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)!

Stanfords

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!

 

 

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

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:

Strawberry trees in Southwark

I was surprised and excited to bump into a row of newly planted Strawberry Trees (Arbutus unedo) in a Southwark street recently. As a child with an interest in native trees, I was fascinated to read about this mysterious tree with a compelling name in my botanical guidebooks. It was described as very rare and hanging on in Ireland where it had survived the last ice age.

Flowers and fruit of European Strawberry Tree (Arbutus unedo)
Cream of the crop: Fruits and flowers of the Strawberry Tree (Arbutus unedo) in south London

They line Melior Street, a short turning in the shadow of the looming Shard, that monument to megalomania that marks the redevelopment of London Bridge station.

Southwark appears to have an experimental approach to street tree planting which I admire: I have never seen the Strawberry Tree planted in London streets before (although this species and other Arbutes are a common feature of San Francisco sidewalks). Earlier in the year I came across a Persian Silk Tree (Albizia julibrissin) in the same borough, and I am now on the lookout for more unlikely foliage that may be lurking in the neighbourhood.

While the Persian Silk Tree is an exotic import with undeniably alien looks, the Strawberry Tree is a native of more familiar landscapes. It is found in the western Mediterranean and the Atlantic fringe from Portugal to, famously, south west Ireland where it is common in parts of County Kerry. It may hail from less far afield, but it was never a component of the post-glacial Bermondsey forest and consequently the Strawberry Tree’s evergreen foliage and drupe-like berries provide unexpected lushness to its adoptive environment.

Characterised by bushy growth in the wild, Southwark’s trees have been trained or grafted to produce 2 metres of straight trunk before this characteristic is allowed free rein. The English name arises from the appearance of the round pitted fruits, but they are actually part of the Ericaceae family and therefore related to the heaths which becomes apparent in the white bell-shaped flowers. A lovely feature of this Arbutus is the simultaneous flowering and fruiting in the autumn, the fruits take twelve months to ripen and go through every conceivable shade between lime green and vermillion. At this time of year, the trees sport a jaunty array of ripe red fruits interspersed with citrus coloured baubles and bunches of white flowers. Gorgeous.

Strawberry tree (Arbutus unedo) street tree, Bermondsey
Strawberry Daquiri: Arbutus unedo guides the thirsty into the Horseshoe Inn

Here’s the view down Melior Street from Google streetview showing the newly planted Strawberry trees:

Further reading:

Map of native and non-native records for Arbutus unedo in Britain and Ireland on the Biological Records Centre website
Description of the magnificent and elderly Strawberry Tree in Waterlow Park, Highgate
Wikipedia entry for Killarney National Park where native Irish Arbutus unedo is found (needs some editing!)
My Flickr photoset including Arbutus unedo

Persian Silk in Globe Street

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

Persian Silk Tree (Albizia julibrissin)
Persian Silk Tree (Albizia julibrissin) in Globe Street, SE1

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.

Persian Silk Tree Albizia julibrissin foliage
Persian Silk Tree foliage and (look closely) flowers

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: