Countryside Urban landscape

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:

Ancient trees Countryside

Wyndham’s Oak: a great survivor

A couple of weekends ago I was staying in Dorset where I heard about Wyndham’s Oak, an ancient tree I felt compelled to seek out. It is a pedunculate Oak (Quercus robur) and it is ancient, maybe 1000 years old. It is a shrinking hulk in an unlikely setting but it is a local landmark and has been for centuries.

Wyndham's Oak, Silton, Dorset
Outstanding In Its Field: Wyndham's Oak, maybe 1,000 years old and once part of a Royal hunting forest

Also known as the Silton Oak, it can be found in the Dorset village of the same name. Now it stands discreetly in a meadow by the river Stour behind St. Nicholas’ parish church. It is not visible for miles around and no road runs close by, yet it is marked on the Ordnance Survey map.

Called Wyndham’s Oak after Sir Hugh Wyndham, an obscure 17th century judge and local worthy who managed to keep a low enough profile to ensure his public service career spanned the rules of Charles I, Oliver Cromwell’s interregnum and Charles II. According to the story, Sir Hugh did nothing more than sit in the shade of this great tree – undoubtedly a magnificent sight at the time – forever linking his name to the tree at the apex of its height, spread and girth.

At the time of the English restoration then, this tree was perhaps 600 years old. It may have been hollow as it is now, but it almost certainly would have been considerably larger than today’s enormous bole surmounted by little more than a toupé of branches.

Wyndham's Oak bole
Burred Bole: Centuries of growth have produced huge girth and a splendid gnarled trunk

Possibly planted as a boundary marker of the Gillingham Forest, a royal deer hunting chase favoured by King John, Wyndham’s Oak survived the forest’s destruction during Charles I’s reign adding further weight to the notion that it was so remarkable that it was intentionally saved from the sawyers supplying the needs of the King’s fleet.

The UK is Europe’s hotspot when it comes to aged timber – Richmond Park in west London supports ‘more 500-year-old trees than France and Germany combined’ – Wyndham’s oak is one of the most enduring of Britain’s many remarkable trees.

There is no obvious reason why there are so many ancient trees in this country, but perhaps the feudal system allowed trees to grow old in aristocratic deer parks unmolested by fuel hungry peasants, or perhaps Britain got off lightly from the ravages of wars that brought in their wake pressing need for fuel and shelter to large parts of the continent.

Ultimately though these survivors are testament to the great fondness we great apes have for trees.

Further reading:
• Wyndham’s Oak described on the Woodland Trust’s Ancient Tree Hunt website
• Telegraph article about ancient trees in Britain including the Richmond Park quote above
• Antiquarian description of the, even then, long gone Gillingham Forest from John Marius Wilson’s Imperial Gazetteer of England and Wales 1870-72
• More pictures of the Wyndham’s Oak and it’s surroundings in my Flickr photoset

To find Wyndham’s Oak, go through the churchyard and out into the field beyond…

Countryside Urban landscape

Chequer schnapps update

In my recent post about the Wild Service tree and it’s elusive fruits, I reproduced an English translation of a German recipe for Wild Service vodka, or Chequer schnapps as I now prefer to call it.


Berried Treasure: the Wild Service Tree

Around my neck of the woods there are many fine Rowan (Sorbus aucuparia) and Whitebeam (Sorbus aria) street trees now super-abundantly laden with ripe, red berries and leaves beginning to take on autumnal hues.

With these local fruity indicators appearing, it was time, I thought, to go on my annual quest for chequers, the semi-mythical fruit of the exquisitely rare Wild Service tree (Sorbus torminalis), a member of the same genus. Many half remembered recipes and uses of it’s elusive brown berries are documented; chequers could be found for sale in produce markets only a century ago when it was recommended as a dessert fruit. A dictionary definition of the eighteenth century claims that ‘sorb apples’ are “good to purge watery humours and against the scurvy” (From Patrick Roper‘s ‘Chequer’ book publised by Sage Press, 2004).

The historical record is clearly mixed, the fruit must be an acquired taste.

Chequers on Wild Service Tree (Sorbus torminalis)
Anyone for chequers: The fruit of a Wild Service Tree high in the branches and safely out of reach in Pound Wood, Thundersley, Essex

My own interests in these pomes (beyond the nerdy) are culinary and propagatory. I have never dared taste the few shriveled specimens I have laid hands on but am fascinated by their traditional use in flavouring liqueurs and beer. Here’s a Wild Service vodka recipe from Patrick’s Sorbus website that I hope to try when that elusive chequer glut appears.

Recipe for ‘Aufgesetzten aus Elsbeeren’

To make the Aufgesetzten pound 400 grams of wild service berries in a non-metallic vessel. Let the pounded pulp stand and ferment in a warm place for a week then put the pulp in a linen cloth (jelly bag) and squeeze the juice out.

Mix the juice with an equal quantity of vodka (at least 40% alcohol by volume), then mix the remaining pulp with 1/4 litre of vodka and filter the liquid off from this after two weeks.

Mix the two juices together and stir in three tablespoons of honey.

Leave at room temperature for one year before drinking.

From Rowans, Whitebeams and Service Trees, a translation from the original German recipe at Die Elsbeere

Nor have I had any success with propagation – the fruits should be bletted and their seeds may need to freeze or pass through the gut of a wood pigeon before they become fertile for all I know, but I am willing to continue trying.

So, intent on harvesting for these ends, I headed for South East Essex, an unlikely WST hotspot. Just off the A127 Southend Arterial Road I located the Pound Wood nature reserve.

