Trees play a major role in combating climate change by removing carbon emissions from the air around us. It’s time for me to plant a tree.

A beech tree – outstanding in its field

It all started soon after I arrived on a recent trip to UK and took a silly quiz. The Friends of the Earth quiz tells what sort of tree one is supposed to be. Apparently, I’m a beech. They say (about the tree) “You’re royalty in any field you’re in, a majestic, grand figure who draws huge attention. You’re strong and enchanting, and all sorts of creatures are drawn to you.” Only you, kind reader, will know if this is true of the person.

Spectacular trees are everywhere in England, although the actual tree cover falls far behind what one would expect. One of my favourite trees stands in Sherwood Forest. It’s the Major Oak, a spectacularly old and grizzled giant. Nearby, in Clumber Park the famous Lime Tree Avenue enchants. I spot apple blossom in Harrogate and a spectacular maple in Warwick. My daughter lives on an estate in the Cotswolds, with a plethora of trees, including majestic weeping willows around the mill pond. There are trees everywhere, but apparently not enough.

Lime Tree Avenue in Clumber Park, Notts

Living most of the time in Canada, where the issue of tree cover is not urgent, we don’t think much about trees. Except perhaps in our cities. Toronto is supposed to be a green city, but every day we see trees under threat from development. Across the road from our house used to be a delightful park graced by 16 fully mature trees. Now it’s a 20-plus-storey monster block surrounded by faux townhouses. On the perimeter, some weedy saplings are struggling to survive. We worry when the City tree outside our own house gets unusually stressed, such as by this year’s very hot and dry summer. Fortunately, the City expert says the lovely maple will probably recover and they will check how it is doing in the spring.

For the past few years, we’ve had a spectacular 30-foot flowering dogwood in the back garden. In spring it would burst forth with a canopy of brilliant white flowers. In the autumn the leaves turned bright red, almost as magnificent as the maple out front.

Autumnal maple, Thorpe Salvin

Unfortunately, contractors working across the road completely ignored all environmental measures and covered the neighbourhood with a thick cement dust as they used grinders to prepare the side of the four-storey building for refinishing. They refused to acknowledge they had caused any damage to our tree, but in spite of hosing it down vigorously to wash all the leaves, it still died. They wouldn’t even pay for the dead tree removal. Until they finish working, I’m not risking replacing it. The pretty Japanese maple we planted a few years ago in the centre of the garden is, fortunately, thriving.

Canada has nearly 860 million acres of woodlands, comprising nine per cent of the world’s forests, out of a total land mass of 2,467 million acres. Forests dominate many Canadian landscapes, but since much of the country is above the tree line (the southern edge of the Arctic tundra), trees cover only 38 per cent of Canada’s land area. In Europe, the average tree cover is 35 per cent. In the UK, sadly, the figure is just 13 per cent. Of the four countries in the kingdom, Wales leads with 19.4 per cent cover, while Northern Ireland is the worst served with a mere eight per cent. Finland leads on the Continent with 71 per cent tree cover.

Most of Canada’s forest lies within the cold-climate boreal belt extending through Alaska, Siberia and Scandinavia, composed largely of coniferous trees. The temperate-region forests extend only in milder areas along the Pacific coast and in southwestern Ontario. In British Columbia the maritime climate supports a forest dominated by conifers. In southern Ontario, a deciduous forest has developed as a result of typically warm summers. In between there’s a vast mixed-wood forest, with equal proportions of coniferous and deciduous trees.

Oundle trees (courtesy The Dolby Gallery)

While we can take credit for planting or encouraging the City to plant several trees around our home in Toronto, our other home in Yorkshire is currently treeless. At one time a majestic willow stood on the edge of the driveway and my late mother-in-law called the cottage ‘Willowdale.’ Now the tree has been long gone and so has the name.

Instead of replacing it, I have decided to plant a maple, as a tip of the hat to my time in Canada. The maple, of course, is associated with Canada in many ways, including as the central symbol on the national flag. The sugar maple provides the country with an endless supply of maple syrup in the autumn, but the tree is almost unheard of in England. When I enquire at a local nursery, I’m told that in the past 25 years the arborist has only been asked about a sugar maple perhaps three times. A Norway ‘crimson king’ maple, with deep purple leaves, is recommended. There’s precedent for the substitution, because the Canadian Mint barked up the wrong maple tree with its new plastic banknotes, using a foreign Norway maple leaf as the emblem on the notes instead of the sugar maple that the country has on its ensign.

