Oak © Aaron Parker

Oak - Quercus robur (Pendunculate/English oak) Quercus petraea (Sessile oak);  Photo: © Aaron Parker

Magnificent in every way, the oak, this king of native British trees has played a fundamental role in shaping much-loved landscapes and our enduring perception of the countryside. Supporting a huge web of life, most notably as host to hundreds of insect and other invertebrate species, provider of food (acorns) for people and domestic animals too, source of timber for construction, wood for fuel and bark for tanning and dyes, provider of shelter and shade, symbol of steadfast character, longevity and strength, it's not surprising that the oak was sacred to our forebears.
Now threatened by new pathogens whose spread is one more terrifying consequence of climate breakdown and unregulated global trade the oak must now tap into new reserves of strength to weather the coming storms.


Elder © Aaron Parker

Elder - Sambucus nigra         Photo: © Aaron Parker

Few scents evoke the sense and enjoyment of the countryside in Summer as strongly as that of elder flowers, their distinctive fragrance hanging heavy in the air on still evenings.

A huge body of folklore - which still exerts a hold on many today - is attached to this shrubby tree. With its name linked to the Anglo-Saxon word aeld for fire, and said to be the manifestation of the ancient Scandinavian tree spirit Hylde-Moer, there has long been a belief in the tree as a protective force: for the home and land, for travelers and for animals, and that to cut or burn the wood will bring bad luck. Elder boughs were once hung above doorways to deter evil and were thought capable of protecting from lightening too, and, due to their insect repellent properties, positioned above the doors and windows of dairies and bakeries and planted beside stables and cattle stalls. Despite being maligned by the Church (Judas, it was decided had hanged himself on an elder tree and Christ's cross made from the wood), the idea of protection from evil was not diminished. With a multitude of folk medicinal uses, elder was amongst the plants that once played an important part in rituals that took place on the eve of May Day and on Midsummer's (or St John's) Eve, 23rd June, when bunches containing elder flowers were held over fires so that the smoke produced would drive away impurities.

See : The Elder, The Mother Tree of Folklore, Chris Howkins, 1996


Beech © Aaron Parker

Beech - Fagus sylvatica         Photo: © Aaron Parker

One of Europe's most impressive native trees, the beech is magnificent in late Spring as new leaves unfurl to form a veil of soft, translucent green.

Slim and conical in outline when young, developing a many-branched crown which spreads to form a dense canopy as they age, beech trees were for centuries the source of mast (provided by their three-sided nuts) for grazing animals, and of firewood for domestic and industrial use. Beech wood was to become highly valued as a timber for interior construction and joinery, and especially in the Chilterns for the making of chairs. It is still widely used for furniture, flooring and all sorts of domestic items today.

Widely admired in Britain as a landscape tree for its elegance and grace, the beech was considered 'the most lovely of forest trees' by the 18thC naturalist Gilbert White*. Avenues and clumps of beeches form many notable landmarks, but the current sad obsession in so many towns and suburban areas with a perceived danger to the public as they age and show signs of decay has meant that large numbers of magnificent beeches, still in their prime, are needlessly felled each year. Beech trees will live for several hundred years, if allowed, their old gnarled trunks providing a home for a range of lichens, mosses and fungi, a nesting site for birds and an important habitat for wood-boring insects.

* Gilbert White, The Natural History of Selborne, 1789


Blackthorn © Aaron Parker

Blackthorn - Prunus spinosa         Photo: © Aaron Parker

Producing a magnificent display of white blossom that forms billowing clouds among hedgerows and woodland edges in early spring, often during bitterly cold spells of weather, blackthorn is a significant component of the British countryside.
Its dense growth, armoured with sharp thorns, provides important habitat and shelter for animals and birds including the nightingale. It is also a food plant for many moths and butterfly species including the rare Black Hairstreak butterfly whose caterpillars feed on Blackthorn leaves in spring.
In autumn the beautiful astringent fruit, sloes, that adorn its branches provide a delicious flavouring for gin and other alcoholic drinks, syrup and cordial as well as an ingredient for preserves.


Cherry Plum - Prunus cerasifera © Aaron Parker

Cherry Plum - Prunus cerasifera         Photo: © Aaron Parker

With its profusion of white blossom, swarming with insects on a warm day, the cherry plum (also known as the myrobalan plum) is one of the earliest trees to flower here in Spring. This hardy vigorous relative of the cultivated plum, now naturalised in Britain, is often used as a rootstock for other prunus species and makes an excellent windbreak for protecting other trees.


Hazel - Corylus avellana © Aaron Parker

Hazel - Corylus avellana         Photo: © Aaron Parker

Catkins, the male flowers of Corylus avellana, the common hazel, familiar hedgerow tree and trusted friend. For thousands of years the hazel has helped sustain us: its coppiced stems, which can be easily split and twisted, providing raw materials most notably for house construction, hurdles and fencing; its nutritious nuts, a staple in prehistoric times, offering a bountiful harvest and cause for local celebration in the Autumn.


Apple - Malus  © Aaron Parker

Apple - Malus domestica        Photo: © Aaron Parker

In a Dorset orchard, a long way from its ancestral home in the forests of Kazakhstan and the region of Xianjiang in China (with some input from European crab apples Malus sylvestris along the way) this domesticated apple, Ashmead's Kernel (one of over 2,200 varieties currently held within the National Fruit Collection at Brogdale), awaits the ancient ritual of wassailing to wish it well and a good crop for the coming year.

See : Morgan, J., The New Book Of Apples, Ebury Press, 2002.


Holly - <em>Ilex aquifolium</em> &copy; Aaron Parker

Holly - Ilex aquifolium         Photo: © Aaron Parker

Holly is mostly associated with Christmas in Britain today, but it has a rich folklore and a number of traditional uses, now largely forgotten, stretching back into the past.

One of these was as a fodder for animals in wintertime. Holly trees, which also provide excellent shelter, were once planted and managed for this purpose. Records dating back to the 13th C show that holly was an important winter food for sheep, particularly in the uplands of northern and western England. Cattle - associated in medieval times with woodland grazing – as well as horses and pigs might also be fed the leaves of this woody evergreen to supplement their diet in winter. Of the various woodland trees browsed naturally by animals, including deer, holly leaves have one of the highest calorific contents and are nutrient-rich*.

*Nature Conservancy Council, ‘The Food & Feeding Behaviour of Cattle and Ponies in the New Forest’, 1983, in: Mabey, R., Flora Britannica, Chatto & Windus, 1997, p246

See also: Spray, M., ‘Holly as a Fodder in England’, The Agricultural History Review, January 1981, 29 (2): 97-110.