Hawthorn and hedgerow

Hawthorn hedgerow, The Butts. Sept. 2016. Image © copyright 2016.

For many months of the year the Hawthorn is a rather anonymous and unappreciated prickly little bush hidden in the hedgerow; but in May, white flowers lie like an errant scattering of snow upon the tree, and the occasional delight of candy-pink blossoms cannot go unnoticed. From late August into September the Hawthorn shows off again with an abundance of little fruits which glisten like crimson jewels upon its branches.

Some Hawthorns blossom with candy-pink flowers. This one is in Bishopsbourne. Image © copyright 2016.

Today these rugged little trees, more correctly shrubs, are ubiquitous in the rural landscape, particularly in chalk districts, because they make ideal hedging plants on even the poorest land. In fact the very name ‘Haw’ derived from the Old English ‘Haga’ which meant hedge, and hedging to protect and confine livestock has been going on since ancient times. The Romans and Anglo Saxons liked to enclose their farmland in this way, but much of the English landscape remained fence and hedge free until the ‘inclosures’ {sec}, a set of parliamentary acts introduced over the years between 1604 and 1914, which allowed landowners to enclose millions of acres of land that, up until then, had been open and freely accessible to local people. Today it is hard to imagine a landscape devoid of hedges and fences, but, up until the turn of the 17th century, that is exactly how much of the English countryside appeared. As the Inclosure Acts came into force, millions of Hawthorn saplings, along with other prickly shrubs such as blackthorn, were reared to provide sturdy, protective hedging around the land seized by the gentry. The acts, and we must assume the Hawthorn hedges too, were hated by ordinary rural folk who lost their farms, the right to graze animals on the land, and even the right to walk over huge tracts of the British countryside.

The fruits of the Hawthorn are ‘pomes’ (like plums), not berries. Image © copyright 2016.

However, historically the Hawthorn was valued by common folk for other purposes. The leaves and flowers can be eaten, and the fruits, called ‘Haws’, which are not berries but stone bearing ‘pomes’ like plums and apricots, have been used to make conserves and wine. Furthermore, the Hawthorn tree has a long history of medicinal uses: preparations made from the Midland Hawthorn have been used in traditional medicine to treat heart disorders, and some very modern scientific studies have indicated that such remedies may indeed have valid properties in the treatment of cardiovascular disease. How apt then, that in Celtic folklore, the Hawthorn is said to heal a broken heart.

Ironically, in these days of declining countryside and wildlife, our hedgerows are valued and protected for the wildlife habitat they provide, and the ordinary folk of Britain campaign to keep them intact. In this new struggle over the landscape perhaps we should remember another of the rugged, stubborn little Hawthorn’s ancient symbolic meanings: as a symbol of hope. does not advocate or condone the foraging of hedgerow plants and fruits.

Three Willows and a bridge

Willows near Bridge Tennis Club, Bridge. Image © Copyright 2017.

Canterbury City Council have recently granted permission for the pollarding of three Willow trees on the banks of the Nailbourne at the southern edge of Bridge Recreation Ground where it meets Patrixbourne Road. is not generally keen on the pollarding of ‘amenity’ trees: amenity in this sense means trees which are planted to enhance the appearance of a particular public space rather than for timber producing purposes. Pollarding is an ancient procedure which strips a tree entirely of its branches, thereby leaving just the trunk standing as a stump, which, if the work has been done correctly on the right type of tree and at the right time of year, will grow new branches over the next few years. In olden times whole stretches of woodland were pollarded to provide a regular supply of young branches for fuel or fencing. Riverbank Willows were often pollarded for flexible ‘withies’ for basket making, furniture and other products.

It is sometimes argued that pollarding rejuvenates a tree by encouraging new growth, but the suggestion remains controversial. Another more certain consequence of this method, if practiced regularly, is that the subject tree is restricted in height and span so that it takes up less space. For this reason the procedure is often adopted as a method of controlling trees in urban landscapes where space is limited; but the results can look brutal and unnatural to those who love trees.

All this begs the question, why pollard Willows on the banks of the Nailbourne in Bridge in 2017? We think this may be more to do with tradition rather than anything else, but there is a technical argument in favour too. Left to their own devices Willows will grow into very large trees which cast a lot of shade. They grow thick upper limbs, but the wood is weak and liable to crack and fall, particularly on the Crack Willow, which is how that tree gets its name. This is obviously potentially dangerous and unsightly on an amenity tree. As a measure to reduce such risks, Willows are often pollarded and these trees tend to accept the procedure better than most.

Some may feel the Recreation Ground’s Willows are too big and cast too much shade. Image © Copyright 2017.2017.

We have great faith in local tree surgeon Paul Davies, who will be supervising the work this year, as he did the same work to the same trees some 30 years ago. We understand the pollarding will be staggered so that all three Willows are not stripped at the same time. In his role as Parish Councilor, Paul Davies will also be overseeing shrub pruning and maintenance around Bridge Tennis Club, and he has  already stated that he is keen to ensure work does not progress while wild birds’ nests are in use in the area. We thank him for this considered and responsible approach.

In the same location, beside today’s dry Nailbourne, the old bridge to the Recreation Ground is under consideration for replacement. We don’t know what sort of bridge will be installed, but in olden times a new bridge would have been constructed from local timber or stone, and some ancient peoples created bridges out of saplings which would be trained to form a living tree across the water. Ironically the best tree for this kind of project is… Willow.

In praise of olden Alder

Alder, Bridge Pond, spring 2016. Image © Copyright 2016

Stand for a moment in the spring sunlight at the edge of our pond off Brewery Lane in Bridge and your attention may be drawn to a beautiful golden catkin laden tree leaning slightly over the water from the garden of Little Bridge Place. This is a Common (Black) Alder tree; perhaps one of the more forgotten native trees of our western heritage. Besides the Common Alder there are about 30 other species in the family including the Grey Alder, Green Alder and Italian Alder; some of which can often be seen in woodland today.

In olden times the Alder was valued not for its beauty, but because of a unique property in its timber: it remains immensely strong and rot free if placed in water or wet mud. This made it the primary choice for building wooden jetties, bridges and river bank supports and pilings when building on marshy ground. In fact much of Venice was built on Alder posts set into the mud beneath the Venetian lagoon. We don’t build with wooden supports so much these days, but Alders are still a popular choice for riverside conservation projects. Where riverbank stabilisation is required, Alders are ideal because they flourish in damp ground; in areas of land reclamation they can help to fix nitrogen into the soil; in farm hedgerows they provide good wildlife habitat.

With catkins and the hardened remains of last year’s cone-like fruits hanging from its branches, this can only be an Alder. Image © Copyright 2016

Like the hazel the Alder bears male flowers on dangling yellow catkins which pollinate by the action of the wind. The two trees can appear similar, but they differ in that the female flower on the hazel is like a little flowering bud which produces a hazelnut, while the female flower on the Alder is like a tiny catkin which produces a fruit closely resembling a small fir cone.

The yellow male catkins of the Alder and the smaller pinkish female flowers which turn into a cone-like fruit. Image © Copyright 2016

Later in the year seeds will fall from these fruits, often into water, and spread to other areas, leaving the empty fruits drying and hardening on the tree right through until the next spring.

Leylandii: planting menace in the mind

Cypress Leylandii (centre), Mill Lane, Bridge. Given space to grow, Leylandii is not unattractive in itself. Image © copyright 2016

Leylandii, that notorious, rapid-growing, evergreen, furry monster which has blighted suburban gardens and caused domestic disputes across the country for decades: we all recognise it and despise it, don’t we? Well things are not quite what they seem…

Members of the Cypress tree family(1) are generally recognised by their evergreen, fern-like branches. Cypress Leylandii is a man-made hybrid within that family. It was created in Britain in about 1888 by arboriculturists who were sharing conifer seeds imported from America. It is not clear who actually produced the first tree of this particular hybrid but a certain Mr Leyland got the credit, or should we say blame? Leylandii is fast growing and can grow to 50ft in 15 years or so, and it will grow to 150 feet if left unpruned. It was created by crossing two North American trees, the Nootka Cypress from Alaska, which provides great hardiness, and the Monterey Cypress from California, which gives it rapid growth. In their natural setting, both of these trees are really quite beautiful and they would never have cross-pollinated naturally.

