Sunday September 27 2020




Village Nature Diary with Mary Green

Under the spreading chestnut tree

Posted on April 29 2019 at 11:05:04 0 comments


Mary Green identifies ‘useful’ trees to look out for in May.

May is a lovely time to visit woodland, before the trees close out the light and while the trees and the plants that grow underneath them are flowering.

After a good spring, this first month of traditional summer should be full of leaf and flower, insects and birds.

There has been some interesting research on trees, which have a positive impact on our lives. Among other things, they absorb and use carbon, thus helping slow down global warming.

It was always assumed the ancient rainforests were the most important for this. Research from the University of Birmingham has shown this not to be so.

The newer woodlands of the northern areas, those less than 150 years old, actually absorb more carbon, especially naturally regrown woodland.

This is because when they are in their earlier stages of growth, they can use up more carbon and convert it into sugars to help them grow. It points up the importance of our looking after all our woodlands, not just the ancient ones.

When I wrote about trees last year, I missed out some of our common and useful trees, because they are not part of the Celtic calendar.

They aren’t common in the Celtic parts of the British Isles, but are in England. And you will notice them at this time of year.

The first is beech. It has beautiful lime-green leaves in late April and early May, and later in the year wonderful autumn colour. Its shape is graceful, and it can grow to be big and a great age, like oak.

Unlike the oak it is always portrayed as rather female, sometimes called the Queen of the woods. Its bark is much smoother than oak. In winter the leaf buds are long and pointed.

The spring leaves are delicate and let the sun shine through, but in summer they become thick and glossy green and form a very dense shade.

The autumn leaves are red-gold, and sometimes stay on well into the winter. Its seeds are called “mast” and grow in wrinkly brown cases.

Mast is an old word for food. The tree has a “mast year” every few tears and doesn’t produce in other years – a bit like the oak. Beech mast used to feed pigs which grazed in woodlands, and it can be used to make oil.

Beeches were often planted in clumps on hillsides, a good local example being Frankley Beeches. They also provide roadside avenues in some places – there is a row between Cofton Hackett and Barnt Green.

There are good ones in some of our best woods, like Peck Wood in Rowney Green. Try to catch the open weeks there – early this year but there are some dates at the beginning of May.

Shortwood also has wonderful beeches, visible from the canal. There are good single trees, like the one just past the village end of St Laurence Churchyard, and some striking ones at the top of the footpath up Foxhill.

Beech makes good hedging, especially as smaller bushes keep their leaves into winter and even the next spring. There are some huge ancient beech hedges in other parts of the country.

We have a nice smaller one in Birches Lane, Withybed Green. Birds love these for cover in early spring. Beeches are truly native in the South of England but were planted further north.

Sweet chestnut, my next tree, was introduced by the Romans and is now considered an honorary native. There are some really ancient and huge ones in England.

They are well known for their edible fruit, which form well in a good summer. Their flowers are not noticeable, being strings of small green flowers coming out in July, which doesn’t give a very long ripening season if the late summer isn’t warm. The flowers have an interesting musky smell.

When the trees grow to a good size, a noticeable feature is the way their trunks grow in twisted shapes. There are some beautiful ancient ones in Piper’s Hill Wood between Hanbury and Bromsgrove.

Smaller ones can be found locally on Wheeley Road, and at Hopwood. Some lovely young ones are established in the little linear wood going out of Barnt Green on the Blackwell Road alongside the railway.

We associate the nuts with roasted chestnuts, especially at Christmas. In other European countries, where they produce a more reliable crop, they were traditionally used for flour and made into many staple foods.

The trees don’t seem to be especially known for much else here, and haven’t attracted customs or legends.

Our other chestnut, the horse chestnut, comes from a completely differently family from beech and sweet chestnut, which are related. There are similarities, though: both chestnuts have shiny brown nuts, prickly seedcases and twisty trunks.

The horse chestnut came into this country in the 16th century, from the area round Turkey. It was established first in big parks and estates, becoming especially popular in the 18th century with the kind of landscaping fashionable then.

Later it was planted in streets and then in public parks, after which it spread into the countryside. By the late 19th century, it was a common feature of village greens, “under the spreading chestnut tree.”

About that time, the game of conkers began to use horse chestnuts. The game came first, with children hitting other nuts on strings. It was called “conquerors”, shortened to conkers.

This name then became attached to the fruit of the horse chestnut when it was found to be a far superior nut for the game during the 19th century.

It took a long time for conkers to become conkers as the trees were in wealthy people’s estates for so long where local boys couldn’t reach them.

Horse chestnuts have sticky leaf buds in winter, coming out in spring to folded five-lobed leaves. When these open out, the flower buds start to rise.

These become big, beautiful candle-shaped flowers in May, with a lovely perfume. The leaves are later quite thick and dark and it was known as a good shade tree.

You can see them all over the place around here. There is a lovely avenue in The Meadows in Alvechurch, many roadside trees, some alongside the beeches at the top of Foxhill, along the canal and in fields near Alvechurch station (where many were cut down when the station was redeveloped).

The trunks sometimes become twisty like the other chestnut.

In Turkey horse chestnuts were traditionally fed to horses and used to treat their sprains and bruises.

Now modern science has found they contain something which will treat human bruises and sprains, and they are being grown for the purpose. It’s surprising how often these old remedies are being rediscovered.

Horse chestnuts aren’t as long-lived as sweet chestnuts, and these days they are very susceptible to a disease which turns their leaves brown before autumn comes.

(They are among the first leaves to turn brown even when healthy.) The ones cut down in The Meadows had honey fungus.

But for a relatively new tree, it has become a well known part of English culture. Many people think of it as being more native than the sweet chestnut.

I wonder how many of us older ones grew up singing “Under the spreading chestnut tree” and doing the actions!

Flowering trees at this time of year will be full of bees and other insects, so I hope we don’t have late frosts to disturb them.

This month’s poem is one I wrote last year in May for the Withybed Poets and my singing friends. The goslings did survive, and the goose pair has already come back to their nesting site.

The swans survived and the pair have mated again this year. And the Withybed Poets will be at the Picnic in the Park again this year, writing poems for you!  I wonder if I will hear the cuckoo.

The sun drips like honey into the ground
Cow parsley rises in light and lace
Pear blossom pulls in the bees and bluebells shimmer
The sun enters my bones and I begin to glow
My whiteness disappearing in the blue haze
There are three cygnets clustered round the pen
Nearby the cob stands sentinel, coupled to her
By gossamer threads. Here the goose sits
Patient on her bed of down, while the gander swims
Always pointing back at her, hoping this year
The gosling will survive under the alders.
Around me is all talk of weddings, flowers of spring
Bubbling and laughing round the planning heads.
For me, it is a mesh of couplings, links one to one
Or one to two, or three or four together
My life made real and whole by these people
Who surround me with love and singing
Lifting my heart and body to the blessed sun

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