Winter-flowering Cherry – the Great Deceiver

You may have noticed – possibly with some alarm – the delicate, yet persistent blooms of the winter-flowering Cherry which have been flowering for months now. The snow and ice of last week hasn’t been kind to them and many trees in London previously in full flower are now sporting a wilted coat of brown petals, but look beyond these and more flower buds are on their way!

Flower power: Winter-flowering cherry of the ‘Autumnalis’ variety going for it in mid-December

A few years ago a trend began for planting early or late-flowering (depending on your point of view) Japanese Cherries as street trees, and in some parts of town two closely related cultivars, like craft beer outlets, seem to be popping up on every street corner. Look out for the white flowered Prunus × subhirtella ‘Autumnalis*’ and the pink flowered Prunus × subhirtella ‘Autumnalis Rosea’

Millennial: The pink blooms of ‘Autumnalis Rosea’ on a February afternoon

For the uninitiated, the sight of Cherry blossom in the depths of winter has been known to elicit strong reactions from concern for seasons going haywire, to global warming incarnate. But, although I wouldn’t want to deny these very real climate change phenomena for which overwhelming evidence exists, the winter-flowering Cherry could not in itself be defined as an indicator. It’s supposed to flower in mild weather from November through to April. And this season, trees in London have been particularly good, blooming consistently since November despite the see-sawing of temperatures within the space of a few days. So, despite it feeling wintry out there, there has not, until last week been a sustained cold patch and this appears to have been exactly what this tree likes.

Frostbite: Wilting blooms mingle with new, unblemished pink flower buds on the ‘Autmnalis’ tree

Which leads us to the question: why does the winter-flowering Cherry flower in winter? The short answer is it has been bred to, its flowers are not filling an environmental niche to take advantage of a winter flying bee, it’s flowering because humans wanted something to cheer them up during the gloomy winter months. Prunus × subhirtella is known only from horticulture with Japanese origins disappearing into the mists of time. It is sometimes also called Prunus subhirtella – note: no ‘×’ denoting hybridity – it’s unclear (as with many other ornamental cherries) what parent species have hybridised to create our tree. Sometimes too, it is called Prunus pendula, an appellation most commonly ascribed to another cultivar, the spring-flowering weeping Higan cherry. This though seems to be sloppiness and it should properly be called Prunus × subhirtella ‘Pendula Rosea’.  Something else to look out for in Winter Flowering cherries is the last flush of blooms appearing in April with the leaves. These flowers differ from those of previous waves in having stalks – winter blooms are stalkless (or sessile).

Interestingly one of the world’s oldest Cherries, the 1,000 year-old ‘Miharu Takizakura’ in Fukushima province, is a weeping Higan and is often claimed to be the ‘most beautiful Cherry tree in Japan’. This is a cultivar unknown as a London street tree, but it may bode well for the longevity of the trees we do have, not to mention their long term potential for craggy good looks.

Dessert course: Delicate pink Cherry Plum (Prunus cerasifera) flowers of the ‘Nigra’ cultivar appear in March

As spring approaches, Winter-flowering cherries will be competing with other early flowering Prunus species, particularly the widely planted purple cherry plum (Prunus cerasifera) of either the ‘Pissardii’ (white blossom) and ‘Nigra’ (pink blossom) cultivars. If you’re lucky, you may see Almond (Prunus dulcis) with big pink flowers, Blireana plum (Prunus × blireana), with almost fluorescent pink blossom or another Japanese tree, Prunus × incamp ‘Okame’ again with pink blossom preceded by distinctive maroon coloured buds.

The University of British Columbia Botanical Garden holds that ‘Autumnalis’ should actually be known by its Japanese cultivar name of ‘Jugatsu-zakura’ 

Chiswick walk

On the Trail of the Lonesome Pine

Have you noticed how rare coniferous street trees are in London? Take it from me, there are very few of them. Evergreens seem outnumbered by deciduous species, although more do seem to be appearing (such as the Strawberry Tree).

So what are the reasons for this coniferist state of affairs; are pine needles seen as dangerous by over zealous health and safety types? Perhaps conifers have been deemed too Christmassy, or do they just not fit in somehow?

