Introducing Hippophae salicifolia – the willow-leaved sandthorn

Our mystery South London street tree has been identified thanks to a correspondent who was able to recognise a fine avenue of Hippophae salicifolia. Several others suggested sea buckthorn (Hippophae rhamnoides) which, as it turns out, was close but discounted due to size (tree rather than a bush), evergreen foliage and few berries. My own guess at a food plant of giraffes was wide of the mark…

Hippophae salicifolia, street tree, London

Word on the Street: Hippophae salicifolia street tree on Curlew Street, London

The positive identification was verified by the Hippophae salicifolia page on Hillier Nurseries’ website featuring a picture of the exact same street tree I had been struggling to identify, apparently there is a 15m specimen to be found at Kew too.

The common moniker that has emerged for this tree is the very unsatisfactory ‘willow-leaved sea buckthorn’. This plant’s natural habitat is dry Himalayan river valleys hundreds of miles from the sea, so I detect botanical imperialism at work in a name relating to our familiar European coastal species more appropriately known as sea buckthorn.

In my opinion our tree needs a new name – Hippophae are sometimes called sandthorn or sallowthorn; our tree is certainly not sallow, so I am proposing willow-leaved sandthorn.

Any takers?

Other Willow-leaved sandthorn (Hippophae salicifolia) resources:

Hippophae salicifolia on the Plants For a Future website
Salicifolia is listed on the Hippophae Wikipedia entry, but there is no separate species page yet.
My willow-leaved sandthorn Flickr set

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Stumped: unidentified street tree

Leaves and orange berry on the mystery street tree

Southwark Leaf and Berry Combo: what is this thorny, evergreen tree with orange berries?

On Curlew Street, in that late eighties enclave of converted spice warehouses just east of Tower Bridge on the south bank of the Thames, I have noticed a curious tree.

Planted, I imagine, when the area was being cleaned up, they look to me like Giraffe fodder: tall trees with long branches, each bearing a sparse canopy of thin, evergreen leaves and the occasional orange capsule of a berry. It would take a long-necked animal with a dextrous tongue to negotiate these thorny branches – not many of them in these parts. And could a tree from the dry plains of sub Saharan Africa thrive in this urban corner Europe?

So what can they be? I have a hunch that the enthusiastic developers of this former dockland took its spicy heritage to heart, and planted rare and exotic street trees to complement the cinnamon, cardamom, ginger and cloves referenced in the new apartment block names. If so it is a reference lost on this flummoxed amateur plant identifier. Or perhaps they are another illustration of Southwark council’s experimental street tree planting programme, as explored in recent posts about Strawberry Trees and the unlikely Persian Silk Tree, to be found in nearby streets.

unidentified street tree, Curlew Street

Evergreen: Mystery trees in Curlew Street

My mystery trees appear to be thriving in this narrow, enclosed street and while I estimate they are up to 30 years old, they look youthful, as if many years growth lie ahead. Given their clear suitability to the urban environment, their elegance and exoticism, they are a species I have not come across before and one whose identity I am, well, stumped by.

I hope the photos in this post will help identification, here’s the Google street view too and you know where to find them if your interest is piqued:

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The Buckland Yew – Dover’s ancient tree

Marooned in the midst of a Victorian industrial landscape in an unlikely corner of Dover – the famous, unassuming town where I grew up – is an ancient European Yew tree (Taxus baccata). It lies in the valley of the river Dour (pronounced ‘doer’) from which the town takes its name. This name has a celtic root (like the Welsh word for water – dŵr), and is an echo of a place that was here even before the Roman port of Dubris.

The Yew grows in a churchyard once hidden behind the Buckland paper mill. Demolition of the mill, apart from a large brick Victorian shed screening the site, has exposed the river Dour that ran under the mill complex for more than a century. The flattened fenced-off ground is paved with factory floors and the rubble of former walls. Dereliction has allowed the Dour to become a haven for Moorhens who make a living among the newly luxurious growth of aquatic plants, bringing to mind a pre-industrial water meadow landscape with a flint church nestling next to a ford in the river.

Google’s Satellite View: The river Dour meanders through the paper mill site with Buckland churchyard to the left. The Buckland yew is a dark green blob next to the church.

The locked and somewhat shabby church of St. Andrew’s, Buckland, sits in its graveyard of greening gothic monuments – including those to former mill owners – occupying a sliver of land between the mill and a steep nineteenth century railway embankment.

The Buckland Yew (Taxus baccata) in St. Andrew's churchyard, Dover

Spreading The Word: The Buckland Yew stands with some help outside St. Andrew's church, Dover

The Buckland Yew is here, pre-dating all this Victorian order, and the current church, and marking a site that may have held significance even before the arrival of Christianity. In 1880 this remarkable tree was moved 50 feet to its present spot in order to make room for a church extension. The newly moved Yew was enclosed by an iron fence – now rusting – which I remember not many years ago in good repair and with a sign giving details of the tree, its removal and its reputed age. Now a gate to this enclosure swings open allowing access to the tree and exposing the detritus of churchyard drinking among its branches and hollows.

The tree is said to be 1000 years old and like many ancient trees, the ravages of time have caused characterful limbs to convulse and fall into awkward shapes requiring several props to keep it from becoming entirely horizontal. From a distance the tree’s crown is large and verdant and it shows the typical coniferous shape of a Yew albeit broader and lower than a younger tree.

Props holding up the Buckland Yew (Taxus baccata) in St. Andrew's churchyard, Dover

Prop Forward: A series of props now hold up the Buckland Yew

The Buckland Yew has survived removal at least once in its life, it has coped with people and animals clambering on or around it, and in the last two centuries has lived in close proximity to industry and war. It shows every sign of continued vigour in what is now a quiet and gently crumbling corner of a town whose character and urban environment is set to change once again. I hope that the Buckland Yew will become a cherished feature in the new post-industrial Dour valley landscape that with imagination and good planning could emerge in the years to come.

If you’re still interested:
St. Andrews church entry on the Old Dover in Words & Pictures website
My Dover set on Flickr
The Buckland Yew on the Monumental Trees website (needs some editing!)

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Old St. Pancras’ Hardy Tree

The graveyard of Old St. Pancras church is full of interest: tucked away behind the station, it contains several things worth missing a train for, not least some venerable old trees.

The churchyard has survived much as it must have appeared in the mid 19th century when the last significant alterations were made. Its architectural treasures remain gently crumbling in Victorian aspic, while its botanic notables have been left to grow old gracefully. Here’s a glimpse of the St. Pancras Road entrance courtesy of Google Streetview:

The church itself has ancient roots although the current building is largely Victorian. It was originally perched on the banks of the semi-mythical river Fleet which, thanks to 19th railway development, is now culverted and entirely hidden from view. This railway work also resulted in the churchyard being built on and the consequent need to move graves from the path of progress.

I do not know whether any campaigning took place to stop the new railway slicing through this consecrated land (such as the current campaign to save the church orchard in the Highgate), but I wonder if moving the graves and deconsecrating the land would have caused emotions to run high?

The job of removing the gravestones and exhuming the interred fell to one Thomas Hardy (yes, the Thomas Hardy) who, to cut a long story short (you can read the longer story here) created a deeply fascinating architectural installation…

The Hardy Tree, an Ash (Fraxinus excelsior) surrounded by gravestones, Old St. Pancras churchyard, London

Fraxinus Excelsior: The Hardy Ash Tree forms the focal point of Thomas' visionary tombstone wheel

It is a remarkable, ambiguous memorial reminiscent of a 20th century art intervention. A wheel of tombstones, each spoke made up of two rows back to back, at its apex is an Ash tree (Fraxinus excelsior) now grown so large that its roots ooze over and through the stones, the slow force of growth has cracked and broken them in places. The tree must be at least 163 years old – a youngster compared to how old the species can become. The whole ensemble is now known as the ‘Hardy Tree’ and takes an unconventional form inspired by expediency rather than the conventional architectural aesthetics of the day. Its purpose was surely to provide a fitting monument for the relatives of the moved, for some of the disinterred may have been recently buried judging by the style of the gravestones.

And the other things to look out for in Old St. Pancras churchyard? See below:

Burdett-Coutts monument, Old St. Pancras churchyard, London

The Burdett-Coutts Memorial Sundial: Grade 1 listed high camp gothic pinnacle featuring Portland stone doggies, mosaic pansies and some lichen covered remnants of wrought iron railings.


Sir John Soane's masoleum, Old St. Pancras churchyard, London

Sir John Soane's Memorial: An interesting, somewhat deconstructed assemblage of architectural elements carved from stone of varying hues. Allegedly the inspiration behind the red London phone box (a four-cornered low dome is featured in the centrepiece), it might also have inspired the inventors of Lego.


London Plane tree (Platanus x acerifolia), Old St Pancras churchyard, London

London Plane: A massive and splendid two hundred year old London Plane tree (Platanus x acerifolia) encircled by an iron bench.

And if you’re still interested, I have posted more photos (including one of the Portland stone doggie) in an Old St. Pancras churchyard Flickr set.

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The Cabbage tree: imagined palm of the English seaside

I have just spent a very lovely warm and sunny week in Cornwall, a place thick with the Cabbage trees which have inspired this post.

I love the Cabbage tree (Cordyline australis) because of its association with the seaside and the fantasies of palm fringed tropical beaches that it brings to mind.

Cabbage Trees, Carbis Bay Hotel, St. Ives, Cornwall

Poolside Palms: Cabbage trees set the scene at the Carbis Bay Hotel in Cornwall

The ‘Cornish palm’ as it is also known, appears to relish the reliably mild and damp climate which gulf-stream-warmed spots from Torquay in Devon to Plockton on the west coast of Scotland offer, and features prominently in the marketing of picturesque resorts suggesting they have a far more clement climate than they actually do.

In their native New Zealand, Cabbage trees are a common sight in open, swampy ground and dotted about on farmland. But Cordyline australis is widespread throughout the North and South islands and has adapted to a wide range of habitats to produce quite variable plants with different leaf shapes and colouring along with variable size and branching characteristics. There are in fact five different species of Cordylines in New Zealand, but it is the australis that has become the globetrotter.

Cabbage Tree (Cordyline australis), Coromandel, New Zealand

Native New Zealander: A Cabbage tree in its natural environment on the stunning Coromandel peninsula

It was the first European settlers of New Zealand who named the Cabbage tree. They had undoubtedly observed how indigenous Maori used the plant (known as Ti Kouka) for a multitude of uses including for food. The roots, stem and young heart leaves are all consumed (not having tasted it myself I assume the leaves are the cabbage-like part), and there is evidence that Maori planted the tree in South island locations for food production.

As every fan of musical theatre knows, Cornwall is synonymous with pirates and in my imagination it was these buccaneers who, retiring to these parts after years of marauding in the south seas brought home the Cabbage tree as a reminder of happy days. Cordylines have become a decorative horticultural mainstay since the nineteenth century but I wonder whether it is now time to take a fresh look at the culinary uses of the plant too?

Fruiting Cabbage Tree, St. Ives, Cornwall

Cabbage Patch: A venerable old Cordyline australis in fruit outside an old house on St. Ives fishing quay

This would be particularly appropriate in Cornwall where a celebrity restaurateur could surely conjure up something mouth-watering… Roasted Celtic Sea Turbot served with Cornish palm hearts and Jersey Royals anybody?

Some links:
My Cabbage tree Flickr set
New Zealand Department of Conservation entry for Cordyline australis

Cabbage trees lining the road into St. Ives:

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Save Islington’s secret orchard

It is exciting when you discover a new aspect to a place you think you know well. Recently I heard about an old orchard in my borough which has survived under the care of some London monks (a rare breed in themselves). An orchard, in Islington? It’s true! And it is the borough’s only one.