Hornbeam (Carpinus betulus) coppice
Hard as nails: Hornbeam coppice represents the more typical vegetation of Pound Wood

It’s a gorgeous place with hard, twisted and fluted hornbeam (Carpinus betulus) coppice, thrusting chestnuts (Castanea sativa), handsome oak (Quercus Robur) standards, rare Heath Fritillary butterflies and huge wood ant nests. Very few Wild Service Trees though… I have found it in perhaps 5 places and I have looked hard. In Pound Wood I found one tree bearing fruit, a fine specimen with a soaring, unbranched trunk ensuring no unprepared human would attempt plucking the teasing berries from it’s canopy.

The Wild Service is a fascinating tree and has many things going for it: spring blossom, a distinctive leaf shape, fine autumn colouring, an allegedly edible fruit and valuable timber used for fine furniture and (historically, I guess) crossbow manufacture. It would surely make a magnificent street tree competing with it’s Sorbine cousins to soak up our urban pollution.

Check out the entrance to Pound Wood on Google streetview:


Sycamores in the British landscape

Soon after I first became interested in plants and conservation I became aware of the concept of native and non-native species. I grew up in Dover, a port town where xenophobic attitudes are paradoxically ingrained in a population who perceive themselves to be on the frontline of an unfinished European war and are ever ready for an imminent invasion of unintelligible foreigners, so I was used to this concept and knew what was expected of me.

Sycamore (Acer pseudoplatanus) in northern England
Sycamore (Acer pseudoplatanus) on the march in northern England

In the local woodlands the unfortunate Sycamore was singled out as a non-native species, a recent invader from Alsace, Franche-Comté or maybe even further afield. Europe’s largest maple was intent on ousting our native, British trees through unseemly reproductive vigour unmatched by our altogether more restrained climax vegetation.

I made it my patriotic duty to single-handedly eradicate the Sycamore menace from local woodland where each spring thousands of seedlings would threaten the native Beech (Fagus sylvatica), Ash (Fraxinus excelsior) and Yew (Taxus bacatta) woodland defined 10,000 years ago. Or so I thought at the time. In reality Sycamore does throw out many, many seedlings every year but these cannot survive to maturity in the shade of Yew and Beech. Sycamore is a coloniser of disturbed or open woodland and can act as a very good nursery plant for our more shade-tolerant but less fecund woodland trees. Sycamore does not therefore colonise our woodlands, but rather becomes a component of them with a part to play in the real and inclusive ecosystem. And of course our woodlands – ancient or otherwise – have been shaped by Man for our own, usually sustainable, exploitation for millennia.

Sycamore (Acer pseudoplatanus) near Hadrian's Wall
Lone Sycamore (Acer pseudoplatanus) giving it's name to Sycamore Gap on Hadrian's Wall

On my recent tour o’ the North, I was struck by how important to the upland Pennine landscape the Sycamore is, it has been a part of the scene for generations. It takes on the appearance that Oak does further south where ancient and dignified trees stand sentinel in a field or as a roadside reminder of a long ago grubbed-up hedgerow.

So my view of the Sycamore has changed – I appreciate the part it plays in the landscape, it is a familiar tree to many and it is not invasive, which is perhaps the measure of how we should judge the menace posed by plants. Sycamore may not appear in prehistoric pollen records, but its arrival on British shores is a mysterious event that cannot be dated.

Looking north to Sycamore Gap on Hadrian’s Wall from the former Roman military road:

There is a very interesting white paper published by the Woodland Trust on their website for those who may like to read more on the subject.


Upper Teesdale adventure

I have been on a sojourn to the North and spent several days in The North Pennines Area of Outstanding Natural Beauty. Sandwiched between the Yorkshire Dales and Northumberland National Parks, it attracts far fewer visitors than its glamorous neighbours. That said, the Glorious 12th having just passed, the area was thrumming with Land Rovers and tweed-clad folk enjoying their best Grouse season for many years (not that their famous quarry was featured on local menus.)

Mountain Pansy (Viola lutea)
Mountain Pansy in it's unusual purple form found in Upper Teesdale

The AONB is comprised of large tracts of upland moors and grassland cut through with river valleys including those of the Tees and Wear. Here lies the Moor House-Upper Teesdale National Nature Reserve featuring a unique arctic/alpine flora including many rarities, notably the stunning Spring Gentian. I was of course too late for this gem but I did enjoy several other striking plants including Great Burnett (Sanguisorba officinalis), Mountain Pansy (Viola lutea) and England’s largest Juniper (Juniperus communis) wood. These are all to be found on the banks of the Tees around the area’s biggest crowd puller, the High Force waterfall.

I have always been fascinated by the Juniper and its habit of popping up in unusual places and I have not come across a pure stand of juniper before. Apparently this wood is in trouble as it is not regenerating.

Upper Teesdale Junipers (Juniperus communis)
The Juniper wood is on the left bank of the Tees - if you get lost you just need to stand up to find the way out

Juniper is a very variable shrub with some plants in Teesdale resembling Yew trees (Taxus baccata) while some look like garden shrubs and other anarchic specimens have taken on fabulously twisted silhouettes. There are conflicting reasons put forward for the lack of young plants: rabbits grazing on seedlings is one and more implausibly it is suggested the plants are just not able to set seedlings due to climate change. I have come across this theory on the South Downs too where Juniper is declining, however I have seen occasional examples growing up on roadside verges on chalk in Wiltshire and Kent. Juniper has been becoming more scarce for the last 200 years or so in the UK and the reasons for this are complex. Perhaps climate change is a factor, more likely changing land use has a part to play. It will take time to reverse this decline – certainly longer than the career span of your average naturalist.

Have a look round Upper Teesdale – the Junipers are the dark bushes on the hill…