There are a number of trees in the gardens behind our terraced houses. In How to Make a Wildlife Garden, Chris Baines says that a tree advertises its garden as a possible wildlife service station. Our neighbours’ trees include Elder, Magnolia, Eucalyptus, Cherry and Sycamore, all visible from our windows. Our own wildlife service stations are:
(Prunus domestica subsp. insititia)
Our Damson tree, now over 25 feet tall, seems to have grown freely for years before RF took over the garden. Fruit trees should, we are told, be pruned – for a better crop which is easier to reach for the fruitpickers. RF did no pruning. He found plenty of Damsons in the lower branches for the chutneys and jams he made; plums in the upper branches were left for wildlife.
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.
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 & stretch down to pluck the softest one. Gripping the plum in its jaws, it climbs back up the branch & sits. Holding the Damson with both paws, it takes a bite & spins it round. The squirrel will often eat only part of the fruit, then drop it. It falls to the ground, where other creatures take over. Birds, insects, slugs, snails & mice finish the job, pecking, biting & sliming round the plum till all is gone.*
The Damson’s glory in spring 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.
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 nest 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.
” It is thought the name Elder comes from the Anglo-saxon for ‘aeld’, meaning ‘fire’, because 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. Moth caterpillars feeding on Elder foliage include the White Spotted Pug, Swallowtail, Dot Moth & Buff Ermine. Birds & mammals (in this garden, squirrels & mice) eat the berries; in the countryside, small mammals such as Dormice & Bank Voles eat berries & flowers.
Our own very mature Elder was 15m tall. It grew in the corner of the garden, between the chain link fence at the boundary & our new larchlap fencing. Chris, RF’s friend who put up the back fence, used its trunk as a corner post. It was loved by wildlife for its berries, & especially by the Chief Crow for the stage it provided for his courting rituals every spring.
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 any of its wrecking crew felt a tree-spirit’s spell working on them? We wonder… What might be the extent of her powers? A plague of squirrels? We’ve got that.
We now have an adolescent Elder. It seeded itself by the birdbath & was replanted into a large container. Now heading into its fifth season & over a metre tall, these were its first flowers and elderberries.
We look forward to the goodwill of its young Elder Queen.
” 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.”
” 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
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.”
“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).”
“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.'”
Herbalist, naturalist & nature lover Lucinda Warner’s blog Whispering Earth has healing advice & recipes on the elderberry page.
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.
” 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
This majestic Ash tree is several gardens away, but it dominates all other trees and & 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.
For many years the Ash has been the Crow’s Nesting Tree (See North London Wildlife – Crow page for a courtship description.) Squirrel chases along the back fences end when the first squirrel leaps onto the trunk of the Ash, followed by the pursuing squirrel; they then chase each other diagonally round its trunk.
Many birds use the Ash – some, like the Blue Tits and Great Tits, search the branches for insects. Others, Magpies and Wood Pigeons as well as Crows, perch in its branches. In winter Starlings use the Ash as a staging post, hurtling down to our bird feeders to collect a suet pellet, then flapping up to perch in the top of the Damson tree and swallow it.
Flocks of winter Fieldfares, visiting from Scandinavia, touch down in the branches of the Ash, often all perched with beaks pointing to the West. For the RSPB Big Garden Birdcount, it is a great help to count the birds as they fly from the Ash to the trees in our garden.
In winter Starlings use the Ash as a staging post, hurtling down to our bird feeders to collect a suet pellet, then flapping up to perch in the top of the Damson tree and swallow it. Flocks of winter Fieldfares, visiting from Scandinavia, touch down in the branches of the Ash, often all perched with beaks pointing to the West. For the RSPB Big Garden Birdcount, it is a great help to count the birds as they fly from the Ash to the trees in our garden.
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 is based on this aged Highbury Ash.
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.
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.
This enthusiastic charity works to protect our woodlands, educating the public about the value of trees. The Trust aims to get more of us out into the countryside with its many creative campaigns – it plants native trees, regenerating old woodlands and joining up bits of ancient woodland.
As of January 2017, The Woodland Trust has planted 36,100,000 trees – saved 532 woods – and is restoring 22,586 hectares of ancient woodland.
For centuries wood from UK trees has been used for building, cooking & heating. What is left of our remaining forests is precious, & supports a wealth of wildlife. In this neighborhood we know only too well how quickly a developer can flatten a small woodland (wildlife – what wildlife?) when it stands in the way of a money-making scheme.
CREATING CENTENARY WOODS
To mark the centenary of the First World War, The Woodland Trust created four major new woodlands. Schools and armed services organisations are planting nearly half a million native trees on four sites in the British Isles :
SURREY, ENGLAND : LANGLEY VALE CENTENARY WOOD
200,000 native saplings are being planted on this 58 hectare (144 acre) site just inside the M25, south of Epsom. A 1km avenue of tall trees will be added to existing ancient woods, chalk grassland, open meadow & bluebells. A network of footpaths & bridleways will eventually cover the Wood.
EDINBURGH, SCOTLAND : PENTLANDS CENTENARY WOOD
The 100 acre (40 hectare) site for this Wood lies between the Pentland Hills and suburban Edinburgh. At nearby Dregham Barracks, trench warfare systems were dug to train First World War troops. 50,000 trees are being planted, with an avenue of wild service trees that will burn red every autumn for Remembrance Day.
CO DERRY, NORTHERN IRELAND : GLENSHANE CENTENARY WOOD
The site runs along the banks of the River Faughan south of Londonderry, home to Red Squirrels, Otters and Kingfishers. Plans include a memorial arboretum with 40 larger trees, a 10-mile circuit of footpaths, poppy-rich meadows running down to the river & a competition to design a sculpture for this Centenary Wood.
CARMARTHEN, WALES : FFOS LAS CENTENARY WOOD
90,000 native trees are to be planted on this former colliery site near Llanelli. The creation of flower-rich glades & ponds here will help to encourage native wildlife. The land lies along the new Ffos Las racecourse near Ffos Las Wood, planted by the Trust to mark the Queen’s Diamond Jubilee.
Membership is £3 per year for adults, £5 for families. See their website for full details:
The Woodland Trust, Kempton Way, Grantham, Lincs NG31 6LL
Reading the Landscape of Europe
May Theilgaard Watts, Harper & Row, 1971
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: