop are round and hard - about the size of a walnut.
As the diversity of China's flora became apparent, it attracted the attention of the Nursery trade and there was considerable interest in obtaining and cultivating the new plants for a lucrative market. The Dove tree itself became almost legendary. Veitch & Sons Nurseries, based in Chelsea and Exeter, were one of the largest in Europe, and in 1899 they dispatched an untraveled 23 year old Ernest 'Chinese' Wilson to China to find the Dove tree. His employer's instruction was to 'stick to the one thing you are after and don't spend time and money wandering about'. Wilson sailed to America and on to Hong Kong where an outbreak of bubonic plague prevented any Chinese from leaving and he had to continue to Hanoi without an interpreter. After another 1000 mile journey into China, he met Scottish plantsman Augustine Henry who gave him directions to the location of a Dove tree. This amounted to a crude map on a scrap of paper depicting an area the size of Britain. On this map he indicated the location of a single tree.
Wilson must have been jubilant, but again his notes are measured, describing the tree as 'at once the most interesting and beautiful of the north temperate flora...their bracts...when stirred by the slightest breeze resemble huge butterflies'. He collected the seeds and returned to England in 1902 where his delighted employers awarded him a gold watch.
Veitch Nurseries were to become more despondent as none of Wilson's seeds were germinating and they were discarded. But this was because they needed up to 18 months of stratification to stimulate growth and seedlings were later found germinating on a compost heap. According to Wilson, 'several hundreds' were raised compared to about 13000 produced at the Vilmorin nursery in France who had received a further consignment of seeds. What's more, a subtle difference between the Veitch and Vilmorin trees was to become apparent. The upper surface of the leaves from Wilson's trees were furnished with silky hairs and the underside felted with a thick grey down (strangely, this hairiness takes about seven years to manifest). The leaves of the Vilmorin trees, on the other hand, remained glabrous, apart from some hairiness of the veins, into maturity. Wilson's form of trees would become known as 'the type' - Davidia involuctrata, and Vilmorin nursery would have only the consolation of introducing a variety of the type - Davidia involucrata var. Vilmoriniana. . Although there is very little difference between them we now know that they differ in chromosome number and there are no hybrid intermediates between the two.
Bean W J Trees and Shrubs Hardy in the British Isles
Kingsbury N and Jones A; The Splendour of the Tree
Musgrave, T. Gardner, C. & Musgrave, W. The Plant Hunters, 1998
Johnson H. 1973; Trees
There is plenty on show at the moment - locally many Cherries, Plums, Pears and Magnolias are in full flower, seemingly almost everywhere, heralding spring at last. But I've chosen something that is usually a little smaller, and perhaps a little more subtle, for April's Tree of the Month this year. In America it is the Shadbush, Shadblow, Saskatoon, Chuckley Pear or Seviceberry; here it is better known as the Snowy Mespilus or Juneberry - a clear example of the value of international botanical nomenclature - in this case the genus Amelanchier. That said, once you progress from genus to species, even the botanical nomenclature gets very confusing. A. arborea , which can get to 10m in this country, is often incorrectly called A. canadensis, which is smaller. The oft planted A. lamarckii is (or at least was) also the A. canadensis of many authors, but it might also be labelled A. x grandiflora. Sadly my identification skills are, at best, basic so I simply stick with 'Snowy Mespilus' or the generic 'Amelanchier' and stick with that. The name derives from the Provençal 'amalenquièr' - which is the European form - A. ovalis.
Part of the Rose family, the Amelanchiers are closely related to our Rowans, Whitebeams and Hawthorn . They are a wonderful genus of shrubs and small trees that offer great value to the smaller garden for their wonderful floral displays and autumn colour. Strictly speaking, 'Snowy Mespilus' is the European Amelanchier ovalis, a medium sized shrub, but the name has come to be applied to other introduced species that are commonly found in our gardens. They hail from Europe, Asia, and most abundantly from North America where there are about sixteen species.
