Our trees provide wonderful environmental benefits and play a crucial role in ensuring our atmosphere remains oxygen-rich. Here are six of our favourite natives.
Illustrations by Lyn Alice.
We have two species of native lime, or Tilia – the small-leaved (cordata, also known as linden trees) and the large- leaved (platyphyllos), as well as the fertile hybrid that these two produce, the common lime, T x vulgaris. Of the two species, the small-leaved is more widespread and has a huge variety of uses. It needs a summertime
temperature of at least 20oC to produce fertile fruit, so, when the climate in Britain cooled (around 3,000BC) it stopped seeding itself, and in the years that followed was overtaken as the most common lowland tree of England. The linden tree, if coppiced, has an almost indefinite lifespan, and there are stumps that are up to 10m across. The most impressive one is in Gloucestershire, where 60 large trees are growing in a circle 48 feet in diameter – DNA testing has shown them to be genetic clones.
Lime coppicing was used for fuel, hop poles, and for sticks for Morris dancing because the wood does not splinter.
The layer between the bark and the greenwood was used to twist ropes, and the wood itself is soft and clean cutting, making it perfect for carving. Like its sibling lime species, the linden has the most wonderful smell in July, when it blossoms, and the noise of insects and particularly bees is testimony to their sweet flavour, too. The honey from lime trees is light, aromatic and has some very good antiseptic properties, thanks to its acidic pH levels.
Prunus avium blossoms in April, before the leaves are out, giving a fantastic display with its delicate white flowers, and matching in spectacle its autumn leaf display, which is full of red and copper colours. The bark, too, is beautiful, with layers of deep shiny conker-red patches revealed as the top layers peel off. Preferring chalky soils, the cherry is more often found in the southern half of the country. Common names include Gean, Murry and Mazzard. The last, Mazzard, is used in Devon, and can refer to a self-fertile cultivar that comes true from seed and is used as rootstock for fruiting cultivars. This is a short-lived species, but the timber is tough, and has an appearance that, when polished, can resemble mahogany. The fruit is edible for humans, though not pleasant, being bitter – however they are ideal for making cherry brandy with. If we don’t use them, birds and other creatures will – they are a fine feast, and it’s not unusual to find little piles of stones left by squirrels and mice in late-July/early- August when the fruit ripens. While the Latin translation means “bird cherry”, the name bird cherry in Britain refers to Prunus Padus, a small tree or shrub.
The oak that is called “English” oak is of course not limited to England. A native in Europe west of the Caucasus, the English or Pedunculate oak does have pride of place in Britain, and the number of ancient and vast oaks does, indeed, exceed those of other western European countries. Quercus robur can have a lifespan of well over half a millenium but the trees become big characters well before that, with their craggy, powerful limbs. Robur, in fact, means strength, and comes from the hard timber produced by oaks. Some have a fantastic circumference, with the thickest tree in Britain, the Majesty Oak, having a circumference of more than 12m. The flowers of the oak are barely noticed in mid spring, but acorns are, as they ripen in autumn. So are the oak galls, which usually appear towards the end of May, formed by wasp larvae on the end of twigs. Oaks were frequently coppiced or pollarded, which can extend their lifespan: the Bowthorpe oak in Lincolnshire is said to be 1,000 years old. Acorns are a valuable food source, not only for small mammals, but also for jays, who are thought to be the great propagators of oaks, collecting acorns from under the parent tree and burying them elsewhere.
Some of our willow species can be hard to tell apart, even more so as they freely hybridise, notably the crack and white willows. However, Salix fragilis is named for the splitting and cracking that is inevitable as the tree grows so fast, but cannot support its own weight. Common on damp, flood-prone ground and in valleys, the crack willow is often planted to stabilise banks and is often pollarded, reducing the chances of splitting. These are the willows of The Wind in the Willows: leaning, gnarled, knobbly trunks. The trunks are often completely hollow, with crowns full of holes – combined with fallen leaves, this can form an ecosystem in miniature, and it isn’t uncommon to find other plants growing in the crown of an old willow, such as ferns, honeysuckles, holly or elder. One of the easiest trees to propagate, you simply cut a few whips and stick them in the ground. While the crack willow can be used when thin and young poles are cut to make baskets, other willow varieties are preferred, such as Osier and golden willows. All the willow varieties have medicinal properties that were traditionally used for chills, rheumatism and ague (malaria).
The favoured wood for harps – one was found among the treasure uncovered at Sutton Hoo, the maple has tough, fine-grained wood, and is used for turning and carving. It possibly has the best gold of all the autumn colours produced by trees. Like other maple species, it produces helicopter seeds, after attractive clusters of yellow-green flowers in spring. A great tree both
as standalone and as hedging, field maples are a bit overlooked. Very shade tolerant, they can grow under relatively dense cover, with rapid early growth, although they need more light as they start to fruit. Growth slows after the initial spurt so the field maple is often overtaken and then overshadowed by other species. The field maple has also led to a huge number of named cultivars for decorative planting, and straight Acer campestre is now more common in cities thanks to its high tolerance of pollution. Its cousin, Acer pseudoplatanus, or sycamore, does not elicit the same fond response and is blamed for “the wrong sort of leaves” on our railway tracks as well as the sticky honeydew (produced by aphids) that sticks to parked cars. Worse still, the sycamore is now viewed as an “exotic”, despite it having been here since the 15th or 16th century.
Carpinus betulus has a few common names that distract from its familial link to the birch family, yoke elm and beech. Abundant in southern and eastern England, it grows in mixed stands with oak and beech and can be found in scree woodland. A handsome tree, it has very hard wood but is not useful as timber because it blunts tools – it was sometimes used for cogs, where the strength was needed. However, it made fantastic charcoal, and fuel was its most popular use – it was a particular favourite as a pollarded tree in Epping Forest. Like lime trees, the layer under the bark, but above the greenwood, seems to protect it, making it a good tree to plant where animals graze – and a tree that can survive squirrel damage.
Hornbeams stand up very well to being cut back hard, making it an excellent choice for hedges and it is often used in formal garden settings, and for topiary.