Trees seem to be the zeitgeist of the pandemic. Writers, broadcasters, commentators as well as friends, family and acquaintances, have all said how much more they have appreciated ‘nature’, and particularly trees, since the lockdown, noticing the passing of the seasons and the flowering of different blossoms and new leaf growth. This book is a timely handbook, not just in identifying different species, but understanding where they came from and how they got to where they are. To be honest, there were some trees that I had never even heard of, such as Persian Silk, Peanut Butter and Wedding Cake Trees, which turns out to be a Cornus controvers, as well as Persimmons, Caucasian Wingnuts, the Foxglove, or Princess Tree, Persian Ironwood, American Sweetgum and the exquisite Crêpe Myrtle.
My favourite tree in the whole world also has examples in London, namely Davidia involucrata, the Pocket Handkerchief or Dove Tree, the best example I know is in Kenwood, and I have been making pilgrimages to see it in May for many years, with its ghostly white bracts hanging amongst the thick foliage, and there is another in the Chelsea Physic Garden, but I have to remind myself that this is a book about street trees, and they are accessible to anyone. They are being planted now in Highgate, Stoke Newington and Shoreditch, as well as newly-staked young trees in Chelsea. The one on a traffic island at Archway looks a bit sad in its new surroundings, but only time, and proper care, will tell.
The author tells us that there are over 400 different types of tree on London streets, and how the planting has not stopped; in fact, many London boroughs, like Hackney, have transformed their streets with an innovative choice of species, many never before planted along the street. Included in the book are 6 London Street Tree walks, and we set out on a warm September morning to tackle the first one in North London, An Archway Perambulation. One street, Dresden Road, was a cornucopia of rare and interesting trees, including a Handkerchief Tree, a Judas Tree, so-named after a branch on which Judas Iscariot hanged himself, remorseful after betraying Christ, Crêpe Myrtle and Brigania, or variously the Three-Lobed Crab Apple or Lebanese Wild Apple. Further on, we came across a Japanese Pagoda Tree, which was a trifle disappointing, Chineses Lacebark Limes, a Hop Hornbeam, a pair of Yunnan Crab Apples and, most surprisingly, a couple of Dawn Redwoods. These have the distinction of being large, conical, deciduous conifers, with feathery needles, and something of a novelty in northwest London. Other walks include one around Herne Hill, around Haggerston in East London, Chiswick, Bloomsbury and the City, weaving amongst the skyscrapers, which takes about an hour and has some surprising examples, including a row of Ginkgoes and some more Dawn Redwoods. Remarkably, a row of Sequoiadendron giganteum, or Giant Redwoods, survive on Canon’s Drive in Edgware, which is a long way from the Sierra Nevada mountains in Central California.
On a sober note, it has just been reported in a September issue of Private Eye, Hackney Council ‘has botched a large-scale tree-planting scheme aimed at countering climate change, with thousands of saplings dying in the past six months.’ The Tree Musketeers, a community group, say the saplings were too big, planted too late, and insufficiently mulched, with between 3,000 and 5,000 trees dying. The aim was to plant more than 36,000 trees by 2022, and let us hope that this ambitious plan has not been de-railed by this unfortunate turn of events.