Leylandii became popular in modern British gardens when it was discovered that, planted in a close row, they quickly provide an effective tall screen to give privacy. However, pruned closely such hedging can appear overly severe, yet if not controlled at all, the trees rapidly outgrow their setting and become a nuisance.

Bridge Tennis Club. Strictly controlled conifer hedging can look overly severe, and hard pruning leaves ugly bare patches which may never recover. Image © copyright 2016

Yet, surprisingly, people who complain about Leylandii in their neighbours’ gardens may not actually be seeing Leylandii at all, they may be looking at another similar tree in the Cypress family, the Lawson Cypress. Sometimes called a False Cypress, this tree is in fact a cedar, known in America as the Port Orford Cedar because it comes from that region of Oregon. It was introduced to Britain in the 1850s by the Lawson nursery in Edinburgh. It is often planted for hedging for similar reasons to Leylandii. Its flowers can make it a more attractive tree, but if left untended, it causes the same problems.

Male (red) and female (brown) flowers on this Lawson Cypress on Patrixbourne Road can make it an attractive tree in spring. Image © copyright 2016

However, this is not yet the full story: another group of similar looking trees in the Cypress family, also commonly used for tall hedging in Britain, are the Thujas. These are again cedars, notably the Western Red Cedar and the White Cedar from the Pacific coast of North America. While all these different possibilities make identification complex enough, the situation is further complicated by the fact that over the years all these trees have been further crossed and selectively bred to create size, growth habit and colour variations which range into the hundreds.

The distinctive cone of a Thuja growing in Bekesbourne churchyard. Image © Copyright 2017.

In all the furore over Leylandii’s role in irresponsible hedge planting, conifers in general have gained a bad reputation which they do not really deserve. The original trees that created some of the most notorious hybrids were all selected because they were and are hansom trees in their own right. In the correct setting they make wonderful specimen trees and their wood is highly valued by craftsmen across the globe: the timber of Port Orford Cedar is used in America and Japan for making arrows and musical instruments; Thuja wood is very decorative, so it is often made into ornamental bowls and boxes; Nootka Cypress is considered one of the most useful timbers in the world, it is very resistant to rot and is often specified for the construction of wood cabins, decking and traditional small boats.

What a shame it is that, simply because of unsuitable placement in modern suburban British gardens, many conifers have been tarred by one common villainous appellation ‘Leylandii’, a name which arouses such contempt amongst the British public.

(1) In arboricultural circles there has been and remains a great deal of debate about which trees actually belong in the Cypress family and which should be placed into other groups. For the sake of simplicity here we have tried to cite commonly accepted classifications.

The acorns of the oak

An oak acorn showing the aril in the cupule, then split to reveal the nutty kernel. Image © copyright 2016.

An oak acorn showing the aril in the cupule, then split to reveal the nutty kernel. Image © copyright 2016.

The acorn is very recognisable as one of Britain’s woodland nuts: it grows in all three of our most common oak trees, the English Oak, the Sessile Oak and the evergreen Holm Oak, where it sits on the branch like a little boiled egg in a tiny egg cup. However, what we see on the tree is just the outer shell called the ‘aril’ attached to its woody ‘cupule’: once it has fallen from the tree in Autumn, the aril will split open revealing the nut kernel inside.

Acorns are nutritious and in some of humanity’s older cultures, notably in Southern Europe and parts of the Americas, they formed part of the main Autumn diet, but this practice does not seem to have been prominent in Britain, quite possibly because the acorns of our native English Oak contain very high levels of tannin which need to be thoroughly soaked out before they are palatable to humans. This same chemical makes some of our acorns poisonous to cattle and horses, and may cause serious illness in humans, so we strongly urge readers not to try eating them.

