In praise of the native
As autumn arrives deciduous trees lose their leaves and slip into winter dormancy. This is the perfect time to plant new trees as the ground still holds some warmth, and there is maximum time for the tree to establish a root system before growth commences the following spring.
Here at the nursery, we experience a steady demand for flowering cherries, maples, crab apples and many other popular garden specimens. But sadly, we often see our thoroughly worthy native trees overlooked in favour of these showy ornamentals.
Associated with strength, steadfastness and longevity, the oak is perhaps our most iconic native tree. In the classical world it was regarded as the Tree of Life because its roots penetrate as deep into the underworld as its branches reach into the sky. The oak’s value for wildlife is extraordinary; 2,300 species are supported by oaks, 326 depend on oaks and 229 species are rarely found on any other trees (and these numbers do not include microorganisms). Oaks are deep-rooted, helping them survive drought, but they can also tolerate being waterlogged. They thrive in acid soils – ideal for Cornwall. The National Trust has an oak twig as its logo. The café and shop building here at the Nursery has an oak frame. The wood is used for charcoal and to make barrels for wine and spirits. It is used for smoking fish, cheese and ham and imparts a distinctive flavour. Admiral Nelson’s flagship HMS Victory used 6,000 trees in her construction, the majority of which were oak. The Mary Rose, built in the 16th century, was largely constructed of oak and elm. Our late Queen’s coffin was made of English oak.
Hazel is often overlooked as a garden plant. Mostly seen as part of a native hedge, it is a versatile and easy plant to grow. It is fast and responds well to coppicing. It is used for making fences, baskets, panels and hurdles, and its flexibility makes it very useful for creating garden structures and supports. And then there are nuts, though it may be necessary to do battle with squirrels to get any.
Beech is another plant often thought of as a hedging plant. But let it grow big and it will impress you. Large and long-lived, beeches are usually green but naturally will produce the odd purple seedling or throw a purple branch on a green tree. They are hardy, versatile and grow in sun or partial shade. One of the most attractive features of a beech tree is the astonishing brightness of the unfurling leaves in spring. Though brown and dead, many of the leaves remain on the tree over the winter, adding interest to the garden and improving the appearance of the tree, or the screening effect of a hedge. The wood burns well and its close grain makes it useful for furniture and small items. Fans of Game of Thrones may have noticed the avenue of writhing tree trunks known as the King’s Road. This is an avenue of beech trees planted in Country Antrim about 250 years ago.
Like beech, hornbeam has rounded pleated leaves, and it holds on to its dead leaves over winter. There are two theories as to how it came by its name. Firstly, it was traditionally used to make yokes for oxen and would have sat as a beam behind their horns. It is more likely however that the name derives from old English where horn means hard, and beam means tree. The Romans favoured hornbeam for making chariots because it has the hardest wood of any tree in Europe. Nowadays there is little demand for chariots and the wood is used for furniture, flooring and wood turning, also moving machinery parts such as cogs and wheels. It burns well and makes good charcoal. In the garden it is undemanding. It likes sun or partial shade and will grow in most soils. It makes a good subject for pleaching.
All our native trees have a high wildlife value as they have co-evolved with our native fauna. Many insects require native plants and trees to complete their life cycles, and whilst non-native trees may provide pollen and nectar for pollinators, and fruit and seeds to feed birds and small mammals, they do not provide the additional benefits such as hibernation sites, food and protection for larvae, that our native wildlife needs to thrive and breed.
As part of the 2022 celebrations to mark our Queen’s 70 year reign, people have been encouraged to contribute to the Queen’s Green Canopy by planting trees. This is an initiative to create a living legacy in her name by planting over a million healthy native trees to enhance our environment for generations to come. Individual trees, avenues, copses, and woodlands have already been planted. In addition to new plantings, 70 ancient trees and 70 ancient woodlands, including some trees more than 1,000 years old and many with historical links, have been included as part of the Canopy. Following the wishes of King Charles, the initiative will be extended to the end of March 2023 to include a second tree planting season to allow more trees to be planted in her memory. There could not be a better occasion for planting a tree.
The team and volunteers at Newquay Orchard with their Platinum Jubilee tree.