Quote of the day:
“It is December, and nobody asked if I was ready.”
– Sarah Kay
Forage in December for:
Alexanders, Sloes, Dandelion Leaves, Hawthorn berries
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So here is an exotic, tropical-looking tree (height ~25m), often grown to give a jungly feel to a garden, that can rather surprisingly take temperatures of down to -40 deg C. Yes, it’s seriously that hardy. It’s name is Kalopanax septemlobus, otherwise known as the Prickly Castor Oil tree or Tree Aralia. It hails from Asia.
I don’t have one in the garden since it punches out large prickles along the surface of every appendage (e.g. see photo below) and I avoid thorns where possible.
This one is growing in the gardens at Wimpole Hall and once again I must confess to not really seeing the tree, for years. In fairness, this is largely because it has always looked like a simple, vicious stick with a few palmate leaves on the end. On some trees the leaves can be deeply incised and very ornamental, on others not so much. Its autumn colour is usually good too.
This summer something wonderful happened. It flowered …
and was completely covered in huge clusters of ivy-like flowers, which were completely covered in insect pollinators.
And now the tree is laden with black sticky seed heads that are proving irresistible to the birds. Last time I passed the tree there were lots of blue tits performing aerial acrobatics to get at the fruits. If you look carefully at the silhouette photo above, you can see a tit in the middle of the photo carrying off a seed, but here is another slightly better shot of one making off with a seed:
So if you can put up with those prickles, this is a useful ‘tropical’, but hardy tree with interesting features and good wildlife potential.
Walk in a wood and your troubles fade away … seems true for me. Sadly, living on the edge of the fens there aren’t many sizeable woods around here and Thetford Forest (our nearest) is mostly a conifer mono-culture, which isn’t the same thing at all. However, over the past few years I have been discovering and visiting a number of smaller sanctuaries of a few hectares in dimension. Mostly they get mentioned at bluebell time, but this week I felt keen to visit a beech grove, large enough to get total immersion in those warm russet hues at least. So I did a search and discovered a local nature reserve I’ve not been to before. It is called Beechwoods (promising) is close to Wandlebury Ring, which I love and have written about previously.
Beechwoods* covers an area of 5 hectares and consists of two adjacent, rectangular plantations. The eastern plot was planted in the 1840s and is of mature beech. The western plot was planted by local people in 1992 and is an area of broad-leaved trees chosen to provide complementary habitats to the older wood.
So I visited yesterday, on a grey, drizzly day and nevertheless was cheered to have made the effort. Many of the leaves are now on the ground, but look at that coppery glow.
From what I’ve read, the mature woodland was struck quite badly by the catastrophic storm of 1986, which brought down trees in a number of areas. These giants were felled and replanted, but saplings are also making the most of the thin canopy near these gaps.
Elsewhere, the dense canopy allows very little in the way of understory to develop and this is what creates that dramatic, architectural feel to beech woods.
I discovered that it is lethal to walk while admiring the vaulted ‘roof’, because rippling across the floor are thick, knobbly surface roots.
Looking up this is what I saw: the remaining leaves were wet and beautifully translucent, like amber.
Similar to the beech plantation at Fox Covert near Royston, helleborines are known to thrive here on the thin, chalky soils beneath the trees. In November they are long gone, but looking down at the beech mast covered the roots, there is a whole world of fungi bursting into fruit now.
Management of dead wood is sensitive and practical. If you look carefully at this fallen trunk for instance, you will see that it has been transform into a seat. Useful for a stop to enjoy the woody atmosphere.
The path loops back lower down the slope and, being protected, these trees retain more of their leaves, adding to that cosy, blanketing feeling.
Just as I was about to exit the woods I spotted a green man:
Cute, isn’t he? So I left with a smile on my face!
*Beechwoods is looked after by The Wildlife Trust
In celebration of … continuously learning new things.
I’ve been working at Wimpole Hall for about 10 years now and I would say that I am familiar with most of the trees growing there, so it was with some surprise that when handed a fallen leaf by the Head Gardener and asked what it was, I had no idea. Even worse then that when he told me it was from a Chequers tree I still had no idea what that looked like or where it was in the garden. Here are some of its leaves:
Rather like massive hawthorn leaves aren’t they?
OK, so it turns out to be a Sorbus, specifically Sorbus torminalis, otherwise known as the Wild Service tree (which at least I’ve heard of!).
Sorbus torminalis is a fairly rare, shade-tolerant, small tree (~25 m) which is native to lowland England and Wales (also various regions of mainland Europe). It grows best on calcareous clays and thin soils over limestone. Interestingly, it has a long history of use in Britain.
Apparently, Sorbus torminalis is “extremely non‐gregarious” (Peter Thomas, Journal of Ecology, 2017), which strikes me as funny because, way back, its fruits were used to flavour beer, hence the name of many a pub around here … a place epitomising the very essence of conviviality. In fact, to advertise the availability of this beer a landlord would hang out a chequers/chess board. It’s still a much-used sign:
Sadly, I have no pictures of the fruits, but I understand that they should be blet (allowed to over-ripen) before eating them (similar to medlars) and that they have a taste reminiscent of dates. To get a reasonable crop and ripen seed requires a good long, hot summer.
An alternative idea for the Chequers common name is the speckling on the fruit (or even the boxy pattern on mature bark).
I love it when there are stories linking today’s discoveries in our cultural history.
As if trees (and woods and forests and jungles) weren’t magical enough of themselves, I have discovered that I am also slightly obsessed with them when used as the basis in a number of quirky, conceptual Land Art* projects.
So here are a few seasonal examples I thought I would share to hopefully whet your appetites.
Golden Labyrinth – Artist Joanne Hedrick
Every autumn, since 2013, Joanne Hedrick has been creating art works using gingko leaves on the campus of Sacramento State University.
Cheese Balls, Napanoch, New York, 2012 by Thomas Jackson
Thomas Jackson‘s photographs are inspired by self-organizing, ‘emergent’ systems in nature.
Francisco Infante-Arana –
Francisco Infante-Arana develops his work around the “reality of the impossible, the paradoxical possibilities and the infinity of the cosmos”.
Unknown artist … by definitely keeping Klimt in mind
Simon Max Bannister (2014)
Simon is a self-taught visual artist. He lived, studied and worked in Johannesburg, South Africa until the age of 24. He is now based in Wanaka, New Zealand.
Autumn in Epping Forest 2019 – James Brunt
James studied Fine Art at the Byam Shaw School of Art in London. If you take a look at his twitter feed, you will see he is keen to work with and inspire children about the environment.
Tree Lines – by welsh artist Zander Olsen
Zander wraps trees in fabric creating a “visual relationship between tree, not-tree, and the line of horizon according to the camera’s viewpoint.”
Classic Andy Goldsworthy
Spontaneous City in the Tree of Heaven – London Fieldworks
The work is a sculptural installation drawing on the ecology and biodiversity of two sites on opposite sides of London.
* Land Art (or earth art) is art that is made directly in the landscape, sculpting the land itself into earthworks or making structures in the landscape using natural materials such as rocks or twigs
So, Sweet Chestnut was my tree of choice to plant out in the garden from yesterday’s candidates, but until I’d discovered whether it could be lifted from the nursery area without damage, it wasn’t a dead cert. Happily, it turned out to be easier than I feared, because while the roots were, unsurprisingly, congested in the pot, those reaching into the surrounding gravel weren’t as extensive as I’d expected. I was able to ease out most of the roots, from the stony ground, in a reasonable condition. Next I cut the pot off and have my fingers crossed that the main root can recover from being squeezed so much.
In the meadow area I dug a large hole and I was happy to uncover some wild daffodil bulbs planted in previous years (meaning the squirrel hasn’t got them all!). Then I spent some time breaking up the clay bottom with a fork and adding some well-rotted manure and gravel to the excavated soil. It was at this point that I found out that we didn’t have any tree stakes or ties in the garage, so that necessitated a quick trip out to a garden centre (oh goodie, alliums in the sale). Back on site, it was entertaining trying to decide how to best to tie the rather bendy trunk to the stake, but once that was done, the improved soil was returned and that was basically job done! So here is the newly planted chestnut tree:
To finish up, I’ve under-planted the tree with some scilla bulbs and put a guard around the base to protect it from grazing deer.
Last year there were catkins on some of the branches, so if everything goes well, I am hoping to see nuts in a couple of years. Fingers crossed!
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