“It’s sad”, said the woman coming out of her driveway with her two young children. “A tree is such a big thing, it is sad when it dies.” A large bough was caught in a violent swirl of wind in a recent storm, splitting the trunk of a huge tree close to the road, she’d had to call the tree surgeons to finish the job. It took them hours, they were still working away chopping the wood into tidy circles when I walked back past six hours later.
How much growth had gone into creating that tall tree, I wondered? I was not close enough to count the rings and the tree surgeon who might have made a good guess could not have heard my question over above the drone of the saws. The trunk looked thick enough for it to have been a sapling when Charles Darwin was alive, but perhaps not when he was born in Shrewsbury just a little further down The Mount in 1809.
The destruction of the tree was in complete contrast to the exuberant spring growth I could see everywhere else. I’d just spent a day at Kew on a basic botany course – a subject I’d not studied since school- and somehow it seems to have opened my eyes wider just in time to witness the – at last – arrival of spring. Of course I’ve been enjoying the bright blossom, the bluebells and the fresh green of the trees. And I’d noticed the cow parsley stalks swelling fat in the hedgerows, and fiddlehead ferns in tight fists preparing to unfurl: these are my familiar and favourite signs of spring.
But now I began to notice how each tree was suddenly developing its own particular blooms, even if it is not something I’d immediately recognise as a flower. On one weekend’s walk, the beech leaves were unfolding, and casting off the red brown covers which fell round us like dark snowflakes; the next time, small green flowers had emerged among the leaves. I was entranced by the translucent green circles I found between the new leaves of another tree and I admired the grey green catkins on another without being sure what it was. And the tiny pairs of brown flowers branching in delicate sprays from the buds of another – was it ash? We hadn’t had time to cover trees in the short Kew botany class, taught by a world expert on the lily family, she’d brought in a woodland favourite Lords and Ladies (proper name Arum maculatum) for us to examine under the microscope. But I discover the Woodland Trust has a very useful app on British trees which helped me identify the three flowering trees as elm, grey willow and, yes, ash.
Botany had always seemed such a rigmarole of naming and labelling of parts that it has put me off till now. But I find the beauty and the sheer exuberance of plants’ spring growth isn’t in the least diminished by knowing a little more about them. I can still delight as I look and listen, my brief frustration at my unknowing melting away at a burst of birdsong from the tree tops.
Observations from walks in the Chilterns (Fire Wood and College Wood) and in Shrewsbury, in April and May.
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