However, in oak woods (like the New Forest) where deer are resident, acorns provide a valuable food source for the deer, which appear immune to any harmful effects, and in many parts of our countryside oak acorns are also an important cold season food for birds including jays and woodpeckers and mammals such as squirrels, mice and other rodents. Pigs love acorns too and in olden times it was traditional for swineherds to allow them to roam loose in oak woodland in Autumn so that they could fatten up for winter.

A jay plucking acorns from the oak tree on the junction of Mill lane and Western Avenue, Bridge. Image © copyright 2016.

A jay plucking acorns from the oak tree on the junction of Mill lane and Western Avenue, Bridge. Image © copyright 2016.

Jays, like squirrels, will bury acorns in various locations around their homes and come back for them when they are hungry, if they can remember where they are. Recent studies have shown that the role of jays in the valuable work of propagating our native oak trees has been hugely underestimated and we now know that each Jay may bury thousands of acorns. Not all the acorns are retrieved and this may not always be as a result of the birds forgetting where they were buried, it may be that some jays do not survive long enough through a severe winter to eat all the nuts they cached, or it may be that more were stored than needed: either way, we have jays and squirrels to thank for many of the oak trees we see in our countryside today.

Jays may be observed this week picking acorns in the Holm Oaks near Green Court, Bridge and in the small Oak tree on Mill Lane (pictured above).

Notes on a hard tree

A Hornbeam samara. September. Whitehill Wood. Image © copyright 2016.

A Hornbeam samara. September. Whitehill Wood. Image © copyright 2016.

At this time of year, those who gaze up into the trees while walking in our local woodland may notice certain pendulous growths hanging like little lanterns from the branches on some of the trees. These are the ‘samaras’ of the Hornbeam tree, the winged seed cases that fall from the tree and spin in the wind to plant themselves elsewhere.

The Hornbeam is an important native tree of southern Britain and much of Europe and Asia. It’s name literally means ‘hard tree’, ‘horn’ being an old term for hard, and ‘beam’ the old English word for tree, which relates to the German ‘baum’ still in use today. In Autumn the distinctive samaras make it an easy tree to recognise, but for much of the year the Hornbeam tends to be confused with the beech because the leaves are of similar shape and size.

The Hornbeam and beech leaves compared. Image © copyright 2016.

Hornbeam and beech leaves compared. Image © copyright 2016.

However, there are some easy ways to distinguish them: beech leaves have a smooth but slightly wavy edge, while the rim of the Hornbeam leaf is toothed like a saw, in fact double-toothed so there are big serrations round the leaf with smaller ones set within them. The bark of the beech is also smooth with a rather plain greyish colour, while the Hornbeam has a very distinctive threading pattern running up it. These threads will become pronounced ridges and troughs in the bark as the tree matures.

The weaving patterns in Hornbeam bark become ridges and troughs in mature trees. Image © copyright 2016.

The weaving patterns in Hornbeam bark become ridges and troughs in mature trees. Image © copyright 2016.

As the name tells us, the wood of the Hornbeam is very hard, in fact it is just too tough for most general carpentry work, but it is very useful where a hard-wearing material is required. Traditionally it was the wood of choice for making the yokes which lay across the shoulders of oxen for ploughing, and it was also used to make coach wheels, tool handles and the cogs and other working parts of our historic English windmills and watermills.

Today the timber is less used, but another feature of the Hornbeam, which it does share with the beech, makes them both valuable trees in our modern local landscape. Many of Kent’s old fruit and hop fields were bordered with Hornbeam and beech hedges (particularly noticeable in the Selling area today) and, although they are not evergreens, hedges formed with these trees hold on to their leaves right through the year, thereby providing winter shelter for all kinds of birds and other wildlife.


The Kentish Apricot

Apricots growing in the Bridge area, July 2016. Image © copyright 2016.

Apricots growing in the Bridge area, July 2016. Image © copyright 2016.