They can be propagated by seed or layering and can be grafted onto Hawthorn, but it is not recommended - I'm not sure why but certainly my only tree on a Hawthorn rootstock - a Medlar - struggled to compete. For all I tried to keep the Thorn from taking over, it thrived and finally muscled the crooked Medlar off the graft.
Amelanchier will do well in most soils if not excessively dry or waterlogged. In short, they are not too fussy and are easily cultivated. The most commonly available, and perhaps the best, Amelanchier lamarkii, is a multi-stemmed large shrub or occasionally small tree of up to 10m - though mine has stuck at about 4m and it was planted 17 years ago. I have also seen them effectively used as hedging, happily tolerating the annual trim. The only risk is that being in the Rosaceae family, it can be hit by fireblight disease.
Johnson, H. Trees
Maybey, R. Flora Britannica
Autum colour image: The Tree & Garden Gift Company
Spring is stirring! The Witch Hazel flowers have faded; the snowdrops are still in full display, accentuating the dark red of a Hellebore here at Hearne HQ; daffodils have erupted through the lawn and the Magnolia flower buds have swelled and will burst open any day now. But in the countryside it is now the male catkins, or 'lamb's tails', of the Hazels that catch the eye on my walks with Badger, the 16 year old Springer Spaniel who hobbles rheumatically along with me - sadly a Springer without spring these days.
Hazels are in the Betulaceae family which also includes Birch, Alder and Hornbeam. The map below shows their native range, reaching Britain hot on the heels of Birch as one of the first trees to colonise our shores after the retreat of the last ice age - arriving at around 8500BC. Not surprisingly for a tree that has been around so long, they have played an important role in our history.
Hazel thrives on a loamy soil and will do well in chalky areas. It tolerates some shade but doesn't thrive and barely flowers in it. As larger trees began to colonise the country and shade them out, they retreated to open areas likes cliffs and river banks; it was only with the clearance of woodland by early settlers that it returned in numbers.
Hazels can form small trees of around 6-10m in height but they will mostly be seen as multi-stemmed shrubs renewing from cut stumps (stools) - the cyclical management known as coppicing.
The Hazel is mostly associated with its abundance in our hedgerows and as coppice underwood. It is the ability of the tree to readily sprout from cut stumps (the regrowth being called 'spring'), and the extraordinary flexibility of its regrown poles that has led to its wood being extensively used despite its diminutive size. Deliberate 'coppicing' began around 4000 years ago; the poles can be split lengthways and twisted and bent back on themselves without breaking. From neolithic times the split canes, or wattle, has been used extensively. It made hurdles, fencing and laid the foundations for wattle-and-daub walls. It is also still used for pegging down thatch. Smaller scale use still includes pea and bean sicks and they are popular for decorative walking sticks - especially those that have been constricted by Old Man's Beard (Clematis vitalba).
Coppicing has enjoyed something of a revival and you will certainly find coppice craftsmen at country shows and fairs, selling anything from hurdles and walking sticks to rustic furniture and charcoal. Coppice workers report a diversity of workability of poles from different stools, particularly in the manner in which they split, to the extent that they can predict the behaviour by subtle differences in the appearance of the bark. The resurgence of coppicing has met with the approval of ecologists since the periodic cutting of areas, or coupes, allows the ground flora to recover and provides a diversity of habitat.
The nuts, even in the wild, were greatly valued until relatively recently. Many properties would have some trees for the sake of the nuts. Richard Mabey tells of the owner of Hatfield Forest who, in 1826, complained 'as soon as the Nuts begin to get ripe ... the idle and disorderly Men and Women of bad Character from [Bishop's] Stortford ... come in large parties to gather the Nuts or under pretence of gathering Nuts to loiter about in crowds and in the Evening take Beer and Spirits and Drink in the Forest which affords them an opportunity for all sorts of debauchery.'
Without nuts to tempt you, the late winter catkins and yellow autumn colour have not sufficed to earn the Common Hazel much of a presence in our gardens and parks - but where space permits the Turkish Hazel (Corylus colurna) makes a fine pyramidal tree of up to 25m in height; in smaller gardens ornamental varieties are regularly seen - such as the twisted branches of the Contorted Hazel (Corylus avellana 'Contorta'); the pendulous form (C. avellana 'Pendula') and the Purple-leafed Filbert (Corylus maxima 'Purpurea')
Mabey, R. Flora Britannica
Bean W J. Trees & Shrubs Hardy in the British Isles
Of forest trees, the Lady of the Woods'
The Birches have a beauty, elegance and almost feminine delicacy about them. As Fiona Stafford rather wonderfully puts it, they 'are the ugly ducklings of the tree word; their brown unassuming saplings developing a swan-like beauty as they grow'. But they are also tough customers that can pioneer the way into the most hostile of environments. This 'Lady of the Woods' provides an attractive pale timber, medicines and even a decent wine; but it also has an historical association with punishment, pain, gunpowder and fascism. In short, the Birches can be a bit of a paradox.
The Birches (Betula sp) are in the Betulaceae family; a family that also includes Hazels, Alders and Hornbeam. They have a long ancestry with a fossil record dating back more than 65 million years and have been around long enough to have survived dinosaur browsing. There are now around 60 species in northern Europe, North America and Asia.
There are three Birches native to Britain, but one is the Dwarf Birch (Betula nana) which grows at high altitudes in Scotland and gets to about 4ft at most - so it's a bit of a stretch to call it a tree. The remaining two are the Silver Birch (Betula pendula) and the Downy Birch (Betula pubescens) which will have been among the first vegetation to colonise our shores after the retreat of the last ice age in the Mesolithic period (c. 10000-6000 BC). At Star Carr in Yorkshire, which was occupied from about 8700 BC, an important archaeological site has found evidence of our oldest known dwelling, along with an 11000 year old birch tree trunk with its bark intact. It is an intrepid pioneering tree able to tolerate extreme cold and altitude. There are endless Birch forests in Canada and Siberia; the Himalayan Birch will grow at greater altitudes than even Spruce or Pine; it was a major component of the Caledonian forest and remains a dominant species of Scandinavian forests - as evidenced by a flick through any Ikea catalogue - a truly hardy tree. Birches have a live-fast-die-young strategy and can live for 80-200 years - though 200 is the exception with the average being nearer the 80.
I find it very difficult to tell the Silver Birch from the Downy Birch and some have argued that they are varieties of the same species. But we now know that Silver Birch is a diploid with 28 chromosomes, and Downy Birch a tetraploid with 56; so Downy Birch presumably arose from Silver Birch but is a separate species. Silver Birch tends to have the more graceful drooping branch ends which are particularly accentuated under the weight of catkins in the spring.
There is some diversity in leaf size and shape between the species, from the 6-12mm leafed Dwarf Birch to the 150mm leaf of the Monarch Birch of Japan (B. maximowicziana) - but the greatest variety is in the bark colour and texture - the feature for which they are most frequently used in amenity plantings. I've lost count of the landscaping schemes I've seen that include groups of Himalayan Birch for their wonderful snowy white bark; but Birch are also a good choice where space is limited or heavy shade is undesirable. And their glorious yellow autumn colour should not be underestimated. Here's a selection of barks:
Birch bark not only provides an attractive feature (I recall one author being in raptures about its effect in moonlight), but it has also proved to be an extremely useful material. The whiter barks in particular are rich in phenolics and some produce betulin making it waterproof. This biochemical barrier is almost imperishable - at the 11000 year old archeological dig at Star Carr mentioned above, some sheets of bark were found that had been rolled and tied into scrolls that are thought to have been used as fishing floats. The waterproofing and durability have also led to its use in roofing and boat building - native American Indians built canoes of wood clothed in Birch bark skin that was sewed with spruce roots and porcupine quills. In his 1855 poem The Song of Hiawatha, Henry Wadsworth Longfellow's hero calls upon the Yellow Birch, Betula alleghaniensis, to surrender its bark for his canoe.