I can think of lots of good reasons to plant more evergreen trees – broadleaf and coniferous:

  • Year-round rainfall soaking-up
  • Year-round pollution reduction
  • Greater screening potential
  • Better noise muffling

These ‘ecosystem services’ are useful but we should not overlook the benefits of greater diversity and therefore interest in London’s urban forest if more conifers were present…

The fascinating, beautiful and deciduous Dawn Redwood (Metasequoia glyptostroboides) is one conifer that does get planted with notable specimens outside Olympia, behind the High Courts and around the bottom of the Gherkin.

Dawn Redwood
Coniferous Tokenism: Deciduous Dawn Redwoods provide structure in the City

And then only a couple of weeks ago I bumped into a small Black pine (Pinus nigra) holding it’s own near Haggerston Overground station.

Pinus nigra
Lonesome: Pining for some company, Pinus nigra in Haggerston

That encounter was followed by the discovery of a whole Pine micro forest in Dalston – a group  planted on a broad paved area at the corner of Dalston Lane and Graham Road. The trees are young and doing well, adding character to this otherwise bleak corner. Conifer identification is difficult, but I will tentatively say these are Scots Pines (Pinus sylvestris).

Dalston Pine
No Pine, No Gain: Dalston Pine spinney

For those who would like to read more about the case for Conifers, check out this paper from the International Society of Arboriculture’s 2014 conference by J. Casey Clapp entitled ‘Conifers in the Urban Forest’


More Dawn Redwoods

The stately Olympia pair:

The High Court sentinels:

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.

Rotherfield St fruit.jpg
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.

Olive trees_sq.jpg
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.

River St1.jpg
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:

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:

Identification nightmare on Elm Street

OK – it’s been quite some time since my last Street Tree post, but I can feel the blogging sap rising despite it being September. By way of an excuse I’ve been spending a lot of time in Brighton, a town graced with many thousands of magnificent elms and have been quite distracted from any serious (or indeed half-arsed) keyboard tapping.

Expect a post about south coast Elms soon. But before then I have been struggling with an identification closer to home…

On the borough watershed between Islington and Haringey I encountered a forlorn pair of street trees which had me scratching my head for weeks. At first I had them down as Zelkovas, but this thought was soon erased by the sight of a magnificent and unmistakeable specimen in Hyde Park.

What the Zelkova: Bring on the forensics...
Watershed moment: Bring on the forensics…

The Zelkova is a mythical genus for me; two species (Z. carpinifolia and Z. serrata) are the last two entries in my favourite childhood book – Roger Phillips’ lavishly illustrated ‘Trees in Britain‘ – full of photos and with silhouette drawings of every entry.

I have puzzled over these silhouettes. On one hand I admire a 3cm illustration able to sum up an entire species and on the other I am horrified that an entire species can be summed up in a 3cm illustration. It takes a very different brain from mine to make such a definitive icon for what I regard as a group of individuals – I want to know which particular tree is illustrated so I might become acquainted with it.

In all the years since I first poured over the Zelkovas in Phillips, I never saw one until Hyde Park. Clearly my Zelkodar has not been functioning…

Digression: Last year I found myself in Crete, the home of a very rare, endemic Zelkova (Z. abelicea), another in the genus that captured my imagination. I had nothing to go on but a blurry yet tantalising photo in a guide book and the fascinating information that it is saplings of this tree that generations of Cretan shepherds have favoured because of their youthful strength and elasticity for crook whittling. Needless to say, the Cretan Zelkova eluded me…

Back to north Islington. No dense mass of upward branches and the leaf size wasn’t right – no way these were Zelks; so what might they be? Could they be Southern Beeches? (Nothofagus sp.) Nothing seemed to quite fit.

Special Branch: Positive ID sarge?
Special Branch: Positive ID sarge?

I retired to the library and after much page turning realised I was probably looking at… Chinese Elms (Ulmus parvifolia) aka Lacebark Elms. I think.

It’s an identification I’m not 100% sure about, so any alternative suggestions are welcome. Since the initial two trees, I’ve found another more mature and much larger specimen which I offer below.

Elm street: Lima, alpha, charlie, echo...
Elm street: Lima, alpha, charlie, echo…

And for those of you who may want to take a closer look at the trees mentioned in this post, here are the details of where to find them:

The Lysander Grove Giant, GPS coordinates: 51.5684, -0.1322; Latitude and Longitude: 51°34’06.4″N+0°07’55.9″W.
Google Street View:

The Watershed Pair, GPS coordinates: 51.573815,-0.127002; Latitude and Longitude: 51°34’25.7″N 0°07’37.2″W.
Google Street View:

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: