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!

 

 

London’s Street Trees on the Map (well, most of them)

Some months ago I heard rumours about a London Street Tree map being prepared by the GLA at City Hall. Excitingly, that map is now live and has been for a couple of months. For those who haven’t yet poured over the fascinating insights into what trees can be found on London’s streets would be well advised to stop reading this and get over to the map now!

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Genus loci: The most common 22 tree types are mapped, and all the ‘Others’ are there too – they’re the brown dots…

Underlying the map interface there exists a vast database of information, no doubt hard won, wrestled from individual boroughs. Each borough is responsible for the trees on their patch and each has a team dedicated to their management. Perhaps not surprisingly then, each borough holds their own records for their part of the urban forest, and each borough uses different ways to gather and store this data, not to mention what data it actually harvests and holds. Therefore the feat of wrangling data from these various sources into a single dataset providing consistent information should not be underestimated – makes my brain hurt just thinking about it.

There are some black holes – for instance, Hackney and Haringey are two of seven boroughs that have yet to provide their data, but 25 of the 32 boroughs, plus the City of London and TfL have done and even with gaps, the potential of this map is becoming clear. Knowing what is planted on our streets is not only of interest to those who manage the tree inventory, this information can start to inform planning decisions, provide environmental insights and help shape policy to improve air quality. If there’s a correlation between levels of pollution and mature Plane Trees for instance, then this map could be a tool in that investigation right across the city. For me though, the most exciting possibility is the potential for public engagement.

The street tree data including location and species information is in the public domain and is released under an Open Government licence. It can therefore be used by third parties to exploit both commercially and non-commercially. And this is where the opportunities lie: imagine an app that can tell you what the tree is outside your front door, or the tree you walk past on your way to work? All possible with the data. Imagine walking up to a tree and discovering through your smart phone that it is a 150 year old Plane tree, it’s 33m tall and it’s one of 253,751 Plane trees in London, one of the most frequent trees in the city. This Plane tree stores CO2, soaks up pollution, moderates temperatures and has a financial value too. Imagine another app, this one educational, telling kids about all the minibeasts that make their home in an Oak tree outside their school or a Rowan tree on their street. It could tell them that an ancient pollarded Black Poplar tree in the local park was there long before the park and that it is a rare native tree that needs protecting. Another app could guide users on tree trails around Hampstead, Putney or wherever, it could allow the users to add comments about the trees on the trail, even add their own trail or check in at the Wembley Elm on Facebook.

And then of course there are more practical or nerdy applications, want to check out where all the Kentucky Coffee Trees are in London? Want to let your Local Authority know about the broken branch on a tree in your street? Want to see where the empty tree pits are? Want to get involved in community street tree maintenance?

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Big Apple: Every species is listed on the NYC map allowing users to easily locate their nearest Amur Corktree (Phellodendron amurense)

So, what do other cities do about mapping street trees? New York appears to be leading the way with their recently launched map. It is worth noting that New York is in a very different position to London in that one city-wide body manages the street trees ensuring the data wrangling issues faced in London just don’t exist, so they have the luxury of focusing on visualistaion and functionality. New York’s data is real time, users can register and once logged in, favourite individual trees and get involved with community street tree activities like planting and maintenance.

Melbourne’s map, like New York’s, allows users to zoom in almost to street level, but it only covers a relatively small area of the city centre. As reported in media around the world, users can email trees in Melbourne which while possibly a bit odd has clearly caught the imagination of many.

The London Street Tree map and especially the data underpinning it are tools that could help us understand, appreciate and value the trees in London which in turn could make our lives richer and healthier. I can’t wait to see it show all the street tree data, and with more detail too – exact species info would be great to see.

There’s Norway to Confuse a Maple

There are lots of maples, but the most commonly planted street trees are The Norwegian or Norway (Acer platanoides) and the Sycamore (acer pseudoplatanus), both are handsome species and at first glance difficult to tell apart. They have a lot in common, they are similar sizes and have similar native distribution.

Spiky Scandinavian: Norway maple leaves and flowers

The differences are subtle, Norway’s leaves are spikier than Sycamore’s, their flowers are produced in distinctive fresh green clusters before the leaves appear in spring, Sycamore on the other hand produces a long pendulous flower spike or panicle. Norway’s bark is lighter coloured and grooved, compared to the darker and scalier Sycamore.

The charms of large Maples are not lost on urban tree planters – the Norway Maple especially is a popular street tree – and nurserymen realised the merits of this species early on and set to work creating a myriad of varieties. Look out for Norway Maples of various leaf colour from gold through to deep purple, fastigiate and columnar trees and the inevitable variegated variety. Significant among these charms is Norway’s ability to cope with many soil types and it’s toleration of ‘hard surface’ urban situations where it may be exposed to extremes of temperature, air pollution and drought.

Suburban charms: Norway Maple flowering quietly in a North London street
Suburban charms: Norway Maple flowering quietly in a North London street

Despite the Norwegian soubriquet, Acer platanoides is native over much of Europe as far west as Belgium and France. If it wasn’t for post ice-age sea level rises, a few additional centuries of continental connection may have seen both species arriving in what is now eastern Britain under their own steam. As it is, the introduction of Sycamore is lost in the mists of time and records of Norway maple in cultivation date from 1683 (according to the BRC). No doubt practical and ornamental planting of Maples has played a part in their ‘invasive’ distribution, but, as the structure of our ancient woodlands testify, ever since we needed reliable timber supplies we have controlled tree planting.

Norway maples, like Sycamore, thrive and regenerate freely in our climate and I welcome them. Among the conservation community there is a view that both species should be weeded out but I believe this is flawed. In our age of massive human environmental intervention, extinction threats to common species like Ash as well as climate change, I think we need to embrace nearly-native, vigorous large tree species that may become important components in future woodlands.

Jog on: Autumn colours beginning to show on this young street tree
Jog on: Autumn colours beginning to show on this young street tree

You’re never far from a Norway Maple in London, here’s a row including a purple leafed variety near Finsbury Park station:

Beechy green street trees

I grew up with a huge Beech tree at the bottom of my garden. It was actually in the wood beyond but I regarded it as our tree – it protected our house and shaded our garden; it’s leaves and mast fell on our lawn and it’s scions appeared in the spring, sometimes in great abundance. Our giant didn’t have a name; there were many other specimens in the wood – presumably relatives, but this was the principal, The Beech Tree.

How lucky I was to live with such a magnificent companion. It was so vast I couldn’t detect annual expansion, it’s shape and size appeared constant. It was instead the seasonal variations that made their impact. Of these the winter and spring were my favourites. The Beech Tree protected us from winter’s storms bellowing through it’s high top and as the hoot of owls gave way to a more temperate cooing of wood pigeons the best bit was about to happen.

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Beech blanket: The green green leaves of home

In mid-April it started, brown leaf buds would swell and turn russet orange, they would start to unravel until the first fissures of brilliant green popped. There was no going back now and for a whole week the air would be filled with cast-off bud casings and the green riot would let rip.

The vivid green of fresh Beech leaves is, like Yves Klein’s International Blue, the truest expression of a colour I think. I love this leafy explosion above all the other gems of spring’s cluster bomb.

Beech trees in Hackney
Sylvatican family: Hackney Beech row

Beech is less familiar in London, and as street trees, they are very rare. Many London Beeches are cultivars – the copper beech being favoured in bosky suburbs. This metallic cousin of native European Beech (Fagus sylvatica) is a splendid tree and in spring delivers delicate magenta leaves.

I wonder why there are so very few Beech street trees? Maybe London’s clay soils do not favour them, perhaps the roots are too shallow, or perhaps they are too shady. I think we should reconsider them – as appears to be happening with conifers – they are a majestic species that could add a lot to London.

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Purple patch: a fine mature Copper Beech street tree in Chiswick

Is there a tree officer out there who might like to try them in place of Planes or other large trees on a broad avenue somewhere?


Beeches on streetview

The Hackney row:

The Chiswick Copper:

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.

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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.

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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).

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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.

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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:

Tree Works or the Islington Pear Harvest

At this time of year I make frequent detours down St. John’s Villas, a residential turning off the Holloway Road, to see how the Pears are ripening.

These rare street trees and their fruit are pretty special – possibly unique. If you would like to read more, here’s something I prepared earlier.

Ripe and juicy: Time to pear off?
Ripe and juicy: Time to pear off?

This year, I’m pleased to report that the trees are abundantly laden, the pears growing fatter and juicier by the day, and so as the old Middlesex orchardist saying (might) go:

Pear dents in your bimmer
Christmas puddins’ll soon simmer

It looks like Islington are planning on picking the pears just as windfalls might start denting residents cars. I can only assume ‘Tree works’ (scheduled for 20th and 21st October) is a euphemism for Pear Harvest.

 Zone P? Picking Pears for Perry Production
Zone P? Picking Pears for Perry Production

It’s unclear what happens to the fruits once they have been picked, do residents produce Islington Pear Cider with them? Perhaps the council sells them to craft Perry producers or do they just go for composting?

In the meantime I’d like to think there will be a ceremony – a Pear Festival with Morris dancers and smock-wearing Islingtonians even, or at the very least an announcement less prosaic than ‘Tree Works’.


If you plan on helping the harvest, here’s where to go…

GPS coordinates: 51.5656, -0.1295; Latitude and Longitude: 51°33’56.0″N 0°07’46.2″W.

Google Street View: