I’m in awe of trees.
From a design perspective they add a structure, maturity and instant three-dimensionality to any scheme – as well as colour (often changing colour dramatically through the seasons) and texture. (see my blog on planting mature trees.)
It is well-known that trees are the lungs of the earth. Even one tree in your garden can offer a complete habitat for a myriad number of other creatures (birds, mammals, insects) – so planting more of them in your outside spaces is always a positive act.
There are more than sixty-thousand species of tree worldwide and each one is dazzlingly sophisticated, chemically and mechanically. They are incredibly resilient – with some species able to live for several thousand years. Who hasn’t stared at an ancient oak of 100 years or more and shivered to think of what it might have seen – and rather envied it it's long life.
For me, and for many people, simply being in the presence of trees is an emotional experience. I’ve a theory, which I will describe here, that this connection is a result of our long-shared history.
It’s only 250 years since wood was overtaken by iron as our most important fundamental material. For all human history trees have played a vital practical role in our cultural and physical evolution. We built (and build) our homes and furniture out of wood. We cook and keep ourselves warm with wood. Our primitive weapons, spears and bow and arrow, were made principally from wood. We built our boats out of wood (oak, pine, larch and cedar), some trees provide medicines (aspirin and quinine), their fruit and nuts are our food – we are even buried in wooden coffins.
I heard once that, in the past, because of over-crowded small houses and closely-packed communities, young lovers seeking seclusion would often escape to the woods to make love – so, perhaps many of our ancestors were conceived among the trees!
Because of the ancient roots of our relationship with trees woods and forests are deeply embedded in our folklore and fairy tales. Fairy tale characters are always travelling between the woods and the town – Hansel and Gretel, Snow White, Red Riding Hood. As a result, all trees, from the smallest sturdy Rowan to the mightiest and most ancient Elm, have an air of both dignity and mysticism that is, to me at any rate, irresistible. Hence that deep emotional connection with this most magnificent, often beautiful and useful, plant.
Here are a few of my favourites:
Acer Campestre – Field Maple
It’s light brown bark, with corky fissures, give a pleasing gnarled, sculptural feel; and its show stopping buttery yellow autumn colour works well in the slickest of urban gardens bringing a little of the countryside to the town. (See my full blog devoted to this tree.)
Parrotia persica – Persian Ironwood
A show-stopping tree prized for it’s striking autumn colours. Its leaves are a glossy green in spring and summer – turning to purple and then a rich red in autumn.
Cornus controversa – Wedding Cake Tree
Commonly known as a “Wedding Cake Tree” because of it’s white flowers and pretty multiple tiered branches. This trees gives and gives all year. In summer it is festooned with pretty white flowers which turn to fruit – turning red-purple in the autumn.
Fagus sylvatica purpurea – Copper Beech
A stunning tree which, over millennia, has offered a great many uses to man. Like the Common Beech, Copper Beech timber is used for a variety of purposes, including fuel, furniture, cooking utensils, tool handles and sports equipment. The wood burns well and was traditionally used to smoke herring. The edible nuts were once used to feed pigs, and in France they are still sometimes roasted and used as a coffee substitute.
In Celtic mythology, Fagus was the god of beech trees. The tree was thought to have medicinal properties, for example, beech leaves were used to relieve swellings, and boiling the leaves made a poultice.
Northofagus antartica – Antarctic Beech
A hardy tree that really should be more widely planted – it’s a splendid, elegant tree, with honey-scented, glossy mid-green leaves that turn to brilliant yellow and orange in the autumn. It’s bark is a rich brown with slivers of silver all over.
Tilia cordata – Small Leaved Lime
A graceful tree that is a delight to design with. Its pretty scented flowers provide nectar and pollen for bees – especially honey bees. The young, translucent leaves of limes are edible. They can be cooked, but are best eaten raw, added to salads or sandwiches instead of lettuce. Interestingly, during the war, lime blossom was used to make a soothing tea.