Three years ago, my book, London’s Street Trees was published. Since then it’s been through three print-runs and has been the subject of kind comments and favourable reviews. And today, I’m very pleased to announce that a new, expanded and fully revised edition has been published by Safe Haven Books.
In that first edition, I calculated around 300 species and cultivars could be found on the streets of London. I have since discovered Hackney alone has over 350. And while that borough has the most remarkable and diverse collection of street trees in London, there are still species not present on its streets that can be found elsewhere: Islington has over 100 Caucasian Wingnuts, there’s at least one rare Catalina Ironwood in Chelsea and a handful of Cork Oaks in Southwark.
This new edition is larger in every way – it’s physically bigger, has more pages and includes more tree species. It also includes hundreds of new photographs, the result of three years of my continued obsession with London’s trees.
But just as the number of species has increased (a decade from now I would not be surprised to count upwards of 500 species and cultivars), so has Londoners’ interest in them. What began as the novel idea of one or two guided walks to inspect the street trees is now, nearly three years later, a regular activity. Even in the current health emergency, I have been able to harness the latest technology and lead virtual walks allowing people to join from all over the world. Above all, I report how Londoners are raising funds to plant their own streets with resplendent species like Persian Silk Tree, a species admired in the pages of this new edition.
The diversity of today’s urban forest is relatively new. A century ago, A. D. Webster wrote in ‘London Trees’ that ‘nothing very remarkable is to be found in the way of street trees in London.’ Sixty per cent, he estimated, were London Planes, then the height of arboreal fashion. Now, it’s only around 3%. But that is because the overall number and diversity of trees has increased dramatically, not because we have lost thousands of Planes. So, to Webster’s generation, and those before him, we owe a debt of gratitude for the mature giants that now define this city, and the very desire to plant street trees at all. It was only fifty years earlier that the first street trees were systematically planted along the Embankment. Now it would be hard to imagine London, or indeed any city, without them.
We could think of the last 150 years as a great experiment, and one we are still engaged in. The pace of change in the urban forest is rapid. The humble Field Maple, the glamorous American Sweetgum and the rare Paper Mulberry thrive in what appear pretty unfavourable conditions.
Of earlier species like poplars, by contrast, only aged examples of these magnificent billowing trees can be seen on the street. The attractive, fast-growing Tree of Heaven was once commonplace in places like Bermondsey, but its propensity to jump ship and opportunistically take up residence wherever it can has made urban foresters less keen on what was once considered a wonder tree. But as the looming climate emergency makes the benefits of trees in cities more obvious, one of the most remarkable, and hopeful, things I’ve noticed is just how fast trees can grow on London’s streets. In just a few years, a vulnerable sapling can transform itself into a confident adult tree.
Then again, since this book first came out – Sheffield happened. Campaigners had to fight a long battle to save hundreds of magnificent, mature street trees from the axe. It shows, I think, just how much we value our urban trees, and how far we are prepared to go to protect them.
Street trees reflect the aspirations of a city, the conditions of the present and our legacy for the future. In London, grand oaks and planes offer a direct connection with the glories and inequalities of its past; exotic Olives and Crêpe Myrtles celebrate our multicultural world city as well as its changing climate, while Tulip Trees, Dawn Redwoods and Ginkgos will grace our streets for generations to come. I hope you enjoy discovering them all.