In How to Make a Wildlife Garden, Chris Baines says that a tree advertises its garden as a wildlife service station.  Behind our terraced house in North London, neighbours’ wildlife service stations include Elder, Magnolia, Eucalyptus, Cherry & Sycamore. Our own trees are :

(Prunus domestica subsp. insititia)

Damascus, Syria

Damson and Clematis Armandii in flower

Damson in winter, enhancedOur Damson tree, now over 25 feet tall, appears to have grown freely for years before RF took over the garden.

Fruit trees should be pruned, we are told, for a better crop which is within easier reach for the picker of fruit. RF did no pruning. He found plenty of Damsons in the tree’s lower branches for his chutneys & jams; plums in the upper branches were left for wildlife.

Dangling Damsons with holes in leaves

In spring WHITE blossoms smother the Damson canopy. BLUE-BLACK plums follow, & the tree is generous with them.

In 2006, heavy with fruit, a long side branch came crashing down onto the cane pergola. Small side branches were removed & added to the log pile, & the side branch tied back into position, where it lasted for several years.

Generations of local wildlife have made good use of the Damson tree. Its twigs & branches provide perches for birds: Blue Tits & Great Tits hang underneath, searching for insects & spiders.

SQUIRREL, UPWARDLY MOBILE 20 JUN 2014Squirrel, pear-shaped, cropped

Squirrels spring from branch to branch, racing up & down the trunk. When the Damsons are ripe, a squirrel will crawl out to the tip of a branch, stretching out to pluck the softest one. Gripping the plum in its jaws, it climbs back up the branch. Holding the Damson with both paws, it  takes a bite & spins it round. Often eating only half of the fruit, the squirrel then drops it, & other creatures on the ground find it. Birds, insects, slugs, snails & mice finish the job, pecking, biting & sliming round the plum till only the stone is left.*

The Damson’s spring glory is long gone by autumn. By then its fresh green leaves have become yellowed, crisp & brown, their surfaces full of holes. RF consulted the gardening books and found that this was no disease. As the Damson crop was plentiful & the plums perfect, he said we could ignore those tattered leaves.

*The Royal Horticultural Society has a website: joining with the Wildlife Trusts, its advice for gardeners who wish to encourage butterflies (such as the Red Admiral) into the garden includes leaving fallen fruit on the ground.

Butterflies: encouraging into your garden/Royal Horticultural Society

(Sambucus nigra)

Europe and North America

You do not hear garden designers recommending the native Elder as a trendy specimen tree – there are cultivars, such as the purple-leaved Sambucus nigra ‘Guincho purple’ for that. From the little woodland at the back, when no-one was looking, native Elders quietly self-seeded themselves into our garden.

Each spring we have the drama of Blackbirds pursuing each other all round the back gardens.  These seeings-off decide who may live in our neighbour’s Elder, with the winning Blackbirds building their nest in triumph. The tree produces corymbs of ivory-white flowers; at dusk, these flower discs seem to float in mid-air. When the elderberries follow, the Elder tree Blackbirds are well-placed to peck them up.


Elder in bloom, spring 2014Elder sharpened


” It is thought the name Elder comes from the Anglo-saxon for ‘aeld’, meaning ‘fire’; the hollow stems were used as bellows to blow air into the centre of a fire.

Mature trees grow to a height of around 15m and can live for 60 years. Elder is characterised by its short trunk (bole), and grey-brown, corky, furrowed bark. The leaves are pinnate (resembling a feather), with five to seven oval and toothed leaflets. After pollination by insects, each flower develops into a small, purple-black, sour berry, which ripens from late-summer to autumn. “


Wildlife uses the Elder

Elder flowers provide nectar for a variety of insects. Elder foliage is food for moth caterpillars, including the White Spotted Pug, Swallowtail, Dot Moth & Buff Ermine. Birds & mammals (in this garden, squirrels & mice) eat the berries; in the countryside, Dormice & Bank Voles will eat berries & flowers.


Other names: Alhuren, Battree, Black Elder, Boure Tree, Eldrum, Elhorn, European Elderberry, Hyllantree (14thC), Hylder, Lady Ellhorn, Old Gal, Old Lady, Pipe Tree, Rob Elder, Sweet Elder, Tree of Doom


Our own very mature Elder was 30 feet tall. It grew in one corner of the garden, between boundary chain link fencing  & our new larchlap fence. RF’s friend Chris, who put up the back fence, used its trunk as a corner post. Wildlife loved its blossoms & berries, & the Chief Crow used it as a stage for his courting rituals every spring.

(See Living With North London Wildlife page, Crows – The Chief Crow’s Courting Tree).

