I love trees. They’re majestic organisms, with a huge variety of expressions of related forms, but that’s not why I love them. I just can’t imagine living in a landscape without them. They make me happy, and the bigger ones fill me with awe. (I may have mentioned before that I hugged a coastal redwood at Big Sur).
Anyway, trees have featured a lot in my literary life lately. I’ve been working with Alec Finlay on a project to write garden walks between certain specific trees in gardens. Not just any old trees though; these ones have had nest boxes and bat boxes installed in them, and on the boxes are cryptic clues to the names of the trees. My walks musn’t mention the names of the trees either, but I’ve written different clues to help identify them. Which tree’s timber, for example, was used to make piano keys? Which wood burns the hottest of any native tree? What’s the national tree of Pakistan? I’ve included some much simpler identifying facts, but these are some of the more abstruse ones, and I enjoy knowing them. I’ll post more information when the guides are published.
Then today I caught up with my friend Gerry Loose, and he gave me two baby trees grown from seed brought from Japan. One’s a ginkgo, and the other’s a Japanese maple. When they’re a bit bigger I hope to plant them in the community garden in Dunbar that I’m working on, along with some Japanese black pine that I’ve grown from seed. Maybe it’ll become a haiku grove where poets can write? Who can tell. They’ll need protection from rabbits at first.
Gerry also asked me about the Fortingall Yew, possibly the oldest tree in Europe, in the graveyard at Fortingall, Perthshire. He wanted to know if it’s a male or a female tree. Who, apart from all the other yews within pollination range, would want to know? Well, the birds in the area, for one. Many birds feed on the red juicy outer covering of the fruit, although most parts of the tree, including the seeds, are highly toxic to humans. Interestingly, the anti-cancer drug taxol is produced from a yew derivative (Taxus is the yew genus).
I mentioned the title-page of Leonhard Fuchs’ De historia stirpium, published in Basel in 1542. The publisher, Isengrin’s colophon is an engraving of a holly tree, with a block of timber threaded through the branches. I have no way of knowing, but I think he was trying to say that he’d used holly wood for his printing blocks, which would make sense – it’s hard, and fine-grained.
Even in my own tiny garden I’ve got trees, albeit small ones. I have a rowan to ward off evil witches (it seems to have worked), a hazel, a willow, a laburnum, a thuja and a lilac.
PS: One of my contacts at the Royal Botanic Garden Edinburgh has confirmed that the Fortingall Yew is a male, so no berries. And I forgot a couple of trees in my garden. I have a variegated holly – which produces masses of flowers followed by berries – and a really gorgeous weeping apple tree. Every April it’s covered in flowers (unless the speugs eat the buds – which they do) followed by tiny little red mini-apples (inedible) in Autumn.