Street Trees Urban landscape

Five of the Best London Boroughs for Street Trees

From Hibiscus in Shoreditch, Golden Rain Trees in Osterley, and Bottlebrush trees in Pimlico, London has unexpected and fascinating street trees. Our urban forest, often under appreciated, is extremely varied and, what grows where differs around the city. So, which are the most interesting boroughs for a discerning London street tree admirer to visit, and why? Read on to find out about 5 London boroughs that, in no particular order, stand out…

1. Hackney

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Hipster Tree: Flowers of a Red Heart Hibiscus syriacus in trendy Shoreditch

Until about 20 years ago, Hackney was one of the less forested boroughs but around the turn of the millennium, it started catching up, and boy, did it catch up. Hackney now is a veritable arboretum: you can find streets lined with Kentucky Coffee Trees (Gymnocladus dioicus) in Clapton, Hibiscus (Hibiscus spp.) in Shoreditch, Wild Service Trees (Sorbus torminalis) in Stoke Newington and Scots Pines (Pinus sylvestris) in Dalston. The urban forest is relatively young here but what it lacks in maturity, it makes up for in diversity. There is something of interest at virtually every turn, and it will be exciting to see this part of town mature in the coming years.

2. Southwark

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Shard of Oak: Autumnal Red Oak (Quercus rubra) leaves in Southwark

Southwark is a big borough (by inner London standards), stretching from the southbank at London Bridge all the way east to Canada Water and south to Dulwich and Nunhead. Street tree planting is varied, and, like Hackney, you don’t have to go far to find something of interest. There’s a street of spectacular Yoshino cherries (Prunus x yedoensis) in Herne Hill, some of the biggest Tree of Heaven (Ailanthus altissima) specimens in London can be seen in Bermondsey and Magnolias (Magnolia spp.) are planted outside Borough Church. Southwark has pioneered some unlikely species too, including Persian Silk Trees (Albizia julibrissin) and, one of my favourites, the Strawberry tree (Arbutus unedo).

3. Hounslow

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Old Gold: A mature Golden Rain Tree in Chiswick

That long ribbon of a borough, Hounslow, has been planting great trees for years. It’s got everything, from stately Planes (Platanus x hispanica), classic Lime tree (Tilia x europaea) boulevards and landmark Cherry (Prunus spp.) avenues to being perhaps the best place to see mature Golden Rain Trees (Koelreuteria paniculata) in London. Of these elder statesmen, a tree right outside Osterley Tube station is an arboreal landmark, displaying beautiful coral pink new leaves in spring, yellow flowers in high summer, glorious autumn foliage and seed lanterns in the winter. There’s at least one tree in this borough playing host to Mistletoe too.

4. Islington

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My Cherie Amour: Lovely as a spring day, Bird Cherry in full flower, Islington

My home borough, so I might be a little biased, Islington is the part of town I know best. It’s the best borough for Caucasian Wingnuts (Pterocarya fraxinifolia), a fabulous spreading tree easily identified by tell-tale dangling clusters of little winged nuts, and is home to some other intriguing species. Islington was, of course, the first borough to plant Olive trees (Olea europaea) on the street – to reflect its Greek and Turkish communities perhaps? It is also home to some great Elm trees of various types including the Chinese Lacebark Elm (Ulmus parvifolia), the largest tree of this species in the country can be seen planted outside the Whittington Hospital. But perhaps what Islington is most noted for is ornamental fruit trees; dotted about the borough, the street tree aficionado can find rare pears (Pyrus spp.), notable Crab apples including plenty of Chonosukis (Malus tschonoskii), and unusual Yunnan Apples (M. yunnanensis). There’s also a good stock of flowering cherries including examples of the now rather out of fashion Bird Cherry (Prunus padus).

5. Westminster

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Frontline: Newly pollarded Plane trees separate Tate Britain from the Millbank Estate in Pimlico

Westminster plays host to the ‘Government Estate’, so has the job of keeping some of the most visited, filmed and photographed parts of the city looking green and pleasant. There are a lot of mature Plane trees in Westminster, as you might expect, adding to the grandeur of Whitehall and parts of the West End. But scratch the surface and you will find more interest around many corners. Westminster has pioneered the planting of Gingkos (Gingko biloba), a species well adapted to life in the busiest parts of town, and even in this most urban borough, English Oaks (Quercus robur) can be found outside Charing Cross and Pimlico stations. Perhaps the finest Mimosa (Acacia dealbata) to be found on the frontline can be seen in Pimlico and there’s even a street lined with Australian Bottlebrush trees (Callistemon citrinus)!


These trees and many more feature in my newly published book, London’s Street Trees and I shall be talking about the urban forest at Stanfords Map and Travel Bookshop in Covent Garden on June 5th. Please do join me!