ELDER, Pergola, Early MGsElder cut down 2003


We have only a few photos of this memorable tree. Its upper branches, dry & dead, rubbed together in the wind… they made a creaking sound, as though the tree was speaking.

In 2003, when it could have been 60 years old, this Elder was cut down by a developer who flattened the woodland behind our garden.


In his book, Forgotten Folklore: Myths and Magic in Islington, Richard Meyers tells of Hylde-Moer the Elder Queen, a tree spirit dwelling within every Elder, said to visit misfortune on those who disrespect her tree. Has the developer or its wrecking crew felt a tree-spirit’s spell working on them? What sort of power might a tree-spirit wield? A plague of squirrels? We’ve got that.

elder 2013, three flowerheads 23ELDERBERRIES GREEN, 2013web - Elderflower 2 - early June 2013web - Elderflower 4 - 12th June 2013Elderberries crop

We have a young Elder.. it seeded itself by the birdbath & was replanted into a large container. Now over a metre tall, these were its first flowers and elderberries.
We look forward to the goodwill of its young Elder Queen.

Elder has quite a reputation, acquired over centuries :

” The Elder is a small but bountiful tree, covered with edible fragrant blossoms in summer and juicy purple berries in autumn which country people have used for centuries in jams, jellies, medicinal syrups and wine. “
Mara Freeman, Tree Lore : Elder/Order of Bards and Druids


” Elder has been called ‘the medicine chest of the people’, providing remedies for most common complaints.”  Demi Bown, RHS Encyclopedia of Herbs and Their Uses


 “In the middle ages elderberry was considered a Holy
Tree, capable of restoring good health, keeping good
health, and as an aid to longevity.”


” It has been said, with some truth, that our English summer is not here until the Elder is fully in flower, and that it ends when the berries are ripe. ”
Hedgerows, Hedges and Verges of Britain and Ireland


The Elder    Nature’s Apothecary –  Danu’s Irish Herb Garden  



Remembered Remedies – Kew Gardens

Kew is collaborating with the National Institute of Medical Herbalists, Chelsea Physic Garden, Neal’s Yard, the Eden Project & the Natural History Museum in a project called Ethnomedica (or ‘Remembered Remedies’) to collect and preserve the wealth of knowledge about local uses of plants as medicines in the UK.

Collection of data began in 2003 & so far about 5,000 remedies have been gathered and entered into a database, preserving knowledge that may have otherwise been lost. Among the ‘Top 10’ remedies emerging from the project is the use of elder for treating coughs and colds.

“Elder trees were also traditionally planted by bake houses as protection from the Devil (what with all those hellishly hot ovens within!) and loaves and cakes were put out to cool under the Elders. Any foods left out overnight under an Elder however were considered a gift to the fairies.”  irishhedgerows.weebly.com/flora.html


“As everyone knows (or ought to know), the Faery Folk love music and merrymaking, and best of all they like the music from instruments made of elder wood. Wood from the elder tree lends itself well to the making of whistles, pipes, chanters and other musical instruments, as the branches contain a soft pithy core which is easily removed to create hollow pipes of a pale, hard, easily-polished wood. (Some of elder’s many vernacular names include bour- or boretree).”  Trees for Life – Mythology and Folklore*


 “Many references in folklore advise… against sleeping under an elder & it has been suspected that the strong smell of elder leaves may have mildly narcotic influences.”

“The Elder represents… that part of us which is wise, experienced, strong & connected to the world of the unconscious…  associations from Celtic mythology in which Elder governed the thirteenth & final month of the year. Her place was to guard the gates between life & death, endings & beginnings, the knowledge of the day & the mysteries of the night. Her mythology has always related to those in-between times such as Samhain (Halloween) & Midsummers Eve when you would see the Faery King ride by with his retinue, should you choose to take shelter beneath an Elder tree.

Elderberries gathered at Samhain are seen as especially potent medicinally, though there are seldom any left by late October.”  

 Healing advice & recipes from herbalist/naturalist Lucinda Warner’s blog Whispering Earth http://whisperingearth.co.uk/category/herbs/elder/

(Prunus Avium)

Europe, Anatolia, Western Asia, North Africa, Iran, the Caucasus

This handsome fruit tree is native to Europe and found far beyond. The Wild Cherry, which is deciduous, can reach 30m in height. Its leaves are bright green with a strongly toothed edge.
Prunus avium comes into bloom in Southeast England between April and May.

Its delicate WHITE flowers provide pollen & nectar for bees at a time when there may be little else available to them. After pollination the flowers are followed by sweet cherries.         http://www.treeandlandscape.ie/Tree-A-Z/wild-cherry-prunus-avium.html


Other names:

Crann silíní fiáin, Gean, Mazzard, Sweet Cherry.


