OCTOBER

Wild Service Tree © Aaron Parker

Wild Service Tree - Sorbus torminalis  Photo: © Aaron Parker

An indicator of ancient woodland and hedgerows, particularly associated with England's southern Weald, the wild service tree is now rare in the wild but was once particularly appreciated for the extraordinary bounty it provides in Autumn, as its small greenish-bronze fruits that hang in clusters, soften to become deliciously sweet. With a date-like taste that's been described as 'not quite like anything else that grows wild in this country, with hints of apricot, sultana, overripe damson and tamarind, and a lightly gritty texture'*, ripe wild service fruits were a staple in Neolithic times and popularly eaten as a sweet treat where they were available until relatively recently.

Sold in the mid 19th C in shops and markets, often to children, they were also hung up indoors in strings for home consumption or used to make or flavour alcoholic drinks. Developing a patterning of small, pale-coloured spots as they ripen in mid Autumn, the fruit and the trees were commonly known as 'chequers', a name also given to a number of pubs in southern England, many of which have or had wild service trees growing in their gardens or nearby. A chequer board sign was often hung outside pubs however, and although it seems likely, it is not clear whether the wild service tree is indeed the origin of this name.

Birds such as mistle thrushes and pigeons are particularly fond of ripe wild service tree berries.

* R. Mabey, Flora Britannica, Chatto & Windus, 1997, p205


SEPTEMBER

Rowan © Aaron Parker

Rowan - Sorbus aucuparia  Photo: © Aaron Parker

In the Autumn the rowan comes into its own with magnificent displays of scarlet berries.

Attractive to many birds - especially redwings, waxwings and other members of the thrush family - and also consumed by people (today generally in the form of preserves), it was perhaps because of the striking red of its berries that the rowan is said to have been sacred to the Celts and was long regarded as a tree of protection.

Rowans were once commonly planted around graveyards and households as 'guardian' trees and their wood was used in the construction of yokes for oxen and to make plough handles in the belief that this would both protect the plough man and drive evil spirits from the fields. Until the end of the 19th century, other agricultural tools, as well as cattle prods and the handles of whips, walking sticks, babies' cradles, coffins and boundary markers might also be made of or could include rowan wood, all to help deter evil spirits. No other plant was considered as powerful for protecting milk from the 'evil eye' - thought to make milk curdle - so twigs or sprays of rowan were hung up in dairies or nailed to cattle stalls, while milk churns and stirrers were made at least in part from rowan timber too. Rowan twigs might be entwined around the horns of cattle or around their necks for further protection from harm, particularly around Mid-Summer's eve, when the spirit world was thought to be particularly active.

Also known as the mountain ash because of the similarity of its leaves to those of ash trees, the rowan, a hardy, relatively small tree, comfortable at high altitudes and most common in the north and west of the UK, belongs to the rose family.

See: C. Howkins, Rowan: Tree of Protection, 1996
C. Howkins, A Dairymaids Flora, 1994
R. Mabey, Flora Britannica, Chatto & Windus, 1997


AUGUST

Silver Birch © Aaron Parker

Silver Birch - Betula pendula  Photo: © Aaron Parker

The silver birch with its elegantly drooping branches is, like its closest relatives - some 46 other birch species - an eminently useful tree. Every part of it has been used by peoples of the northern hemisphere - from the sap, now found on supermarket shelves, that gave the peoples of Russia's Volga river a refreshing drink in spring time nearly 1,000 years ago, its twigs and leaves and multi-purpose bark, to timber that forms a major source of commercial paper pulp in Europe today.

A pioneer of cold climates, colonising woodland gaps and forest fringes, improving barren soils for other longer-lived trees, each year the silver birch releases millions of minute seeds from catkins that ripen and disintegrate as autumn draws near. Picked up and dispersed by the wind the seeds can travel far on lightweight papery wings to form new birch trees many miles distant from their parent tree.

Important for wildlife as a source of food and habitat, and fulfilling a significant ecological role, the birches so widely planted in parks and gardens as amenity trees today, also improve the quality of our air by trapping pollution particles in the fine hairs on their leaves.

See:
Ashburner, K. & H. A. McAllister, The Genus Betula: A Taxonomic Revision of Birches, Kew Publishing, 2013
Lewington, A. Birch, Reaktion Books, 2018


JULY

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.


JUNE

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


MAY

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


APRIL

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.


MARCH

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.


FEBRUARY

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.


JANUARY

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.
brogdalecollections.org


DECEMBER

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.