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Street Trees Urban landscape

Olive and Kicking

I wonder what they were thinking, planting Olive trees on the streets of de Beauvoir Town and Pentonville? I like to think it is a nod to the glory days of 1980s Islington when media types slurped their way through tankers of new world Chardonnay accompanied by mountains of juicy olives.

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Extra virgin: Ripe fruit on an Islington street tree

Famed in tabloid imaginations for a pioneering fondness of continental gourmet goods, Islingtonians now have an opportunity to get with the small-batch artisanal craft food programme burgeoning in neighbouring Hackney. A locally produced olive crop could be the source of North London’s own cold-pressed lubricant or salty morsel – the uses of the fruit of Olea europaea are many and varied as the ancients could testify.

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A trailer loada trees: Stunted and twisted Olive trees arriving in Clerkenwell

Small but nevertheless fruit-bearing olive trees are to be found in several locations in the borough where they blend in seamlessly in these unlikely urban groves. The silvery evergreen foliage mirrors the au courant colour choices rocking the halls and doors of interiors from Clerkenwell to Canonbury.

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Singular estate: An Olive street tree graces a salubrious Pentonville Regency terrace

The Mediterranean exoticism of the olive is somewhat diminished by the ubiquitousness of hacked around trees used as props in restaurants and serviced offices. Nevertheless, the Olive tree is not to be overlooked – an attractive and extremely long-lived tree, it is a remarkable choice for a street tree, perhaps unique to Islington? Throughout my travels in Olive growing lands, I have never seen these trees lining streets in Greece, Italy or Spain.

Olives are inedible until they have been through a complex process of curing and fermenting so I am unable to report on the taste of the Islington fruit. But, while photographing trees recently, I witnessed a blackbird plucking a ripened olive from it’s branch, so they clearly do have some takers.

You can find the Islington groves here…

River Street, EC1:

Rotherfield Street, N1:

Street Trees

Middle Eastern migrant adds sweet interest to London streets

Meet the ‘Bragania’ or Eriolobus trilobatus, a somewhat schizophrenic small tree found in the Levant, Anatolia and Thrace. The name Bragania hails from the Evros region of north east Greece, it’s more literal English names include Lebanese wild apple, erect crab apple or three-lobed apple tree. In Hebrew it’s called חֻזְרַר הַחֹרֶשׁ.

Eriolobus trilobatus street tree
Unassuming migrant: A young Eriolobus street tree in the safe haven of Islington North, fruits ripening nicely,

This refugee from troubled lands has arrived as a welcome and attractive migrant adding interest to London’s increasingly diverse urban forest.

Apparently the fruit is sweet and tasty, something to look forward to in October, right now in late September it is still green, I believe they will become golden yellow when ripe.

It’s rarity in the wild has translated into a confusion of names in English and possibly in the languages of its native lands – an arc of mountainous areas from northern Israel, through Lebanon, Syria, southern and western Turkey ending in a few isolated European pockets in Greece and one in Bulgaria.

It is found at altitudes of 1000m on Mount Lebanon in the Horsh Ehden (إهدن حرش) nature reserve, a remnant forest also home to the magnificent Cedar of Lebanon (Cedrus libani). In fact the Lebanese claim this refuge to be the last protected forest community of Eriolobus.

Further south, the tree is found in Israeli Upper Galilee and on the slopes of Mount Hermon in the Golan Heights.

Eriolobus trilobatus leaves and unripe fruit
Street food: Greek Bragania trees have traditionally been safeguarded by local communities who value their fruit.

In scientific circles it’s known as Eriolobus trilobatus, and horticulturalists know it as Malus trilobata. It is the only species in the Eriolobus genus, but it vies for attention among well known and cultivated siblings in the Malus (apple) genus. One Greek academic paper explains the taxonomic history outlining previous classifications including as a Hawthorn or a Pear or even a Service Tree:

The taxonomic status of the species was rather ambiguous in the past as has been discussed by Browicz (1969), and the nomenclature chronologically included the following names: Crataegus trilobata Poir., Pyrus trilobata (Poir.) DC., Sorbus trilobata (Poir.) Heynh., Eriolobus trilobatus (Poir.) M. Roem., Cormus trilobata (Poir.) Decne. and Malus trilobata (Poir.) C.K. Schneid.

As well as the vagaries of botany, the Bragania is a tree that reflects the politics of disputed lands, the shifting sands of national and religious borders. These conditions may help protect it from harm, but may also cause it’s local demise where the pressure on land and resources becomes too much.

I hope it will be safe on the streets of London…

Leathery maple-like leaves of Eriolobus
Pome at last: The leathery maple-like leaves of Eriolobus

Links (all in English)

If you want to take a closer look at Eriolobus here’s where I found one.

