Trees are the largest and oldest living things, apart from some governors of the BBC, and are generally treated with the awesome respect they deserve, a position from which I will not dissent. A recent survey has shown that trees in areas like the south-east of England have not declined in numbers since the War, as you might expect; if anything, they have increased slightly. Not only are they deserving of respect, they can also look after themselves. What a refreshing change from human society, where everything deserving of respect has to be subsidised.
This large, graceful, imposing tree (which incorporates such previous categories as ash, oak, elm and sycamore) can be easily recognised from its habit of being large, graceful and imposing, except when too many of them stand close together, in which case it stands on tip-toes and looks anorexic. If in doubt, remember that the tall park tree is full of leaves in summer and quite empty in winter, though most practised tree-spotters will know better than to go tree-spotting in winter, when it is impossible to tell most families of trees from the now very common dead tree.
The tall park tree occurs in parkland, where it is placed personally by Capability Brown; in the middle of fields, where it forces tractors to detour; and in large city streets, where it deposits a kind of shiny wax on the cars below.
This is a dark green tree invented during the War by a far-sighted government who realised that something would have to be done to cover all those unsightly bare hillsides which disfigure train journeys to the north. They always grow spontaneously in long lines.
They never drop their leaves.
One reason for this is that they have no leaves, only needles.
If a far-sighted government had discovered a use for needles, we would now be a rich nation and not part of the Third World. As it is, the full-grown tree is now cut down and turned into page 3 of the Sun, which is presumably not what a far-sighted government had in mind at all, though there is no way that Mr Churchill could have foreseen the arrival of Mr Rupert Murdoch, the well-known immigrant.
The young of the species tends to vanish mysteriously overnight about Dec 21st.
Easily spotted, the Riverside. Trees always grow at the edge of rivers, where its branches dip gracefully towards the water and stun passing rowers. If you should find a Riverside Tree growing elsewhere it automatically enters some other category; similarly, any other tree found by the water’s edge immediately becomes a Riverside Tree. Classification of trees is nothing if not flexible.
It often grows catkins; there again, often it doesn’t.
Curiously, there is no such thing as a Seaside Tree. Anything growing with wood and leaves by the seaside is a Salty Twisted Stunty Thing (see Bushes).
Many now familiar British trees started life in Himalayan or Chinese forests and would have been well advised to stay there, as they mostly have curiously-shaped leaves which baffle the amateur. It is, however, easily recognised by its totally baffling leaf, which looks like a reject from a kindergarten art class.
Older botanists give the Chinese Import Tree baffling Latin names such as Catalpa or Gingko Biloba, which need not detain us, but which must be very baffling for visitors from China who tend to call them by their real names.
The Chinese Import grows very slowly; some years it seems to shrink a few feet. It also keeps its leaves longer than most trees, partly from a desire to baffle, partly from an atavistic memory of the Chinese seasons.
The great thing about the holm oak is that it looks nothing like an oak at all, and nobody knows what a holm is. It is probably not even an oak-by-marriage. It is in fact a trick tree, along with the sweet chestnut, basalm poplar, mountain ash, hemlock, and all other trees named after plants they did not resemble.
These trick trees are now all holm oaks.
Not, of course, a tree that climbs but one that is good for climbing on. Easily recognisable for its low-hanging branches, or close together boughs or (more rarely) its rope-ladder and tree-house.
Get a child to help you identify it. If he needs a ladder or a hand-up to get started, it is a TALL PARK TREE. If he gets stuck halfway up, it is a Forestry Commission Tree. If he never comes back down, it is an enormous beanstalk and beyond the scope of this little book.
A misnomer, really, as all trees weep now and then, most commonly half an hour after it has rained. The true Weeping Tree is more of a sulking tree; it stands with its branches hanging hopelessly in a Gallic expression of disbelief at the awfulness of the world. Any tree which suddenly inspires you with a desire to kick its trunk and tell it to snap out of it is a Weeping Tree. Self-pity is bad enough in human without trees doing it too.
Botanists will tell you that there is also the Handkerchief Tree, and you may wonder if this is connected with the Weeping Tree. Of course not; it is another trick tree (see Holm Oak).
I would like at this point to express my deep gratitude to the Canadian government who, alone among the nations of the world, have had the sense to put a nature lesson on their flag, a single, but unmistakable maple leaf. There it stands, or flutters, just one leaf so that we can memorise it and recognise it the next time we see it.
The next time we see it will almost certainly not be on a maple tree, as this is comparatively rare, but on a sycamore, a plane tree, a jar of waffle syrup or, of course, a Canadian flag. The plane tree is the commonest of all the maple-shaped leaf trees, this being a good example of the frog-toad syndrome.
(I ought to explain this, even though it is not made use of in this book. Whenever nature creates something that cannot possibly be confused with something else, it immediately creates something very like it; if nature abhors a vacuum, it simply loathes and hates an unmistakable species. So, there is nothing that can be confused with a frog; except a toad; there is nothing remotely like a rabbit, except a hare; nothing like a butterfly, except a moth. Nothing like a hedgehog, except a porcupine, and so on. Crickets, grasshoppers. Nettles, deadnettles. You name it.
Most nature guides tackle this problem by explaining in minute detail, as there is no other way to do it, the marginal difference between objects caught up in the frog-toad syndrome. This guide treats them as exactly the same species. This is because, if we are told that two similar things are really very different, we will say: ‘But they look just the same to me!’ If, however, we are told they are just the same, we will begin to notice differences for ourselves. This is the whole principle behind this deeply moral book, though I wasn’t going to tell you, and I’d rather you forgot all about it.)
Fruits are nuts, of course, and both are seeds as well, but sex is beyond the scope of this book, unfortunately. This category merely incorporates all those trees that suddenly develop nuts and fruit around autumn time and are plundered by mothers for Christmas decorations, small boys for conker playing and squirrels for eating. All nuts in Britain are, I’m afraid, basically inedible by humans. This is not because they are impossible to eat, but because the nuts go straight from the green unripe to the mouldering rotten stage, with no stage between. Remember, too, that it is a law of nature that the brighter and more attractive a fruit looks, the less edible it is.
Are you fed up with smarty-pants journalists using the word ‘eponymous’? I sure am. Gandhi, with Ben Kingsley in the eponymous role. The other day I caught myself saying ‘Breakfast at Tiffany’s with Audrey Hepburn eating the eponymous rolls’. Then I knew it had gone too far.
But there seems no other way of describing the Wellingtonias, Lawsonias and Leylandias which droop, green and huge, across the more haut-bourgeois parts of our landscape. Who is Lawson? Can it be the same Leyland? Why a Wellingtonia and no Napoleonia? How, more important, to distinguish between them?
I don’t think, frankly, there is any need to. I shall call them all Kingtonias. I think you should do the same. Adapt your own surname, I mean. If Forsyth can get away with forsythia, and Dahl with dahlia, the world is ready for the smithia and the jonesia. If you have trouble with your surname, drop me a line or call in at my publishers – it’s the one with the small, stunted hamish-hamiltonia outside the front door.