This month thousands of Apricots have been ripening on trees in the Bridge area. That may come as a surprise to many people but, ironically, even more so to those who are most knowledgeable about fruit growing, because for centuries it has been considered virtually impossible to grow Apricots commercially in Britain. A few gardeners have managed to grow them as a novelty in special conditions, but generally our summers were considered too wet, our winters too variable and our spring frosts too unpredictable for growing these demanding fruits on a large scale. The trees flower very early in spring, so the risk of just one late frost destroying an entire crop was too high for Apricots to be a viable option for British fruit growers.

However, in recent years all this has changed as new cultivars have been developed specially to suit the British climate. Today Apricots are grown in abundance on various farms across Kent, including one within Bridge parish. Apricots plucked fresh from the tree provide a delicious and entirely different taste experience from the bland supermarket imports we British are used to, and our new home grown varieties are now considered amongst the tastiest to be found anywhere. Additionally they are rich in vitamins A and C together with potassium, copper and fibre. Surprisingly, Apricot kernels are often used on the continent to supplement almond flavouring, typically in Amaretti biscuits and the well known liqueur Amaretto.

Tradition has it that the Apricot comes from Armenia, a small country to the East of Turkey (the Apricot’s Latin name Prunus Armeniaca actually means ‘Armenian Plum’), but historians dispute this, arguing that evidence shows the fruit has been in cultivation in China, India and Persia since ancient times.

An Apricot tree laden with fruit is a beautiful thing to see in its own right and it is a delight to have these new exotic immigrants in our traditional fruit growing landscape, but they are still a relatively rare and valuable crop, so we do not disclose their location. Those who may think to go in search of them should be advised that they fruit early and this year’s harvest has already been picked.

In Blackthorn Winter

Blackthorn blossom, the Butts, Bridge. Image © copyright 2016

Blackthorn blossom, The Butts, Bridge. Image © copyright 2016

The Blackthorn is a small shrubby tree common to the English hedgerow. During winter it appears little more than a rather nondescript dark prickly bush but, in the spring, hordes of white flowers arrive like snowfall upon the thorny boughs. Later in the year these will develop into the small, sour tasting, blue-black fruits we know as sloes.

In folklore the Blackthorn tree is considered a sinister tree associated with winter, witchcraft and warfare. It can be a sign of ill omen, yet if used correctly it may offer protection against evil too and it was planted to create boundaries both in a practical sense, with prickly hedges to deter intruders, and in a spiritual sense, to protect against evil spirits. Witches carried walking sticks made from its branches and the traditional Irish cudgel (bata), more commonly know as a shillelagh, is made of a Blackthorn trunk and its heavy club-like root. Some authorities state that the term ‘black rod’ originally derived from a shaft of Blackthorn fitted with horns for use as a weapon, and we suggest it may therefore be no coincidence that the role of the Usher of the Black Rod in British parliament is to keep order and maintain security.

In the sunny days of April and May the Blackthorn’s flowers shine out prettily and pristine against an azure sky. Yet, as recent days in our little corner of Kent have shown, the weather in early spring can be very cold, and in such conditions the blossom may truly be reminiscent of snow lying on the hedgerows. Referring to the cold spring weather of his own district in his famous book ‘The Natural History of Selborne’, Gilbert White tells us “The harsh rugged weather obtaining at this season, is called by the country people ‘Blackthorn Winter'”.

The crimson curls of Poplar

Devil's Finger. The catkin of a Hybrid Black Poplar. Bridge area. Image copyright © 2016

Devil’s Finger. The catkin of a Hybrid Black Poplar. Bridge area. Image copyright © 2016

Walking out along the footpath between Sheep Dip Lane and the Butts after strong winds we find a scattering of crimson catkins and the half-formed curls of immature fallers too. These are the male catkins of one variation of our native Black Poplar tree. In folklore the mysterious, exotic catkins were called ‘Devil’s fingers’, and it was considered bad luck to pick them up from the ground.

Today the Black Poplar is not very well known but it is a characterful deciduous tree growing up to 30m in height. The bark is greyish, roughly ridged with frequent burrs. The leaves are heart-shaped, dark green and shiny.

