This section contains a potted guide to the trees in Battersea Park, by Committee member Tom Maxwell.
(images coming soon …!)
1. Hornbeam Caprinus Betulinus
This tree is at the edge of the North Carriage Drive near the tennis courts. It is a native British species found in the south-east below a line from Worcester to Norfolk. Elsewhere, it has been specially planted. It can be recognised by its leaves, which have toothed edges and deeply impressed veins which are in parallel rows. The bole has been compared to strained muscles in appearance.
It is well fissured and in various shades of grey. The small brown ribbed nuts ripen in Octoberand are found in hanfinf clusters among small pointed leaves. The leaves fo a soft yellow in the autumn and tend to remain in the lower part of the tree. This partly explains why it is used to make hadges and pleached alleys. The original maze at Hampton Court is thought to have been made from hornbeam. The tree can reach 80 feet and live for 150 years. Fine examples can be found in Epping Forest, where it has been pollarded and coppiced for many years.
The wood has many uses. As it resists splitting it has been used to make skittles, chopping blocks, mallets and even truncheons! It burns well and even Pliny referred to it being used to make marriage torches. The charcoal it makes is of high quality and was used to make gunpowder. It is very hard and has even been dyed black as an ebony substitute. Cattle yokes were made of hornbeam and one view is that this is how it got its name. There is a compact sultivated variety `Fastigiata’ which is tulip-shaped and quite different in appearance except for the leaf. This form is a newcomer and only arrived in Britain at the turn of the Century. It can also be found in the Park, near the Sun Gate.
2. Japanese Pagoda Sophora Japonicapendula
This uncommon tree is found at the corner of the Meadow Reserve facing the tennis counrts. It is not a native of Japan as its name suggests, but rather of China or Korea. It is created by grafting the contorted branches of the cultivar on the parent tree when the stem is about 2 metres high. The result is one of the most beautiful of all the weeping trees, and unlike a weeping willow it has the advantage of growing well on a dry soil. The leaves are made up of between 9 and 15 small oval leaflets and are similar to an acacia. They stand out when they first bud (illustrated below). There is a complicated mass of branching at the top of the bole with long, stiff branches pointing downwards. The overall effect is that of a natural arbour.
The tree was sold 150 years ago by a Hammersmith nursery, but no-one knows where they got it from! A fine example, 30 feet high, can be seen at Knaphill Nursery in Surrey. Unfortunately, this pendulous form rarely flowers. This is a pity, as the white petals are known to carpet the ground rather like some of the cherries in the Park. The fruits were used as a purgative and also to adulterate opium in China. The alternative name of Scholar’s Tree is said to have originated from the practice of planting the tree on schoolmasters’ graves.
3. Cedar of Lebanon Cedrus Libani
This tree was planted in the Park on 21st November, 1993 to celebrate the fiftieth annivarsary of the Independence of Lebanon. There was an hour-long ceremony attended by His Excellency the Ambassador of Lebanon, befitting one of the most architectural and majestic of all trees.
Botanically, cedars are members of the pine family and there are only four types. Two of the others were already in the Park: the deodar and the Atlantic cedar. This last one is a rather stunted specimen from Cyprus and very rare. An easy way to tell them apart is that the deodars have pendulous branches, while those of the Lebanon are horizontal and the Atlantic’s point upwards. But this identification doesn’t always work! Lebanon cedars also have upward pointing branches when young, in which case an extra tiny spine on the tip of the leaf in the Atlantic cedar separates the two. When young, cedars of Lebanon are pyramid-shaped and only widen after 2 years into the stately, eye-catching tiered shape we are familiar with seeing outside fine houses.
The tallest of the cedars of Lebanon with their huge horizontal branches is at Petworth (132 feet).The nearest good secimen is at Chiswick House. This was planted in 1720. The oldest in the country is in a rectory garden at Childrey, near Wantage. It was planted in 1646 and has a 25 foot girth. The hard winter of 1740 killed off most of the early plantings and the cedars alive today date mainly from the late eighteenth century when Capability Brown and others planted them liberally outside country houses. Two of the most famous were planted by the riverside gate of Chelsea Physic Garden facing the Park in 1683, where they excited comment for 150 years or more before eventually dying. The beautiful, butter-yellow wood was made into a chair which can still be seen there today in the library. Although the sapwood is yellow the heartwood is pink with parallel lines. It has a light scent which is known to repel insects and was at one time burned as incense. It is not particularly strong and rather brittle, but it is useful for making furniture and boxes. The resin has been used for embalming. These properties might explain why fungi never seem to attack the tree.
The tree does not flower for the first twenty-five years of its life, and then takes another year to form attractive blue-green cones. These don’t mature into the barrelshaped cones that sit upright on the branches for yet another twelve months. Specimens seem to grow about one foot a year for the first 150. On Mount Lebanon there is a grove of truly wild trees, some of which are over 40 feet in girth. These cedars are claimed to be in the region of 2,500 years old, which is probably exaggerated, as are the claims that some of the wood was used to build Solomon’s temple.
The trees like deep, dry rich soil that is well drained.The Park cedar of Lebanon was planted on a cold day with an unseasonal dusting of snow. We wish it well and hope it has a history as splendid as some of its relatives.
4. Maidenhair Ginkgo Bilboa
The tree got its common name due to the similarity of its leaf to the maidenhair fern. The similarity doesn’t end there. It is a single species in a single genus and family. Its closest relation is the palm-like Cycad. Both Ginkgos, Cycads and ferns reproduce with a motile sperm. This is a long way from all other broad-leaved trees. Ginkgo is the sole survivor of the forests of 200 million years ago, and for much of that time it has not changed its form, hence it is called a `living fossil.’
Fossils have been found in London and the tree is known to have had a worldwide distribution. It retreated some time ago to remote parts of China, where it is thought to have survived in forests which belonged to tempies and therefore remained uncut. Only in 1750 did it reappear in England in a nursery at Mile End. That tree found its way to Kew, where it can be seen today. It grows up to 80 ft. in this country but is taller and longer-lived elsewhere.
There are male and female trees and ours in the Park are all thought to be males. Females are rare, originally grafted onto males to obtain fruits (At Kew, the rare female branches were accidentally pruned off.) When the fruit does form it smells like rancid butter, and the Japanese were known to use it as a hangover cure! It is pollution resistant and has virtually no known parasites; they are all thought to have died out along the way.
We have a number of trees in the Park, which are easy to recognise by their fern-like notched leaves and the brilliant butteryellow they turn in the autumn.
5. Common Alder Alnus glutinosa
This is also called the Black Alder or Howler. A native tree, it has been with us a long time. It has grown in Britain beside water since the last glaciers retreated. The alderwoods or `carrs’ as they are known in Norfolk don’t give a true impression of the tree. The gnarled specimens beside torrents in Scottish glens are the most impressive, Usually growing up to 30 or 40 ft., they can reach 80 ft. as in Sandling Park in Kent. There are some vast forests in Russia with some reaching 100 ft.
It is nearly always found beside water where it can grow in places where willow cannot. This is because it enriches the soil with its root nodules as well as stabilising the bank. When grown on porous soil it only forms a bush, which might explain why it is planted on motorway verges.
The wood is interesting. When cut it bleeds a reddish colour: this was enough to make our forebears nervous about using it. Recently we have been less squeamish. The wood is waterproof and shock-absorbent, which might explain why it was used on the ancient trackways across the wetlands in Somerset and more recently to provide the piles on which Venice is built. It is also a light wood, easy to turn and a poor conductor, explaining why clogs and cigar boxes were made from it.When felled the wood is white then reddish and after seasoning turns a pinkish yellow.. More unusually the leaves were used to relieve tired feet, and a black dye was extracted from the bark.
It has a dearth of branching, rather like a pine, making for a good winter silhouette. The specimen in the Park is beside the Cafe and our photograph was taken in deep winter. It is easily recognised then by its false `cones’ and in the summer by its leaves, which have a small notch at the end.
The `cones’ are female catkins which are oval, green fruits earlier in the year and which shed floating seeds. The male catkins are long and an unusual purple colour.They are produced before the leaves in February and March. This photograph was taken about four years ago and the tree seems to be doing well. They can grow 40 ft, in 20 years, but recent reports suggest there may be a disease affecting alders, spreading like Dutch elm disease; hopefully ours will be safe.
Redpolls and siskins can occasionally be seen searching the `cones’ for seeds during the coldest periods of winter.
6. Bastard Service Tree Sorbus x thuringiaca
The bark alone is shown here. The actual tree is easily located in the Park beside the Pagoda, by North Carriage Drive. It is the bark in winter that stands out as being one of the finest in the Park; it has a shiny green, snake-like quality with large, handsome, well-defined burrs. As with many barks, they look their best in winter with no leaves or flowers to obscure the trunk and branches. Also, the ravages of winter seem to bring up a high gloss in the bole.
The tree is a hybrid of the more familiar whitebeam and mountain rowan, both of which are wild British trees. As with many hybrids, it seems to have acquired good characteristics from both parents.
Its leaves are attractive: they have a deep green topside and a felty, white underside, like the whitebeam. The base of the leaf is (more unusually) divided into leaflets, indicating its rowan ancestry. This feature helps to identify the tree in spring and summer.The white flowers are followed bv red berries, as is the case with both parents. However, the berries differ in having brown `freckles.’ The berries of both parents are used to make a jelly traditionally served with game.
In recent years it has become a popular ornamental in London streets. It can reach 40 feet and has a habit of `lying down’ in old age. The hybrid is believed to have originated in Thuringia, East Germany, hence its specific name.
7. Weeping Birch Betula Pendula `youngii
This tree is a familiar sight in the Park, in the area where the Zoo borders the herb garden. Here this small tree seems to have grown very little in recent years. There are a number of weeping forms, but this tree does seem to show the characteristics of the most common `youngii’ variety. It originated in Milford, Surrey, at the turn of the century.
A group of weeping branches is usually grafted on to a 2 meter parent tree stem, producing this familiar mop-headed form. The upper branches are not unlike curtain rails holding the hanging branches of leaves which flow down to the ground. Besides the attractive white bark, the diamond-shaped leaves turn a golden yellow in the autumn.
The druids revered the parent tree, and Coleridge called it `the lady of the woods’ on account of the delicacy of its branching. This form has a more funereal appearance, but the branching is particularly elegant. Weeping forms are becoming more common in London’s parks. The largest specimen can be seen in Golders Hill Park and stands at about 30 ft. tall.
8. Hybrid Strawberry Tree Arbutus x andrachnoides
9. White Poplar Populus alba
10. American Sweetgum Liquidambar styraciflua
11. Tree of Heaven Ailanthus altissima
12. Pride of India Koelreuteriapaniculata
13. Golden Cappadocian Maple Acer cappadocicum aureum
14. Red Horse chestnut Aesculus carnea
The row of Red Horse Chestnuts along the riverside is one of the most familiar sites in the Park. They are to be removed in the restoration and this is probably no great loss. The tree itself is a hybrid of the familiar Common Horse chestnut and the American Red Buckeye. The former is the rootstock below the grafts. Where it first originated is not known but it first came onto the market in 1820.By and large it is a dull tree other than its flowers in the spring. It has little or no autumn colour, is short lived and prone to large, ugly cankerous growths. Curiously these are not caused by fungi but are just large abnormal growths. After a time they start to disintegrate and become powdery. The tree is well distributed in our Park and many others, but is generally regarded as a poor choice.
15. Chinese Privet Ligustrum lucidum
This tree is one of the best hardy evergreens. The photograph shows a particularly fine specimen by one of the entrances to the Wilderness reserve. It is known for its elegant shape and its attractive shiny leaf, which is curved, making it all the more attractive. It was introduced from China in 1794 by the British Ambassador’s assistant, although it is also found in Korea and Japan. The tree is not troubled by pests in this country and so always seems to have a vigorous healthy look. The oddest thing about it is the fact that wax insects used to be farmed on it and large quantities of wax taken off the leaves. This was then made into candles and also used to polish jade.