GPS coordinates: 51.5704, -0.1219; Latitude and Longitude: 51°34’13.5″N 0°07’19.0″W.

Google Street View:

Urban landscape

Trees of Heaven

That tenacious suckerer, the Tree of Heaven (Ailanthus altissima) has been at it all over London.

Tree of Heaven (Ailanthus altissima), Finsbury Estate, London
Bedded in: ToH enjoying the company of some lurid Dahlias on the Finsbury Estate

Since my last post on the Tree of Heaven, I have been seeing them everywhere. They are invasive and potentially damaging, but they appear to be tolerated, even encouraged by Londoners. It’s not just in the privacy of domestic gardens; the ToH manages to blend in to civic planting schemes just as sneakily.

Check this chancer out on the underground reservoir bank at the corner of Amwell Street and Claremont Square in Islington:

Since the Google street-view was taken in 2007/8 (I think?) this one has grown into a medium-sized tree blending in effortlessly with its older, planted neighbours. Only its position so close to the railing gives away its interloper status.

Further down Amwell Street I saw another opportunist thriving in a crack between the pavement and a basement wall of a Georgian townhouse. Unusually I couldn’t locate the parent tree for these Amwell Street tenants, maybe it’s in a back garden or perhaps these are suckers from a street tree now removed.

The success of the Tree of Heaven seems to be its ability to appear inoffensive, its attractiveness helps too, but perhaps it is its brazenness that works best for it. It will just pop up surprising a new landlord or landlady and rapidly take hold growing metres per year in some cases.

Tree of Heaven (Ailanthus altissima), Amwell Street, London
To Let: ToH opportunistically squatting in a basement wall of a fine Georgian house in Amwell Street

I suspect there will be more ToH posts in the future, and I have started a leafy invader Flickr set which I will be adding to in the meantime.

Street Trees

The perry pear trees of St. John’s Villas

Not far from Archway tube station, just off the Holloway Road is a street named St. John’s Villas lined with imposing early Victorian houses on one side and a later, more run-of-the-mill terrace on the other. The street is a cut off Holloway Road heading towards Hornsey Road and like many 19th century city streets follows earlier land boundaries now long-forgotten. The street is remarkable for its handsome and unusual Sand pears  (Pyrus pyrifolia). I first noticed the trees and their unusually large russet-apple type fruits in 2007 when a huge crop fell on resident’s Volvos and a slippery pomaceous pulp started fermenting on the pavements and in the gutters.

Unknown Perry Pear variety (Pyrus_communis) St. John's Villas
Fruit swelling ready for the annual North London pear drop

This rare fruit event excited the residents in to opposing camps of those who wanted the council to fell the offending and potentially deadly trees, and those who saw the crop as something to be cherished. This quintessentially English middle-class story of tree-hugging north Londoners was soon picked up by the august organ that is the Daily Mail who lapped it up and spat out an over-weaning local council health and safety scare story.

Four years later and the trees are thankfully still there. Now the council picks the fruit each autumn (not since 2007 in such abundance) and local residents make use of them. Apparently one group has even made Perry (like ‘Pear cider’, but not sold in Tesco and made with pears). I went to check on the crop this past weekend and a local casually asked if I was interested in the pears – I was obviously not the first to make the pilgrimage to St. John’s Villas.

There are seven pear trees that were pruned in the spring so this year’s crop is minimal but is ripening nicely. The fruits are large and will be ready within weeks – I shall be looking out for the looming Islington council pear bounty.

Perry pears (Pyrus_communis) ripening on the tree
Strange fruit: Juicy drupes in the branches of a famous pear tree, St. John’s Villas, Archway, London

The trees make me wonder. They were obviously planted on the street several decades ago – they are perhaps 50 years old but why was this (unidentified) variety chosen? Who planted them? There are pear trees used as street trees elsewhere locally (with spectacular spring blossom) but not this rare species.

I like the theory put forward by the resident I got chatting to: before the houses were built the area was orchards, and so perhaps these trees are directly descended from an old and now rare variety once common in these market gardens providing Londoners with a refreshing and unusual brew.

There are many unanswered questions, not least how these trees got here and I hope, before the controversial trees disappear, cuttings are grafted onto young roots so the strange fruit will continue to fall for generations.

Check out the for sale signs – pear trees a factor in house prices?

There’s more fruity photos on my Flickr

Street Trees

Barnsbury’s golden tree

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.

Robinia Pseudoacacia var. 'Frisia'
Streets in Islington paved with gold? Robinia Pseudoacacia var. 'Frisia' on the corner of Thornhill Road and Barnsbury Square
Robinia Pseudoacacia var. 'Frisia' closeup
There's even a birds nest perched on one of the branches,,,

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.