Hybride Black Poplar Catkins, Bridge area. Image copyright © 2016

Hybride Black Poplar catkins, Bridge area. Image copyright © 2016

True wild Black Poplars are now very rare, so rare in fact that they are considered our most endangered native tree because, being so scarce in the countryside, they are seldom pollinated by other trees of the same wild species. They are almost always found near water and were in fact formerly called Water Poplars for this reason. In John Constable’s day (1776-1837) they were a common feature of the river bank, as some of his paintings testify.

However, by the 1850s a new hybrid of our native wild Black Poplar and the American Eastern Cottonwood tree had been introduced for its faster growing properties and tolerance to more general growing conditions, and it was widely planted for both its scenic qualities and timber. This, being soft with bend and shock resistance, was used for making carts and clogs which took a regular battering on England’s old roads. In the years following, the wild trees were pollinated by the hybrids to such an extent that, after 150 years or so, hybrids dominate and very few true wild Black Poplars now remain.

Immature Hybrid Black Poplar catkins. Bridge area March 2016. Image copyright © 2016

Immature Hybrid Black Poplar catkins. Bridge area March 2016. Image copyright © 2016

Another variant which is commonly seen in the British countryside is the Lombardy Poplar, sometimes called an Italian Black Poplar, which is a very familiar tall, thin, elegant tree often planted in rows to provide wind shelter beside exposed stretches of farmland.

Identifying Poplars and their hybrids is notoriously difficult, especially before leaf formation, but having examined the catkin bearing trees near the footpath, we believe they are likely to be Hybrid Black Poplars.

Tree matters

On the positive side: tree planting in built areas like this one in Ford Close, Bridge, can help to prevent runoff and flooding. Image copyright © 2015.

On the positive side: tree planting in built areas like this one in Ford Close, Bridge, can help to prevent runoff and flooding. Image copyright © 2015.

This week received a letter from Steve Fawke, Bridge Parish Councilor and tree conservationist, bringing to our attention a set of statistics which appeared recently in The Guardian newspaper.

The statistics reveal the shocking extent of the loss of Britain’s woodland in recent decades, yet, with an obvious irony, ideas for solutions to some of our most pressing environmental issues are clearly visible within the statistics themselves:

In the last century, Great Britain lost 90% of its coppiced woodland.(1)

Half of the UK’s ancient woodland has been lost or damaged in the past 70 years. Since 1999, 276 ancient woods have suffered loss or damage, with another 588 still under threat. Currently, 85% of ancient woodland is unprotected by government legislation.(2)

There are approximately 130 million native ash trees at risk from {the disease called} Ash Dieback, which would also affect more than 1,000 {wildlife} species associated with ash, some of which are entirely or heavily dependent on it.(3)

Modelling around the river Parrett in south-west England found that floodplain woodland could increase flood storage by 71%. In cities, the addition of a street tree could reduce storm water runoff by 50-62% in a 9 square metre area, compared with asphalt alone, according to test plots in Manchester.(4)

595 million tonnes of CO2 are stored in UK forests, and net uptake per year is between 9 million and 15 million tonnes. The Committee on Climate Change’s guidelines are that abatement of CO2 is deemed cost-effective at anything less than £100 per tonne; woodlands planted for multiple objectives can additionally deliver carbon abatement at significantly less than £25 per tonne. (5)

On the positive side: coppicing schemes like this one in Whitehill Wood, can provide wildlife habitat, environmentally friendly building materials and biofuels. Image copyright © 2015.

On the positive side: coppicing schemes like this one in Whitehill Wood, can provide wildlife habitat, environmentally friendly building materials and biofuels. Image copyright © 2015.

However, for residents of Bridge and the rest of the Kent Downs AONB there is some good news. Our AONB has one of the highest levels of woodland in any of the UK’s AONBs. Furthermore, the management team, in conjunction with local authorities and landowners, is targeting the production of woodland biofuels as a growth area with great potential for the future.

Sources referenced:
Main article:
JNCC report No. 483
(4) Thomas, H. & Nisbet, T. (2007) Water and Environment Journal, 21: 114-126; Armson, D.
et al. (2013) Urban Forestry and Urban Greening, 12: 282-286