Orchard with St Josephs monastery and church

Forbidden Fruit: The orchard in St. Joseph's monastery garden

The green dome of St. Joseph’s church and monastery is a local landmark. Marooned on a narrow triangle at the top of Dartmouth Park Hill, its imposing Victorian Romanesque bulk looks out over London like some steampunk Bond villain’s lair.

But I never guessed that behind it lay a large and rustic sloping garden, containing perhaps half a dozen mature apple trees (Malus domestica) and a few elderly but well cared for roses. I saw a Green Woodpecker (Picus viridis) in this quiet, old-fashioned place on my last visit.

Green Woodpecker on an Apple tree in the orchard, St Josephs

Knocking on Heaven's Door: A Green Woodpecker (Picus viridis) on the trunk of one of St. Joseph's endangered Apple trees

I came across this gem during recent Apple Day activities at the London Wildlife Trust, through the London Orchard Project who work to create new city orchards wherever they can find an appropriate patch of land. Sadly this unassuming but authentic survivor is under threat of being sold and developed – proposals for the demolition of the monastery and the construction of a mixed housing development on the monastery site, the garden and orchard are well advanced.

Apparently St. Joseph’s is in a poor state of repair, and selling the land will raise money to patch up the church and build more comfortable accommodation for the dwindling population of elderly monks. But many feel that a development here will represent the defeat of charm, tranquillity and community at the ever-tempting hands of Mammon.

A PR agency has been hired, suggesting the church and developers are aware of considerable local opposition to what is clearly a hugely controversial scheme.

The site is being considered for designation as a Site of Borough Importance (Grade II) for Nature Conservation. If this happens the development is less likely, but it is up to the concerned residents of Highgate and further afield to make the London Borough of Islington take note of the strength of feeling about this precious green space.

Orchard, St Josephs

Apple Store: St. Joseph's orchard

If you care about saving this oasis, please consider signing the online petition, particularly if you are a resident of Islington, the borough considering the planning application.

Save St. Joseph’s
Sign the petition
Report wildlife sightings on the GiGL website (Greenspace Information for Greater London)
A short and interesting history of St. Joseph’s
St Joseph’s church website

Here’s the way in to the orchard from Highgate Hill:

This part of London has a historic connection with fruit-growing, another good reason to protect this rare survivor. Before the Victorian railway-powered city consumed the green slopes to its north, the area was well known for its orchards. A faint echo of the past survives in some of the local street tree plantings – you may be interested to read my earlier post about the perry pear street trees in nearby Holloway.

What would that one-time Highgate dweller John Betjeman think?

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Red Oak lives up to its name

In a post about the North American Red Oak (Quercus rubra) I wrote in the balmy days of August, I rather flippantly stated that ”… the beauty of this tree in its native New World is surely its fiery autumn colours which in our damper and milder oceanic climate is watered down from a rich red to a pedestrian caramel brown.”

Red Oak (Quercus rubra), More London

Confounded Tree: A Red Oak blatantly turning red

I have been perversely willing all the specimens of Red Oak in London (and I now realise there are a lot) to take on muddy shades in time for bonfire night so I could fill screenloads of blog pixels with an ironic firework-themed, told-you-so posting about the unsuitability of this tree to adorn our streets and public spaces.

Red Oaks (Quercus rubra), More London

Leaf It Out: More Red Oaks making spectacles of themselves with striking leaf colours

Well, there is nothing like humility, so I feel compelled to admit that I have been wrong about Quercus rubra. The Red Oak has come into its own in the past week as the trees I originally wrote about in the More London development are starting to, well, delight. Some trees are deep red, others brick red, more are yellow and orange. What this species lacks in character during the rest of the year, it is now making up for.

That said, I did bump into this rather splendid Acer palmatum or Japanese Maple in Highgate’s Waterlow Park last weekend…

Acer palmatum

Red Alert: Nothing beats the colour of the amazing Acer palmatum or Japanese Maple . This one is in Waterlow Park in north London

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