I was transfixed by the charms of a Persian Silk Tree (Albizia julibrissin) in Southwark today. A most majestic and unusual (for England) street tree, in fact a rarely-planted tree anywhere in the UK, street or otherwise. This is perhaps a cautious test planting to see what happens – the tree has a reputation for invasive behaviour in the US and Japan according to the trusty wikipedia entry…
On first impressions Albizia julibrissin has a lot going for it – very attarctive and exotic foliage, a long flowering period and a lovely spreading habit, but I’m sure our forbears said the same about the Tree of Heaven.
It seems appropriate to plant this tree in Globe Street, an otherwise nondescript turning off Great Dover Street, but clearly a road with ambition. From a distance the tree’s profile screamed for attention and I couldn’t resist a closer look which was rewarded with the mimosa-like elegance of the foliage and jaunty flowers that are all stamen and no petal – there were a lot but they may not be visible in my pictures. The unexpectedness of this tree was compounded by the planted bed that surrounded it. A nice bit of Guerilla Gardening, an activity to be encouraged I believe – people claiming a stake in their streets and beautifying derelict land. It’s great to see the usually small-scale and unconstrained planting, not always appropriate but an antedote to the often institutional planting of local authorities. Unfettered middle class anarchy!
Looking down Globe Street from Great Dover Street:
The Tree of Heaven (Ailanthus altissima) is a common tree of street plantings, parks and gardens, in fact it pops up everywhere. It has a curious habit (in London at least) of blending in, it has a passing resemblence to the Ash (Fraxinus excelsior) or the Walnut (Juglans regia) and seems inoffensive when it first appears. It is in fact a vigourous tree, growing rapidly into an attractive small tree and then a shady large tree. It often looks planted but in fact it may very probably have arrived under it’s own steam.
Whenever I spot one of these colonisers of uncared-for plots of land it isn’t long before the parent tree becomes apparent, typically a mature planted specimen within 100 metres of a not-so-obviously planted specimen. Because of it’s rapid grown and it’s ability to push out suckers almost at will even through tarmac or cracks in walls, a patch of waste ground can resemble a possibly-planted mini ToH arboretum within two or three years. By the time someone notices and decides to cut down the encroaching spinney, these offenders will be ready to send forth sucker reinforcements and so the cycle continues.
Often the ToH will appear to be a bush as the one in this picture does, don’t let this simulacrum of pruning fool you though – chances are it will be the multi-stemmed regrowth of a casually hacked mono-trunked invader.
Beyond these shores the Tree of Heaven, or Ghetto Palm, has gained notoriety for it’s invading habits and is regarded as out of control and an unwanted alien in parts of Europe and America. It’s ability to grow anywhere has also been celebrated in literature and my post title references Betty Smith’s 1943 novel ‘A Tree Grows in Brooklyn‘ which uses the Tree of Heaven as a metaphor for the tenacity of her inner city dwelling characters.
Check out the likely parent tree just next to the pub:
I admire this gawky and unloved Field Maple – acer campestre – on the Hornsey Road in north London. It couldn’t be further away from the bucolic landscape implied by it’s name.
This one fills a space on a busy main road by a row of local shops soaking up traffic fumes and witnessing round the clock inner city events. It is leant against by drunks, powerfully-jawed dogs are tethered to it, buses brush past it, a cocktail of Special Brew and sticky soft drinks are fed to it’s roots, and hastily opened car doors bump and scrape it’s bark as passengers leap out to pick up a pizza or a pint of milk.
Despite it’s front-line position, this one seems to be thriving, this year’s crop of straggly new growth can clearly be seen in the photo. It’s a tree that seems to be making the most of it’s environment and is taking up an almost defiant posture as a Field Maple would if it were a member of a hedge, it strains towards the light and thickets of branchlets grow out of it’s trunk facing directly in to the road.
A plucky, messy and often overlooked tree that can cope with a lot, the Field Maple is our only native maple.
Bedford Row is a very handsome eighteenth century London street, in some ways more handsome than it’s Bloomsbury neighbours north of the Theobald’s Road divide. It is wider than Great James Street and softer than Doughty Street, it is lined largely by fine Georgian terraces, (the exception being a post-war infill half way up on the western side), now mostly law firms and esoteric consultancy businesses.
The Row’s charm is helped in no small measure by being lined with mature feathery-leaved Robinias. These North American trees take on interesting and characterful shapes as they grow older and the Bedford Row specimens have become reminiscent of those familar and quitessentially English trees rendered by Constable or Gainsborough. From a distance they might be mistaken for Elms, a half-remembered image still burned in the English consciousness despite the ravages of Dutch Elm Disease laying waste to the species way back in the early 1970s.
More London is the could-do-better new development of the usual eateries, open spaces and largely unremarkable office buildings on the southbank just west of City Hall. It does try hard though and has some interesting bits like the water feature running the length of the dramatic diagonal pedestrian conduit between Tooley Street and the river. The developers have also planted a swathe of North American tree species including Liriodendron Tulipifera – the Tulip Tree, Quercus Rubra – the Red Oak and Betula Papyriera – the Paper Birch.
I wonder why they chose these species over native ones? Particularly the Red Oak which while undoubtedly a handsome tree and mildly exotic with its large serrated leaves has none of the character of native Oaks. It’s straight, business-like stature – particularly evident in these young nursery-nurtured trees – mirrors the buildings and their daytime inhabitants. The irony is 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.
I like to think there was more imagination behind the selection of the Paper Birch as one of the other species used in the landscaping. Like the European Silver Birch, Paper Birch is a pioneer coloniser of marginal land and was prized by native Americans for its use in the construction of canoes.
So, well done developers for making an interesting open space and ensuring there’s lots of greenery (I particularly like the shady planted rows of Box hedging under an Oak canopy interspersed with stone benches), but wouldn’t the whole development have been more characterful and perhaps had more of a sense of place if the planted trees were the familiar native Oak and Birch?
The dramatic diagonal leading from Tooley Street to the Thames:
I cycle past this very fine Robinia Pseudoacacia var. Frisia in Barnsbury on my way to work. It always gladdens the heart with its magnificent golden foliage. Not strictly a street tree this one as it is in a private garden, but it is most definitely part of the urban landscape rather than a garden tree.
You too can find it here:
London has many fine Robinias which make attractive street trees although the ‘Frisia’ variety is less common. Robinia Pseudoacacia originates from eastern North America where it is known as the ‘Black Locust’, in the UK it is known as the ‘False Acacia’ and it’s widely planted and perhaps beginning to naturalise. In late spring Robinias have short-lived white flower racemes that provide an important source of nectar for honey bees. 2011 was a good year for the flowers – in London at least.
I love the downland landscape around Canterbury, there is a maze of ancient hollow ways overhung with coppice and hedgerows traversing steep banks and hidden valleys occasionally allowing a peek at a lovely English landscape which in my imagination has been unchanged for millenia. This was the scene as we turned off Stone Street (the Roman Road connecting Canterbury to Hythe), went through Petham and on to Gogway, a fantastically named and no doubt ancient lane cutting through the Yockletts Bank nature reserve.
I have not visited Yockletts Bank before, but it is famous for it’s Lady Orchids which being August we were far too late for. We were rewarded by a diverse woodland flora though, including Field Maple and Hornbeam coppice, ripe hazelnuts (can I call them cobnuts?) on the floor and most excitingly, helleborines. I am not a helleborine expert and I wasn’t able to immediately identify them, but there may have been two species present. I think one was certainly Broad-leaved Helleborine but the other was smaller, had darker, smaller flowers and was a more shy plant altogether. I was able to take these pictures of the two differing flower spikes: