Who's Who of British trees
Hello there! As this is National Tree Week I thought I’d write a mini Who’s Who guide to keep everyone up to date with the hip-hop-happenings of the tree world. So read on to find out about the biggest name in British trees!
Birch – Everyone loves Birch – and with their white bark, slender trunk and head of cascading triangular leaves it’s not hard to see why. In fact, the Ancient Celts believed Birch was a symbol of purification and renewal. But don’t let their seemingly innocent appearance fool you, Birch is a hardy thing, bravely leading the way to colonise new ground. They’re generous too, with deep roots that can bring inaccessible nutrients up to the surface to pave the way for new trees. There are two types of birch native to Britain - it’s easy to remember how to tell them apart though: the branches of the Silver Birch droop downward and the branches of Downy Birch do not – could it BE any easier to remember? A Birch woodland is a pretty great place, with a light, open canopy allowing grasses, mosses and flowers such as bluebells and violets to grow. Fungi such as the woolly milk cap and birch knight will also find a home here. As the pioneering Birch often settles on acidic soil, heather and bilberry may also be seen.
Willow – Ah, the classic Grade-A student, Willow can unashamedly do it all. Grows quickly – check, can be bent into shapes to make a cool den – check, cut branches can re-root to form new plants – check, supports a rich array of wildlife – check, has a fictional counterpart that can beat people up – check. There are many, many different species of willow and they can hybridise really easily so I’m not going to even pretend I begin to know how you might tell them apart. The different species can vary from being small shrubs (such as the pussy willow) to tall trees (such as the crack willow). You can recognise a willow from their long, thin leaves and their fondness for wet soils (they can often be found loitering along riverbanks). In conservation they’re really useful for bioengineering: they can be weaved along river banks – a technique known as willow spiling - to prevent them eroding, or bundles of Willow can be placed along slopes, and when they grow back they slow the flow of water, again preventing erosion.
Ash – My own personal favourite; the best word to describe Ash is graceful. In winter Ash is easily recognised by the velvety black buds which grow opposite each other on the smooth grey twigs – a most attractive site – you’ll know it when you see it. The leaves are shy little things, one of the last to appear in spring and then falling in early autumn whilst their still green. An Ash woodland has a wonderful domed canopy and is often found with an understory of Hazel and provides enough light for wildflowers such as dog violet, dogs mercury and wild garlic. Ash can live for over 400 years and as it gets older (and probably wiser) the smooth bark fissures. Ash is often thought of as a protective tree, in British folklore it is particularly associated with child health and three of the five legendary guardian trees of Ireland are Ash. In Norse mythology the magnificent tree Yggdrasil which connects the worlds is an Ash. They believed that Ash was the ‘Tree of Life’. Hopefully they were wrong about this, as Ash is currently under severe threat from Ash Dieback, a fungal disease which has been devastating the Ash trees across Europe and is estimated to threaten 95% of European Ash trees.
Elder - Although universally disliked by both my old boss Rosie and JK Rowling and her wizarding world, I rather like elder. Yes their gnarled, wrinkled trunk and branches give off a definite 'I'd dead' vibe, but I think this rather adds to their charm. Plus the centre of the twigs and branches is soft and pithy, meaning it can be poked out make hollow twigs, perfect for making whistles or beads. However it seems like I am a little bit lonely sitting here in the 'I like Elder' club: in Christianity Elder is one of the trees accused of having produced the wood for Jesus's crucifix, in ancient pagan beliefs burning Elder would summon the devil and even flies avoid them (the aroma form the leaves repels them). Come on, lets have a bit of Elder love, after all who doesn't love a bit of Elder Flower cordial made from the flowers of Elder?
Oak – Was there ever a tree quite so overrated as the mighty Oak? I mean yes they support the greatest biodiversity of any tree in Britain and yes they have long been associated with Royalty and linked to the Greek God Zeus and the Celtic God Dagda but can they really do anything Ash can’t? (That was a rhetorical question; I don’t want to hear about how tannin in the bark has been used to tan leathers, how acorns were processed into flour before the domestication of wheat or how useful the incredibly durable timber is). An Oak tree is easily recognised from spring to autumn, due to their distinctive leaves which have rounded lobes and the presence of acorns, which may be on stalks in which case the tree is an English Oak or not on stalks, in which case it is a Sessile Oak. As Oak is a climax vegetation, Oak woodland support a rich array of wildlife. Also the leaves rot pretty quickly forming a rich carpet of leaf matter. And yet, despite all the evidence I just can't bring myself to like them, sorry Oak.
Rowan – I always think of Rowan as a bit of a wall flower, sturdy, solid, very red berries and blossom but just a bit ... forgettable. The leaves look a little similar to that of Ash so Rowan is
sometimes even known as Mountain Ash, but don’t let this tricksy name fool you, they aren’t related. It’s rumoured to ward of witches, so in The Olden Times children’s cribs used to be made of Rowan. In fact there is a lot of cool mythology surrounding the Rowan: in Norse Mythology it was believed the first woman was made from rowan and it then saved the life of the God Thor by bending over a fast flowing river and helping the God back to shore and in Greek mythology the rowan was formed from a typically convoluted story involving Hebe, the goddess of youth, a magical chalice, demons and an eagle. The upshot of this tale is that the shape of the Rowan’s leaves represent the eagles feathers and the red berries represent drops of blood from the eagle. But in real life I find Rowan just doesn’t quite live up to these tales so I’m sorry Rowan, it’s a no from me.
Hawthorn – My dear Hawthorn where shall I begin? We get it, you like to blossom in the
spring. It looks nice. It’s good for bees. But let me give you some advice, you’re not the only tree that can blossom so do you really have to hog the limelight and take up all the hedges of England? Come on, let’s give someone else a chance to shine! Maybe I’m a little biased because whilst pruning a hawthorn I managed to prick myself on one of the thorns and my thumb swelled up because there are some good things about hawthorn. The small, lobed leaves of Hawthorn just scream ‘classic English hedge’, Hawthorn is sure of their style and they pull it off well, but teamwork is not their forte. To really help pollinators, hedges should be made up of a mixture of Hawthorn with Blackthorn, Elder, Cherry, Crab Apple and, I’m forgetting one ... oh yeah Rowan, so there is a longer sequence of blossom along the hedge and bees etc. have more time to collect their pollen.
Beech – Beech is a sly one. Often thought to be the Queen to the Kingly Oak. They are related to Birch, (I like to think of Beech as the ugly stepsister to Birch’s Cinderella / girl next door vibe) but unlike the generous Birch, Beech woodlands form a dense canopy which allows very little light to penetrate to the ground and a thick carpet of fallen leaves both of which work to prevent other species growing in a Beech woodland. They’re also quite sneaky in that when the wood is boiled it becomes the same
colour as mahogany, so Victorians planted lots of beech plantations so they could make bobbins that looked like mahogany and sell them at a higher price. To make it worse beech can live for thousands of years, admittedly this is good for the wildlife it does support, such as the truffle fungus and coralroot bitter-cress and (because it lives so long) provides a good
habitat as deadwood.
So there you go, that’s my guide to some of the native trees in Britain. If you want a slightly less biased version then go to The Woodland Trust's very useful website.
To discover more of the terrific trees along the Adventure All Ways route check out these ideas:
Arts Trail - Why not get outside and have a go at drawing some of Yorkshire's trees, here's a handy little guide to help.
Challenge Trail - If you fancy heading a little off the Adventure All Ways trail head to the Go Ape Trail at Dalby Forest.
Mindful Trail - Forests can be a very relaxing place to get back in touch with nature, find out more here
Nature Trail - Learn to identify trees during winter with a handy guide like this and head to a nearby woodland to practice!