Lucius Licinius Lucullus is recorded to have brought a cultivated cherry from Anatolia to Rome in 72 BC. Later, King Henry VIII, who had enjoyed the fruit in Flanders, had the cherry introduced to his country at Teynham, near Sittingbourne in Kent, England.



The spring flowers provide an early source of nectar & pollen for bees. The cherries are eaten by birds, including  blackbird & song thrush, as well as mammals such as badger, wood mouse, yellow necked mouse & dormouse.

The foliage is the main food plant for caterpillars of many species of moth, including the Cherry Fruit and Cherry Bark Moths, the Orchard Ermine, Brimstone and Short Cloaked Moth.
woodland trust

Gean and bird cherries were both used to flavour alcoholic drinks such as whisky or gin, and cherry brandy can easily be made by filling a bottle with wild cherries, adding sugar, topping up with brandy and leaving for a few months. The resin which leaks from the trunk was formerly used by children as chewing gum. It is recorded as a treatment for coughs, and when it was dissolved in wine, it was used to treat gall stones and kidney stones.

The bark was used to make fabric dyes, ranging in colour from cream to tan, while a reddish-purple colour was derived from the roots.
Paul Kendall, Trees for Life, Mythology & Folklore

Here in Highbury, our Wild Cherry tree self-seeded itself in Gillespie Park’s front meadow some years ago. Conservation Ranger Richard Meyer asked if we could give it a home, and we agreed. It currently lives in a container in the southeast corner of the garden. We have found it to be a thirsty tree whose leaves will droop when it wants a drink. Its branches are favourite perches for our birds, especially the Robins and Starlings.


The Life and Lore of the Cherry Tree   Great British Life   https://www.greatbritishlife.co.uk/things-to-do/wildlife/the-life-and-lore-of-the-cherry-tree-6511406


(Laurus nobilis)

Mediterranean Region

This Bay laurel, a small gift for RF from a friend, was planted about 2002. Soil in its bed was replaced with the sacred Glastonbury compost from the shop on Blackstock Road. Now, over a decade later, the Bay is a tree. Its leaves are trimmed back when needed for cooking. It has been sculpted round the Fatsia japonica by the birdbath, and acts as a windbreak for the Northeast corner of the garden.

Glastonbury soil bagBaytree in winter 2015Baytree closeup with berriesBaytree closeupBaytree crnr, birdbath, feeders, evergreen leaves, new st johns wort in square container P1030109

” Native to the Mediterranean region, Laurus is from the Latin laus, “praise”, and refers to the crown of bay leaves worn by victorious Romans.  It is an important ingredient of sweet and savory dishes in European cuisines. Its  brittle, dried leaves are taken internally for indigestion, poor appetite, colic and wind. Externally for dandruff, rheumatism, sprains, bruises… “
Demi Bown, RHS Encyclopedia of Herbs and Their Uses

(Quercus robur)

Northern Hemisphere

We have two small oaks, grown from acorns from Farnborough Hampshire.Hawthorn weevils had broken into a handful of others & only these survived winter, grown in small pots in clay soil from the garden. The buried acorns avoided discovery by our squirrels, who enjoy finding & eating nuts & seeds… ‘You meant these for us! How kind of you!’

The oaks are temporarily residing in two large containers from the Capitol Gardens Garden Centre at Alexandra Palace.

The ruling majesty of the woods, the wise old English oak holds a special place in our culture, history, and hearts. It supports more life than any other native tree species in the UK; even its fallen leaves support biodiversity.

Woodland Trust

Over 284 insect species find their way to oak trees in the UK – young saplings in urban areas, as well as mature oaks in parks & the countryside.  It came as a surprise to find Oak Spangle Galls on the underside of our young oaks’ leaves… A Gall Wasp had found them, however urban our secluded garden, & laid its eggs…








Oak Spangle Galls on the undersides of our Oak leaves




The prehistoric Indo-European tribes worshipped the Oak and connected it with a thunder or lightning god, and this tradition descended to many classical cultures.  In Norse mythology the oak was sacred to the Thunder God, Thor.

In Greek  mythology, the oak is the tree sacred to Zeus, king of the gods. In Zeus’s oracle in Dodona, Epirus, the sacred oak was the centerpiece of the precinct, and the priests would divine the pronouncements of the god by interpreting the rustling of the oak’s leaves.      Wikipedia


(Fraxinus excelsior)

 British Isles to Mainland Europe

Crow's nest in snow, Ash, Feb 2008

This majestic Ash tree is several gardens away, but it dominates all nearby trees & back gardens. It is probably older than our Victorian houses, which could date to the 1880’s. Its topmost branches and Crows’ nest would have been on a level with fans sitting in the upper tier of Highbury Stadium’s North Bank across the street.

Crow in Ash 91Ash, crows nest with crow, spring 2014Crows in the Ash 98

 For many years the Ash has been the Crow’s Nesting Tree (See North London Wildlife – Crow page for crow courtship involving the Ash.) Squirrel chases along the back fences end when the first squirrel leaps onto the Ash’s trunk, followed by the pursuing squirrel; they chase each other diagonally round & round before one of them springs to the ground & runs away….

Ash, Crow, Crow's nest

Many birds use the Ash – some, like the Blue Tits & Great Tits, search the branches for insects. Others – Crows, Magpies, & Wood Pigeons –  perch in its branches.

Flocks of winter Fieldfares, visiting from Scandinavia, land in the Ash’s upper branches, all perched with beaks pointing West. For January’s RSPB Big Garden Birdcount, Starlings are easier to count when silhouetted in midair as they plummet from the Ash to our feeders.

Ash , two WoodpigeonsAsh, winter, plump perching birds

Yggdrasil The World Tree, Odin's Ash

The Highbury Ash as Yggdrasil, from Richard Meyers’ Forgotten Folklore: Myths and Magic in Islington

The Ash supports over 100 insect species and can live for centuries. Anglo-Saxons used its wood to make spears and tools. Often the last British tree to come into leaf in spring and the first to lose its leaves in autumn, the Ash has a place as a weather forecaster in an adage of country folk predicting spring and summer rainfall :

” Ash before Oak, we’re in for a soak… Oak before Ash, we’re in for a splash. “

In his book, Forgotten Folklore – Myths and Magic in Islington‘, Richard Meyers tells of Yggdrasil, the Norse World Tree, which was Odin’s tree. Its branches reached up to heaven & the gods held court in its shade. The drawing of The World Tree in the book was based on our Highbury Ash.

Other names: Common Bird’s Tongue, European Ash, Fuinseog, Weeping Ash.

The Chief Crow's Courting Tree

Ash in mist, Chief Crow looking out at Highbury back gardens

The developer’s crew who trashed our little woodland told a neighbour that this tree was an Elder, a short-lived tree that would have to come down. We now know our Ash from our Elder – our tenants’ association got the tree a TPO, a Tree Protection Order, to give it some protection. But even with its TPO, some of its limbs have been removed.

In December 2014, architects who bought the land on which the Ash grows applied to the Council for permission to remove it.

 The original developer’s plans to build on the site led to a 2009 Public Inquiry in Islington Council Offices. The Inspector, chosen by the Secretary of State for Communities and Local Government, rejected the appeal. One of her points was the importance of mature trees to the site :

“Partly due to the openness in the gardens to the terraced dwellings and over the site, tall and prominent trees have prospered. They are visible through the gaps at the ends of the terraces, and they make an important contribution to the character and appearance of the area.”

Inspector Joanna C. Reid, Appeal Decision, Appeal Ref: APP /V5570 / A / 08 / 2080874, Decision Date 7 April 2009

The Planning Inspectorate, 4/11 Eagle Wing, Temple Quay House, 2 The Square, Temple Quay, Bristol BS1 6PN

Islington Council rejected the architects’ proposal to remove the Ash.

Crows, parenting in the Ash

OCTOBER 6th 2019 – New date by which we must submit objections to the council, about the Architects’ latest application for permission to build on the land. First, allowing us 2 days notice, they moved in and cut back this majestic Protected Ash, just to assert their dominion over it.










If you value a tree near you, don’t take its continuing presence for granted. Find out whether or not it has a Tree Protection Order. If it does not, apply for one on its behalf. And if there are threats to the existence of that tree, do what you can to save it. Don’t leave its future in the hands of architects and developers.

Reading the Landscape of Europe

May Theilgaard Watts, Harper & Row, 1971

RLE2RLE Front Harper & Row edition #2

May Theilgaard Watts was an ecologist, illustrator, writer & staff naturalist at the Morton Arboretum in Wisconsin, USA. Her insights into Britain and six European countries focus on their geology, folktales, wildlife & plantlife. A detailed pictorial supplement at the back of the book shows how to identify trees; many trees that we regard as exclusively British grow in Europe as well.

Both hard cover & paperback versions of this book are still in print.

VisitWoods is the UK’s largest online database of woodlands accessible to the public, including woodlands owned by the National Trust, RSPB, Wildlife Trusts & Forestry Commission: