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Village Nature Diary with Mary Green

The language of trees

Posted on April 19 2009 at 12:06:01 0 comments

Newly planted hedge at Hopwood

Mary Green continues her celebration of our wonderful woodlands.

March was unusually dry, alternating between cold winds and warm, almost summery weather – lion and lamb succeeding each other. Flowers bloomed and birds nested after a late start. However, much of the blackthorn, and all the plum trees, didn’t flower till April.

I’m writing this early as I’ll be in Malawi in April, seeing some different wildlife! By the time you get this, the trees at home should be in leaf and the world will be green again.

Britain became covered with forest after the ice age. Some very ancient trees still appear from time to time preserved in peat bogs. Gradually, the forests were cut down, especially after the enclosures for the mass farming of sheep, and the use of moorland and mountain for game.

But trees have always formed part of people’s lives. Because of this we have a lot of names for woodland. Forest, wood, woodland, hanger, orchard, copse, spinney, coppice, hedge, hedgerow, dingle, holt, thicket, brake, clump, covert, grove – a forest of words.

Many hedgerows are relics of the ancient woodland. If you count the number of different tree species in a stretch of hedge you can estimate its age – the more species, the older. The rule of thumb is that the number of species in a 30-yard stretch gives you the age of the hedge in centuries. This is because different species gradually grow in the shelter of an established hedge.

However, farmers and cottagers had a habit of planting fruit trees and ornamental varieties in existing hedges, so some hedges may not be as old as the formula suggests. Any hedge consisting of one or two species only – often hawthorn – is likely to be relatively new, established after fields were enclosed.

I have written before about our most common hedgerow bushes, the hawthorn and blackthorn. Another common tree is the hazel. This rarely grows large and is almost self-coppicing, growing in bushy clumps of thin branches. Its catkins, the “lambs’ tails”, are a harbinger of spring.

The hazel is an ancient tree of wisdom and magic. Its twigs are still used as divining rods for finding water – even my late father, a very sceptical farmer, used them. The spars are used in thatching. And the nuts were once a great food source. Along with the other fruiting trees, and brambles, they make hedges a perpendicular kitchen garden.

Traditionally, hedges can be left to grow as separate trees, or they can be “laid” to create a thicker hedge where there is livestock. This practice is no longer common, but may be reviving – I now know three people local to me who can lay hedges.

Laid hedges continue to flower and fruit and have good habitats for flowers, insects and animals in the hedge-bottoms. There is a lovely recently-laid hedge near Cofton Hackett, one just past Tardebigge, and some in Alvechurch.

The more free-growing hedges are like “linear woods”. I can see a beautiful one from my house, with oak, beech, maple, hawthorn, hazel and ash trees. Many of them follow streams or boundaries. The modern practice of mechanically cutting hedges square once or twice a year is not very supportive to the trees or the wildlife in them.

This is not, of course, to say that trees should just be left to grow. Most woods, copses and hedges have always been managed and there is very little truly wild wood. Woods and smaller clumps of trees were traditionally coppiced or pollarded.

Coppicing is cutting trees right down every ten years or so and letting them re-grow. This makes for straight, relatively thin, accessible branches. Pollarding is cutting the top part from about ten feet up, so that the bottom part thickens and the top sprouts thinner branches. This is done so that animals can’t reach the growing shoots.

Old pollarded oaks and beeches grow in huge beautiful shapes below the pollard level. Wood has always been used for making things, and the left-overs for burning. Holly, for example, is prized for carving, and ash wood for burning.

It is encouraging to see the replanting of trees locally. There is the big new “wood” in fields between Hopwood and Alvechurch. There are two complete new hedges near Cofton. At the top of the path from Withybed Green to Foxhill there is a grove of small trees. Behind the new school in Alvechurch there is a range of new planting.

Surprisingly, one of the best places to see good small trees is along the newer roads in the area. The roads that surround Redditch are beautiful in spring and autumn with well-planted native trees, and the Alvechurch bypass has some lovely silver birch, cherry and willow trees.

Trees are having a hard time in recent years. Many are being cut down along railways, canals and roads, for “safety” reasons, or to “tidy up.” Diseases attack them, from the Dutch elm disease that removed many of the trees I remember from my childhood, to last year’s horse chestnut problems and now sudden oak death.

The gradually warming climate is damaging too. I heard a tree expert at Kew explaining that native trees need four proper seasons to stay healthy and strong. They need a cold winter and a warm dryish summer, and haven’t had them lately. Let’s hope this past cold winter will help.

One tree you can’t miss locally is the alder, a rather neglected tree in England but traditionally more important in the Celtic countries where it was the tree of the hero Bran. It grows by – and often in – water, helping to soak up flooding, and doing less well when the land is drained. It is beautiful in winter, with reddish male catkins and tiny female cones.

Its wood was traditionally used anywhere it had to be submerged, for example as piles to support riverbanks, but also used for clogs and as charcoal for gunpowder. It is very common round here by the canal, the river Arrow and many small streams. The cut wood turns orange, as you can see where it has been chopped down along the canal. Those that have been properly cut will probably grow on as coppiced trees, but sadly I have seen stretches ripped out recently.

Birches are less common here. At their best on acid ground, they are prolific in Scotland and the north and west of England, where they are sometimes seen as a pest on moorland. The birch grows quickly and is relatively short-lived. It has traditionally been used for almost everything you can make from wood.

It is planted round here, especially by roads, and is a very beautiful tree, notably in the winter when its silver bark shines out. It has delicate catkins followed by a shower of small green leaves, which turn a beautiful yellow in autumn.
Living at Withybed Green, I suppose one of my trees has to be the willow. Willows, or withies, are pollarded and coppiced even today. The most famous use of their wood is for cricket bats, but the shoots are used for baskets and anything where suppleness was needed.

Willows symbolise sadness. To “wear the green willow” meant to grieve for lost love, and the reference goes back to biblical times, in the Psalms, where the exiles sat down by the rivers of Babylon, “hanged our harps among the willows” and wept to remember Zion. In folklore it is the tree of women, linked to the moon and water and the Celtic festival of Imbolc, and carrying female wisdom.

Crack willows grow along the canal and rivers locally. They grow very fast and do not live long unless pollarded or coppiced. As with alders, their roots help to stabilise river banks. Withy-beds – osier willow – were once grown for basket-making and fuel.

The goat willow, or pussy willow, is much loved for its fluffy catkins, and carried into churches as “palm” on Palm Sunday. Flowering early, catkins provide an early feast for bees and other insects. Willow bark was used as a traditional remedy for aches and pains and colds, and of course is the source of what we now know as aspirin.

Not only is willow now being cultivated as a potential bio-fuel, but there are experimental schemes for waste-disposal lagoons with coppiced willow, whose fuel is used for burning, making for self-sufficiency. 

Native woodland, especially if well-managed, hosts a variety of plants. Spring flowers especially thrive: bluebells, wild garlic, dog’s mercury, golden saxifrage, moschatel, yellow archangel and primroses are some of the markers of old woodland. They grow and flower before the leaf canopy gets thick and cuts out the light.

Apparently, bluebells are suffering because they flower according to increasing daylight. Many trees, including oaks, flower according to warmth and therefore are earlier now, potentially depriving bluebells of light.

Climbing plants like honeysuckle and wild rose shoot and grow early for the same reason, getting high up enough into the light so they can flower later. In high summer there is not so much flowering under trees, but ferns will be growing.

Autumn is the time for fungi. Some of the best to eat grow in woodland, including chanterelles and boletus, and some of the most poisonous like the red-and-white fly agaric. All this plant life means there are also insects, and therefore birds thrive too.

At one time, woods and forests sustained the local economy. Local people had rights to collect fallen wood for fires, and in some cases wood from coppicing and pollarding.

Animals, especially pigs, were grazed in woods, and deer raised in them. Cut leafy branches from coppicing and pollarding were used as fodder for cattle, and still are in other parts of Europe. The fruits of the trees were eaten by animals and people.

Charcoal was made for early industry, and wood carved, split, woven and worked into all manner of household and agricultural artefacts. It was the main fuel for everyone. As we are just beginning to re-discover, the “tree of life” supports us and other species in an integrated eco-system.

Near where I live is a small wood, planted by local people about 20 years ago with predominantly native species, including the uncommon wild service tree grown from suckers of local trees. The willows are coppiced. Added to these are some non-native trees, fruit trees and garden shrubs, and under them are wild flowers.

It is well-established and cared for, looking as if it has been there much longer. The wood has rabbits, badgers, hedgehogs, voles, foxes and deer. It shows what can be done to make sure our native trees survive to host all the other species that use them.

My May poem is in a way a poem about writing poetry!


Such a day
The sun struck up singing and never stopped for a second
The sky blue as the bluebells

In the morning I found a meadow
Hidden among the lanes of Worcestershire
Full of orchids
No, not full, room for cowslips, bluebells, buttercups, bugle, cowparsley, stitchwort
Purple and gold like an oriental carpet
And I lay among them smelling the may from the hedge

In the afternoon
I bought fresh strawberries
Grown by prison lads
Escaping in the flowers in their salad leaves

In the evening
The full moon rose huge behind the oaks
Moving across my house until it reached my bedroom window
In bed I lay in a pool of salty moonshine

Next day
You came and I sang like a blackbird

I was wishing
Sometimes things could happen together
And I wanted to lie with you on Mayday in the moonlight among the orchids eating strawberries
It doesn’t work out like that

Except, of course, it has.

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