16. Common Horse Chestnut Aesculus hippocastanum
This elegant group of Horse Chestnuts are also by the entrance to the Wilderness Reserve. These are Conker trees and too familiar to dwell on. There are a great many in the park with particularly fine specimens in the sub-tropical garden and at the corner of Ladies Pond. Owls occasionally roost in the latter. Conker comes from “conqueror” and the game used to be played with hazelnuts and even snails. Chestnut comes from an old belief that they were given to horses in Turkey to cure bronchial complaints. The characteristic barley sugar twist can be seen on these specimens. The tree has an unusually small distribution in the wild, mainly Albania and northern Greece. Although planted everywhere you never see Horse Chestnut woods, probably because the wood has few uses.
17. False Acacia Robinia pseudoacacia
Also known as Black Locust, Locust tree and Acacia this tree has a confusing set of names. The leaves look like those of a true acacia hence that connection. The locust part comes from another confusion that the fruits were the “ locusts” eaten by St. John the Baptist in the desert. This is highly unlikely as the tree is native to the eastern states of North America and not found in the Middle East. The best stands are to be found in the Smokey Mountains of Tennessee. In Europe it only reaches forest status in the Balkans, Hungary and around the estuary of the Danube. John Tradescant the Younger, who lived locally in Lambeth, introduced it to Britain around 1600.In the past young Acacias were encouraged to produce one leader and then they were cut back each year to produce a mop-head. This could account for the look of our avenue. This was done because young and old branches break easily and larger old branches, often shed. Apart from these problems the tree is resistant to pollution and grows well in impoverished soil. This accounts for it being a common park tree. The winter silhouette shown here is typical of its fame for “fork lightning” branching. This reaches its peak in the “tortuosa” variety that looks the most frenetic of all trees. A marvellously “wired” specimen exists beside the largest cafe in Kew gardens.
18. Dawn Redwood Metasequoia glyptostroboides
19. Swamp Cypress Taxodium distichumIn
The foreground of this picture near the grotto, are a group of Dawn Redwoods and in the background a group of their close relatives, the Swamp Cypresses. They can be told apart by their foliage. In the former the leaves and needles are opposite each other and in the latter they alternate. More bizarrely the Dawn Redwood, unlike virtually every other tree in existence, has its buds below the leaf and not between the leaf and the stem. This gives the stem a very odd look indeed. As if that were not enough the Swamp Cypress was introduced into Britain in 1640 and the Dawn Redwood amazingly was only discovered in 1941, and only named in 1948. Consequently we know our Swamp cypresses will eventually lose their neat conical shape and develop buttresses, but there is little idea what the Dawn Redwoods will do.The Swamp Cypresses grow out of water in swamps from Florida to Delaware and along the banks of the Mississippi and Missouri rivers. It is often seen in films covered in Spanish moss. In 1941 both the fossil and living Dawn Redwoods were found independently. A small group of trees was discovered half way up the River Yangtse in the Szechuan province of China. The foliage was being fed to cattle locally. The discovery caused a botanical sensation and due to the ease with which it can be reproduced by cutting, and the tree is now found everywhere. In the spring it is the first of the two to come into leaf and they both colour well in the autumn. The Swamp Cypress was named before other redwoods were even discovered and at the time incorrectly called a cypress. In actual fact they are both redwoods. More confusingly the timber is called cypress whereas the timber of real cypresses is called white cedar.It is all very odd. To complete this mix up the Swamp Cypress produces pneumatophores, or “knees”, rather like mangroves. These are a kind of aerial root that grow up out of the stagnant water where the tree usually lives and were believed to take in oxygen. It is now thought they do no such thing. Nobody seems to know what these structures, which look like ant hills, do. They can be seen in specimens in Bushy Park, growing up by the water’s edge in the Waterhouse Plantation. There are further examples of the Dawn Redwood and Swamp Cypress at the eastern corner of the Ladies Pond.
20. Sorbus “Joseph Rock”
The tree pictured right is quite close to the bandstand in the centre of the Park. The photograph was taken shortly after it was planted several years ago. It looks not unlike its close relation the Rowan or Mountain Ash, except for the fact the berries are yellow rather than the familiar scarlet. It has however a rather more interesting history than most trees. Its origin is uncertain.
We know that a Joseph Rock sent a batch of seeds from China to Edinburgh early in the 20th century and that it contained either a rogue seed, or that a chance hybrid occurred. The seedling with unknown parents then found its way to the RHS gardens at Wisley in Surrey, where it can still be seen on Battleston Hill. All specimens of this variety originate as grafts from the original.You could be forgiven for assuming that Mr. Rock was yet another Scottish seed adventurer. In fact he was a brilliant Viennese professor who spoke a bewildering list of languages, including Greek, Latin, Arabic, Tibetan and several Chinese dialects. He worked and died in Hawaii, having discovered one and a half thousand birds and five hundred rhododendrons. This beautiful tree is a suitable momento to him. Its leaves in the autumn go a kaleidoscope of colours before turning scarlet. The indian yellow berries seen in the photograph remain on the tree some time after the leaves fall, indicating they are particularly unpalatable to birds.
21. Weeping Elm Ulmus glabra var pendula
The tree shown here is beside the river near Chelsea Bridge gate. It is easily recognised by its weeping habit and bright green bunches of seeds in the early spring. Elms flower remarkably early and produce eye-catching clusters of lime green seeds which are often confused for leaves. The leaves come later. The tree has less contorted branched than its close relation the Camperdown weeping elm, and the leaves have a more herring bone arrangement. It was originally discovered in a nursery in Perth but is now common in parks and churchyards.
Its parent is the Scotch or Wych elm, a rather tough elm found further north than most. Elm wood is pliable and resistant to splitting. These characteristics
account for its traditional use in making coffins, wheelbarrows and riders’ switches. The later apparently gives good luck to the rider, but not the horse.
22. Monkey Puzzle Aracaria araucana
This tree is near the entrance to the Old English garden on North Carriage Drive. It is still a small young specimen but may live for a hundred years and possibly reach 100 fett high. In the wild it can double this and even have a trunk 5 feet in width. If it doea gain some height it is unlikely to keep its lower branches, which is typical of city planted trees.These Chilean pines, as they are also called, are very much Victorian ornamentals and hence most suitable for our Park. Although first introduced in 1795 they were only being commonly planted at the start of Queen Victoria’s reign. It seems inconceivable they were not grown in the Park although only living 100 years any originals would be long gone.Of their many peculiarities, such as cones the size of coconuts, a trunk like an elephants leg and branches over 50 years old, they also have edibles seeds. Chilean Indians made them into pastry and also a local firewater! The ships botanist on H.M.S. Discovery is said to have pocketed the ones he was served as a dessert and they ended up original introductions. Like so many other plants far away from home they are disease free but even so the timber is of little use, being far too knotty, although it is said to hold a nail well.
23 Red Oak Quercus rubra
This tree is found at the western end of Acacia Walk beside the hut as shown. It is a large tree with equally large leaves, which can be up to 8 inches long. Due to its size and excessively broad crown it is not found in gardens but is popular in parks because of its autumn colour. The leaves can be dull red or scarlet, then a little yellow and finishing a snuff brown. This is one of the tress which is part of the great “Fall” colour on the eastern seaboard of North America. There are 20 different Red Oaks and up to 50 hybrids. Younger trees are often redder and the tree has the peculiarity of changing colour on a single whole branch at a time early in the autumn.It is not a long lived tree. The oldest specimens at Kew and Westonbirt date from the mid nineteenth century.
It first arrived in 1724 and is known to live 200 years so none of the early introductions are still with us. The wood is of little use, being too porous. In America some furniture is made but its main asset is that it burns well. Tall oaks such as this have always been accused of attracting lightning. The association of druids and English oaks is said to be linked to the same phenomenon; the lightning supposedly connecting the tree with a sky god. These trees can reach 150 feet, or even 200 feet near the Great lakes in North America. So, not one to stand below and hold your head up high in a storm!