At the beginning of 2020 UK trees are getting a good press and their significance and importance is better recognised. The more we think about trees and what they can do for us so it is worth considering if and how trees think for themselves.
Early Years Thinking
How can we (the tree) get our seed distributed in an optimum manner. We want it in the right place at the right time to germinate and grow. We will use all the tricks of natures trade including water, wind and air blown distribution, animal and creature carrying with the possibility of a bit of fertiliser dropped in for free.
Our seed contains a genetic memory of our species and our specific parentage. Memory implies the basis of a thinking ability which will help govern our development into a full blown adult tree.
We think about our survival and often anticipate a high germination failure rate and significant early year losses. So we produce a volume of seed to counteract the anticipated conditions including weather, location and external factors.
Mid Life Thoughts and Actions
We trees recognise that we are part of a far wider natural and environments system and that we need ecological partnerships. One of the foremost partnership must be with the soil our home for life. The composition and inter-actions are worth much further thought and exploration. Our fruit, bark, canopy and shelter provide conditions for creatures, lichen and others and we can slowly modify our mix of the resources provided to keep pace with changing requirements.
Survival calls for our inherited skills. In some cases we must shed unwanted or unsustainable branches and we broad leaf trees are all taught from an early age to shed leaves each year once they have done their job. We think the rotting down of all these cast offs will enhance the soil fertility and feed the worms and fungus that are another partner.
Our fertile years turn thoughts to reproduction and particularly fertility. As we mature our hormones tell us to flower and set seed more profusely. Pollination needs the help of others such as insects, birds or winds.
Give a thought to our roots which are largely hidden from human view. We start to spread them beyond our canopy as we think it is a sensible thing to do.
In middle-age our crowns will level out, limbs grow thicker and we develop our own individual character.
Thoughts on Old Age
Venerable Oaks, Yews, Pines and many of our fellow species will live to a ripe old age of many hundreds of years. They have learnt to survive despite climate changes, war and pestilence both human and natural. You think that is just by accident? No we thought not!
We think that bending a branch down to earth will give us stability for a bit longer and hollowing out our trunk may provide food for our roots.
We grow faster the older we get until we reach a certain height but then stop getting taller.
Our dead trees can provide a good habitat for wildlife by providing food and shelter. First we should watch for insect and disease attacks that reduce our health and life expectancy.
This page is not just a ‘bonfire of the inanities’ but ‘shiver my timbers’ it is a plank for future.
I have been inspired later in life by trees and all things with a tree connection. My previous lack of knowledge and propensity to skirt over a massive subject will be developed into a more active skirmish but probably in my normal skittish manner.
Planning the project on the hoof I am starting in the middle of a tree life with a couple of early January photos of buds. Some may think this Tree Peony bud is more of a shrub but I am using it to make a point about differentiation between trees and shrubs. In the main a shrub has more than one main stem whilst a tree has a single trunk. There are notable exceptions but that will do me for the time being. Another arbitrary difference is that trees are thought of as being taller than shrubs or bushes.
These buds were on what I took to be a large horse chestnut and I could only reach to photograph them with great difficulty. I can’t climb up trees to take as many photos as I wish as ‘I’m not a lumber jack and that not OK’.
Bud burst is a key and often colourful moment. Rhododendrons tend to feature more in the shrub category but the large older specimens at RHS Harlow Carr, for example, hit the tree heights as far as I am concerned. The Guinness Record for the tallest Rhododendron arboreum at 108 ft is still growing in India .
Tree or Shrub Differences.
In the UK gardening fraternity we are more familiar with ornamental shrubs for their colour, form and aesthetic appeal. Trees appeal at a higher level.
Height is a differentiator but even experts have their differences.
Capture more carbon with some trees as a contribution to a better environment. Whips, trees, hedging and field grown saplings are available without the excess packaging of plastic pots and gaudy plastic labels. They are also great value.
Bare root trees, as they ‘say on the tin’ (or not the plant pot) are loose and free of a soil ball.
Late autumn to early spring are the best time for planting trees that are supplied from free grown ground.
Select a suitable site bearing in mind sun/shade wind direction and visual expectations.
Prepare a hole larger than the full extent of the roots so they can be spread out.
Break up the soil at the bottom so no hard pan can form a sump for excess water.
Soak the roots in a bucket of water for an hour then water well after planting.
Trim off any broken or damaged roots with a sharp knife
Prior to planting place a support stake in the hole and firm the soil around the tree progressively to avoid large pockets of air.
Mulch with organic matter and water regularly as the tree is established.
Try planting some fruit trees, ornamentals or extensive hedges using bare root stock.
As I walked past a line of trees the beech nut husks crunched under foot. The pavement was strewn with copious quantities of this crunchy produce from the venerable trees. I was moved to include a few notes on nature’s masting process.
A mast year occurs when a bumper crop is produced. It has the effect of increasing the potential for reproduction but also feeds-up creatures in anticipation of a hard winter.
Mast seeding is also called masting and the produce is a mast
Mast years are so called due to the production of many seeds by a plant every two years or so
Masts are often produced in in regional synchrony with other plants of the same species.
It is thought a mast year may be designed as a defense to assist reproduction of a species because seed predators become satiated before all the seeds have been consumed.
Many species ‘mast’ including oak, hickory, and beech with their acorns, hickory nuts, and as with beechnuts they produce a ‘hard mast’.
Fruit trees and other species may produce a soft mast but the volume of produce will still be much more fruit than normal
The Judas tree appreciates a warm spot and is a star in May when the leafless branches are adorned with lilac/pink flowers. Grow your own from seeds in February or March.
According to legend this is the tree on which Judas hanged himself after betraying Jesus. After Judas died the white flowers are said to have turned red with his blood and shame.
Avoid anywhere too exposed as the stems are rather brittle
Judas Tree by Vassilis Online CC BY-SA 2.0 ‘Cercis siliquastrum, commonly known as Judas Tree, is a small deciduous tree from Southern Europe and Western Asia which is noted for its prolific display of deep-pink flowers in spring.’
Leaf of Japanese judas tree by Amehare CC BY-NC-ND 2.0
Cercis siliquastrum (I) -vainas- (Pods) by .Bambo CC BY-NC-SA 2.0
Judas Tree by Ava Babili CC BY-NC-ND 2.0
Trees can be individually inspiring but when trees are gathered or clumped together they can range from the majestic to the commercially relevant. Over centuries trees have provided the largest social impacts from shelter, sustenance and products from timber. Through changing seasons the aesthetic benefits of the wide variety of trees also give a significant amount of personal pleasure.
Despite problems of disease in some species and Sheffield council contracting to chop down trees close to highways, trees are ubiquitously visible throughout the UK.
Tree Zones and Areas Where You See Trees
Woods in all shapes and sizes
Forest – now applied to conifers but historically area where forest laws applied
Copse – broad leaved woodland
Park – traditionally containing more widely spread trees
Clough or Ghyll
Gill or Dingle – wooded valley
Carr – usually alder & willow on wetland
Chase or firth – a hunting area
Enclosure – once land held in common
Hanger -wood on a steep slope or bank
Shaw- small wood
Spring – coppiced woodland
Wildwood- original forest from the last ice age
Memorials – graveyards crematoria and special areas
Nurseries and specialist tree vendors
National Trust Properties
Wild in nature
If you wish to take issue with my selection or know where I have ignored a favourite ‘tree zone’ then send us a comment.
The flowering crab apples, Malus Rosaceae, are excellent floral trees with the added bonus of small usually edible fruit. The Malus Red Sentinel above has a profusion of small hard red autumn fruit that can be admired in the garden, left to feed birds, converted into a jelly or added to other food dishes. Crab apples generally contain a deal of pectin and are seldom eaten uncooked.
Favourite Crab Apple Varieties
Golden Hornet is a small tree with white flowers producing a large crop of small yellow fruit.
John Downie perhaps the best fruiting large conical crab apples of bright orange to red.
Jay Darling is ornamental with large, deep red flowers and crimson tinted foliage.
Eleyi has purpleish shoots and very decorative purpleish fruit in Autumn. Slightly later flowering and a good pollinator.
Profusion is a fragrant hybrid with large wine red clustered flowers. Ox-blood red fruit make this one of the best Crab Apples.
The best trees for chalk soil conditions tend to be locally grown and not be Dutch imports. In fact they resemble shrubs more than trees but there are the odd exception that are tree like.
Lilac trees will tolerate limey chalk or clay soils. They are grown for the wonderful scent of the lilac blossom in spring and other than that they are not much of a feature. Syringia vulgaris Primrose is a white flowered variety and Syringia vulgaris Sensation has purple flowers with white edges. The flowers of the lilac make conical panticles which are useful in large flower arrangements.
Generically called the thorn these small trees have a variety of flowers and berries depending on the species including the Hawthorn. All species seem to do well in chalk soil. Crataegus laevigata Crimson Cloud has bright red flowers whilst Pauls Scarlet is a round-headed tree with red haws in autumn.
They are hardy and will tolerate pollution and some shade but perform best in full sun.
Aesculus Horse Chestnuts produce conkers not edible chestnuts. They are stately trees needing room to grow to over 16 feet.
Aesculus parviflora is one of the smaller growing varieties that will suit a garden with chalk soil.
Carpinus betulus Hornbeams are a small genus of medium sized trees for chalk soil. Carpinus betulus Frans Fontaine is a slender fastigate form retaining its narrow habit with age. Carpinus japonica has many catkins, corrugated leaves and grows in a wide spread suitable for garden use.
Sambucus is a hardy shrub or small ornamental tree for chalk soil or many other conditions. Sambucus nigra has black leaves and light pink to white flower bracts.
Cotoneasters will grow in most soil conditions. They are invaluable for attracting hoverflies to the white flowers, birds to the red berries and gardeners to the shape and form of a good all-rounder.
Cotoneaster hybrid pendulus can be grown as a small weeping tree with arching branches. Cotoneaster horizontalis is commonly referred to as the Fish Bone cotoneaster
Lets get to the root of the problem, we seldom get to see roots in action but they are crucial to most plants and trees.
When it comes to trees their roots have two critical functions. Firstly they take up water and minerals. Secondly they help to anchor the tree often utilising a longer tap root. The solid root plate near the trunk normally extends as far as the leaf canopy. Thinner finer lateral roots can extend twice as far in search of water and nutrients. Other root functions for some species include storage of food or nutrients and as part of a reproduction or regeneration system.
Even today, few places can rival an English oak wood in early summer for peace and beauty with its carpet of primroses and bluebells. Or the cathedral-like majesty of the autumn beech wood with the sun’s light filtering through the leaves. Or the brooding quiet of the ancient holly wood. Perhaps it is not surprising that our remote ancestors performed their acts of worship in forest clearings and woodland glades, for this is where they came face to face with ‘Nature’ – however they close to see it.
Myths About Tree Roots
Trees have long been held as part of the superstitions about witches
Roots do not penetrate solid objects like wall of drainage pipes that are in good condition.
Roots wont affect foundations except on clay soil where they help take away moisture and cause shrinkage.
After planting roots are not always keen to extend into surrounding soil unless it is broken up and loosened before hand.
Trees need watering even after the first year. Roots take time to establish and be able to supply the needs of of a growing tree. Make sure it is watered for the first 3 years and seldom allowed to dry out completely.
Not surprisingly roots will take the easy route if they find cracks in pavements or leaking drains.
‘Throughout our long history, forests have been places of shelter, providing food for man and fodder for the animals; the wood for fuel (i.e. warmth and cooking) and for making weapons and other utensils. At the same time they have also been places of fear, where the temperamental Faere Folk, wood sprites and elementals lurked in the dappled shadows.’
Pot bound’ is the phrase used when a containerised plant has roots that fill or over fill the pot and satrt going round and round in search of new soil. The pot below has not quite reached a critical stage as the rooot ball can be teased out.
If roots are left in a tight circle that is how they will stay and the plant will not thrive. I have occasionally dug out a poor plant to find the original compost is all that is feeding the plant and it is often bone dry. It is hard to rewet plants grown in peat coir and other similar substances.