Birches, like Cherries, have alternating layers of thin- and thick-walled cork cells resulting in the shedding of papery sheets, most commonly at the end of the growing season and especially after hot weather when shrinkage helps to loosen the bark. The description 'papery' is entirely appropriate since it has long been widely used for writing - the oldest known Hindu manuscripts are Birch bark. The bark also yields Birch Tar oil, once of considerable commercial importance in Russia, where it was used to dress and waterproof leather, giving it a distinctive smell that was considered a mark of quality. Books bound in Russia leather were resistant to mould.
The timber itself is not particularly durable but is attractive, cheap and easily worked. It is widely used for furniture and tool handles for indoor use and, thanks to its bountiful distribution in colder climes, it has been a vital source of firewood. Writing of the great Scottish Birchwoods, J. C. Loudoun describes how 'The Highlanders...make everything of it; they build their houses, make beds and chairs, tables, dishes and spoons; construct their mills; make their carts, ploughs, harrows, gates and fences, and even make rope from it. [It is a] fuel for distilling whiskey, the spray is used for smoking hams and herrings...bark is used for tanning leather and, sometimes, dried and twisted into a rope instead of candles. The spray is used for thatching houses; and, in summer, with the leaves on, makes a good bed'. Birch charcoal has also been much used for gunpowder.
But it is not the bark, timber or sap that have given Birch a darker history - it is the uses to which the branches have been put - and I don't mean the bundles of twigs used as broom ends. The name 'Birch' is synonymous with corporal punishment; flogging with Birch rods replaced the notorious 'cat o' nine tails' as punishment on British naval vessels in the 19th century - presumably it was thought less cruel - but probably still pretty nasty!
I have been unable to track down the definitive origin and meaning of the fasces with google. Why Birch rods? Why an axe head? But certainly one rod would likely break under the weight of an axe but collectively there is strength. This 'strength through unity' symbolism led to its use in the Lincoln memorial. Unnoticed by many, it is the major theme of the memorial - most obviously directly beneath the statue's hands (minus the axe) where thirteen rods represent the original thirteen states to gain independence from Britain, but also on the steps to the memorial (with the axe) and elsewhere. The building itself is supported, fasces-like, by 36 Doric columns representing the (then) 36 united states.
Carey, Frances - The Tree, Meaning and Myth
Johnson, Hugh - Trees
Mabey, Richard - Flora Britannica
Stafford, Fiona - The Long, Long Life of Trees
Thomas, Peter - Trees: Their Natural History
Tudge, Colin - The Secret Life of Trees
Photo of Himalayan Birch with the kind permission of The Planted Garden nursery
The common name, Witch Hazel, derives from the passing resemblance of the leaves to our common Hazel - though they are entirely unrelated - which led early settlers to America to use the shoots for water divining - this possibly earning it the 'witch' in its name. Another possible origin is the Middle English 'wiche' meaning pliant - with Witch Hazel thought to have been used as a synonym for Wych Elm that the American settlers simply transferred to the new shrub. But you may associate the name more with a variety of commercial medical products. It is mostly used as a lotion for applying to bumps and bruises - it's certainly in our medicine cupboard and has been splashed over the kids many a time, though I have no idea whether it actually does any good. It is also often used as a natural remedy for eczema, aftershave applications, ingrown nails, to prevent sweating of the face, cracked or blistered skin, and for treating insect bites.
The Witch Hazels are in the Hamamelidaceae family and are closely related to Persian Ironwood, Sweet Gum and Katsura - all excellent trees. There are four or five species in America, China and Japan and all are distinguished by their thin spidery petals. Some of the best known (and most easily available here) are cultivars of the hybrid Hamamemis x intermedia, which is a cross between the Chinese Hamamelis mollis and the Japanese Hamamelis japonica. To confuse matters, they can be grafted onto the American Hamamelis virginiana.
The flowers are also said to be beautifully scented, but for the life of me I can't smell a thing. Christopher Lloyd, in his 'The Well Tempered Garden' writes of bringing a branch into the house where the warmth releases the scent better - but he warns that the flowers will only last a fortnight indoors after which he is sorely tempted to harvest another, and then again and again until he has decimated the tree.