The Parents' Review

A Monthly Magazine of Home-Training and Culture

Edited by Charlotte Mason.

"Education is an atmosphere, a discipline, a life."
Trees in Our Walks.

by A. C. Drury.
Volume 14, 1903, pgs. 838-842

In our walks we find many an illustration of the effect of climate. Most of our burns are eating out little glens in the hill-sides. Before we had explored these, we thought there were no hazels here, until we found them away from our bare, northward hill-slopes, on the banks of some tiny burn with a southern or western exposure.

In following up one such stream, we traverse first the steep sides of quite a deep gorge, clothed with beech, elm, oak, ash, lime, a pine or two, and plenty of luxuriant hawthorns. As we mount, the slope changes; the little valley is no longer sheltered by the steep behind it, and its grassy banks are shaded by birches—gnarled, ancient-looking trees, branching from the roots, their bark rough and blackened by the weather. Above the birches, where the stream is winding through a marshy meadow, there are alders—fairly tall trees, with plenty of last year's pistillate catkins to show what has been achieved, but sadly destitute of leaf-buds. Higher than this, heather alone beautifies the banks of the stream.

The hill-side is indeed crowned with fir and pine plantations. But how they suffer from the gales! Dozens of trees are levelled, torn up by the roots, and some are broken off about five feet from the ground.

The tissues of these splintered stumps are most interesting. The tapering ends of the branches are discovered, radiating from the heart of the tree, torn out quite distinct from the wood of the main trunk, the curves of which show how the vessels divide to pass on either side of branches growing at right angles to them.

In another wood, a fir has split in falling, leaving a distinct smooth core, like a thick cane, in the centre of the trunk.

The massive trunks of the Seven Sisters, a group of splendid pines, looked still and steady in the biggest gale, though their heads were rocking furiously. But by leaning against them one could feel the motion, as they bent and gave under the strain of the wind. As for the slender firs rocking in the close plantation beyond, they made the earth quake under them. It was extraordinary to see their roots lifting and tugging so that the ground heaved and sank as with a respiration, and any long, straggling root, lying half-buried in the soft soil, was lifted several inches above the surface.

There is a fascination in studying the characteristics of a leafless tree, to enable oneself to recognise it at sight. Trees with opposite buds, as ash, chestnut, sycamore, are easier to distinguish in winter than those with alternate buds, particularly young specimens. A young sycamore shows perfectly the arrangement of its branches, the first and third pairs at right angles to the second and fourth, and so on. The terminal bud eventually produces a flower, when the branch has grown to some length, consequently a forked branch develops from the last pair of lateral buds. Sycamore buds are always protected by green scale leaves, so their colour distinguishes them from all other buds.

Ash buds, of course, are black, and are always supported by a thickening of the twig, like a bracket, that identifies them past mistake. From a distance, the ash tree is characterised by the downward and upward curve of its outermost branches, which sweep earthward and recurve in most regular fashion, while the topmost twigs are erect. In a full-grown tree, the cleavage of the bark makes shapes of the shuttle form, but a sapling ash has the smooth, pale bark that irresistibly recalls an ash broomstick, or a horizontal bar.

Perhaps the commonest tree here is the wych elm, which is also the earliest to flower, for Scotland is its native land. its pliant branches begin to fork not far from the ground, and spread and droop so as to render the whole tree of a spherical shape. it is more graceful than the south-country elm, and is the only elm that produces fruit in Britain.

Every tree has its characteristics, either of bud, or bark, or gesture.

Beech trunks are unmistakeable; so is the unrivalled purpose to rise which the twigs express by their upward sweep. The slender, golden-brown buds make the same angle with the twig as the branch does with the trunk. And as the growing bud bends back towards the twig, so does a sinuous curve show in the branches. Last winter the beeches were known too by their fruit, for nearly all those in the deep valley of the "fair river, broad and deep," were covered with empty cupules, showing how successful the last flowering season had been. Lime twigs zigzag from bud to bud, and are less woody than those of most big trees. The buds are often quite red. Another tree beautiful in colour is the alder. The youngest shoots have an orange tinge, and are bracketed to support the stalked, purple buds that are covered with a lovely bloom. The fat, yellow, pyramidal buds, with regular vandyked markings, will inform any unworthy Briton who does not know the oak at sight. And, of course, the "grey birches" are our most intimate friends.

About an unknown tree in spring, we have all the excitement of a new discovery. This year, our least known tree had a smooth, ringed bark, many-creased twigs, and reddish-brown colour that suggested the Rose family. When the irregularly pointed bud began to swell and form a grey, furry, blunt knob, expectation was at the highest. Soon the green and silver pinnate leaves were expanding among the brown twigs and revealing flower-buds that would develop into masses of creamy blossom. In autumn we shall see the berries flaming in the woods. From beginning to end, is there a lovelier tree in our country than the rowan?

Besides the rowan, others of our most attractive flowering trees belong to the Rose family; gean, or wild cherry, crab-apple, hawthorn, sloe or blackthorn, bird-cherry, etc. The white blossom in spring, the scarlet or purple fruit in autumn, are easily recognised.

But the less conspicuous flowers of timber trees are not less beautiful. Elm and ash are in flower before their leaves appear. As the brown elm bud begins to swell, and orange patch heralds the development of a crowded spike of tiny red flowers. Thus, before the appearance of the grey-anthered stamens, the whole tree looks red. By the time the leaves are fully out, bunches of fruit are hanging among them, green, leaf-like fruit with a central crimson spot where the seed is ripening.

The flowering ash is an ever-fresh miracle. At first one grudges the loss of the splendid black buds when they burst and reveal other leathery bracts surrounding a mass of blossom—blossom that looks almost incongruous upon the tough, bare twigs. But how lovely is the simplicity of the ash flower, scores of them developed from a single bud, each flower consisting only of a pistil and two stamens. Some of last year's winged fruits, familiarly called "keys" of the ash, are still hanging, brown and limp, on the trees. Another ash is sadly covered with unfertile blossom that seems to have been first sodden, then hardened into a mass where only the stalks are distinguishable. Possibly a gall-fly may have caused this destruction.

Long before the ash blossoms, the catkin-bearing trees have flowered; willows first, with their glories of golden and silver "palm," poplars, hazels and alders, birches, oaks, and beeches. The stamens and pistils of willow and poplar are on different trees, those of the others are on separate flowers.

Everybody knows the staminate catkins of hazel, alder and birch, which make their first appearance in summer as tight, hard, unpromising "fingers," and blossom the following spring into those graceful swinging tassels that hang on the bare twigs of hazel and alder, and among the leaves of the birch.

Crimson, thread-like stigmas characterise the pistillate catkins of each. The group which makes a hazel-flower is in brilliant contrast with the brown twigs and tawny catkins. What a mystery that out of this grows the hard-shelled hazel nut!

On the alder, the crimson stigmas emerge successively from the purple scales of a miniature cone. This becomes a green fruit that ripens and lets fall quantities of little angular brown seeds, into streams which sow them broadcast.

The pistillate flowers of the birch are slender, and stand erect to receive the pollen shed upon them from the wind-shaken staminate catkins. One birch by our burn had ripe fertile catkins of last year, a mass of tiny winged seeds still unscattered, beside this year's catkins, both staminate and pistillate.

So many birches in our neighbourhood bear those big bunches of twigs we call "witches' pincushions." One might take them for old rooks' nests, until the spring comes and they burst into leaf like any normal twigs. We notice great variety in sycamores. The leaves of some have such sharp angles, others are so rounded. The lovely pink tint of newly-peeled bark, that contrasts exquisitely with green mosses, is not seen on young trunks. They are too smooth to show bark cleavage; but the red colour appears again in the leaf stalks. Not a trace of it is in the sticky green flowers that hang in long racemes, as the green double-seeded, double-winged fruit hangs later on.

We find sycamore seedlings at great distances from the parent tree, showing how easily the light, winged seeds are blown about by the wind.

Those lovely mushroom-like beech seedlings, in two shades of green, are found under the beech trees, for the sharp-pointed beech nuts mostly lie where they fall.

Beech blossoms must be looked for soon after the unfolding of the translucent young leaves, silver-bordered with silky hairs. Very limply the soft fringes of stamens hang from the twigs on their slender stalks; the tight spikes that will become beech nuts stand up quite stiffly to meet them.

The oak too bears flowers after the leaves have come. Its staminate flowers are sometimes transformed into a string of currant galls. Diligent search for the pistillate catkin is needed, for it is as hard to find as the acorn is easy, and grows, little bigger than a pin's head, on a slender stalk in the axil of a terminal leaf.

Last of all flowers the lime, delayed until July by a late northern summer. Sweet-scented as any garden flower are these pale green blossoms, most fragrant in hottest sunshine, hanging under far-stretching branches, haunted by the "murmur of innumerable bees."

By its flower and fruit we most easily recognise the hornbeam, for the tree is rather like an elm and has points of resemblance to the beech too. The fruiting catkin bears a number of little nuts, about the size of sunflower seeds, each enclosed in a three-lobed leafy bract. On hornbeam was found in mid-winter in such a sheltered spot that, although it was bare of leaves, all the fruit was still hanging there with faded yellow bracts.

Of course we love to watch the growth of the trees in the garden, but most interesting of all are the pines. We seem to know their slowly-maturing cones at any stage but that of actual ripeness. We have seen clusters of staminate flowers at the base of new shoots, a mass of brown anthers that shed an enormous quantity of pollen. The cones that are to receive it grow beneath, further up the branch; but how does the pollen reach the ovules, two of which grow at the base of each scale of the cone? At the tips of the new shoots miniature cones are growing. These are the youngest on the tree. We will choose several of them and watch their growth, week by week and year by year, and so learn their life history.

Proofread by Leslie Noelani Laurio, August 2008