Queen Elizabeth II and the Prince of Wales planting the first Jubilee tree (courtesy Buckingham Palace)

The maple won’t be an alien in the village either as there is another just up the road, which was splendidly red this autumn.

My alma mater, Oundle School, also celebrated trees last year, with the planting of 300 oak saplings to commemorate the sacrifice of those students and staff who served in World War I. The saplings for the Centenary Oak Project were grown from acorns collected by students from another avenue of remembrance planted over 100 years ago. These trees will grow significantly over the years and provide yet another substantial contribution to our planet’s health. Oundle has a long history of tree planting. Apart from the post WW I avenue of oaks, there were also other initiatives, led by a visionary school master.

Hugo Caudwell was a wonderful teacher. Although I never took his classes, my relationship with him was on some of his many volunteer-led projects. He created the school’s press and showed me the inner workings of printing, lessons which have served me well my whole life. When I was ‘off sport’ a gang of us helped him revive the sunken rockery behind the school chapel. It is still there to this day, with a welcome bench for quiet contemplation.

Maple tree and plaque

While we worked hauling old stones around, I recall him saying, several times, that what the lawns around the chapel really needed were some trees. Apparently, after I had left the school, he succeeded in convincing them of his plan, corralled an arborist and another bunch of ‘off sport’ boys to help plant and create several groves of fine trees. The story is well told in this year’s issue of the Old Oundelian Magazine. On a recent visit I was gratified to see them thriving, his dream come true.

As the old proverb has it: “The best time to plant a tree is 20 years ago. The second best time is now.”

And here in our Yorkshire village, I’ve arrived at my own ‘now’ moment. I’ve been encouraged by the Queen’s Green Canopy, a unique tree planting initiative created to mark Her Majesty’s Platinum Jubilee in 2022 which invites people from across the United Kingdom to ‘Plant a Tree for the Jubilee.’ Queen Elizabeth and Prince Charles kicked off the campaign by planting a tree together at Windsor Castle earlier this year. Everyone from individuals to groups, villages, cities, counties, schools and companies are being encouraged to play their part by planting trees during the official planting season between October and March. I have also added a virtual plaque celebrating my Jubilee tree to a special online QGC map, so if you zoom in to the countryside east of Sheffield you can see approximately where my tree is planted, one of the few so far in Yorkshire. Early days, I hope.

One sunny morning in early November, the tree arrived from the nursery, with a team of willing gardeners to help plant it. The maple looked skinny and glad to be back in the ground. It was somewhat taller than expected, at about 16 feet, although it will be a few years before it moves from sapling to tree status. I’m told my maple is about a decade old, so it has a good chance of doing well in this sheltered spot in front of my bedroom window. Eventually it might top out at 35 to 40 feet high and will provide welcome summer shade to the house. Every time I look out, I will be remined of the Queen’s magnificent service to our country.

Featured image: Autumnal splendour in Canada’s lakes and forests

BREXIT UPDATE: “British nurseries were stopped from exporting 21 species of trees, including English oak, yew, beech, honeysuckle and elm, to Northern Ireland … when Brexit took legal effect on 31 December 2020,” reports The Daily Telegraph. “Apple, poplar, willow, beech and birch are also on the banned list.”

ROYAL UPDATE: The Prince of Wales has warned too many housing developers plant trees as a last-minute attempt to make their projects “look attractive,” before abandoning them to die of neglect. The Prince, writing recently in Country Life magazine, lamented the developers who failed to manage planting schemes to maturity. Singing the praises of planting trees he said: “Sadly, I have come across too many big planting schemes initiated, albeit in good faith, by agencies or housing developers that forget the final stage and, therefore, do little to increase the number of trees. The last thing developers often do to make a new housing scheme look attractive is pepper it… with young trees, but then they leave the site and the trees are forgotten… many quickly die through neglect, a lack of watering, weeding or such like. To succeed, any tree-planting scheme must be carefully managed all the way to maturity.”

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This is Nigel’s 321st blog on Gentleman’s Portion. The SEARCH function at the top works really well if you want to look back and see some of his previous stories.

2 replies »

  1. In Toronto, our Annex Residents’ Association is updating a 2009 survey of all the trees in our neighbourhood. In that year they identified over 10,000 and catalogued them by species, size, health etc. One was a 400-year old oak on Spadina Avenue, one of the oldest trees in the City. With rapacious development all around us, I wonder how many they will find missing in the new survey?


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