Celebrating trees

28 July saw us celebrate National Tree Day, a time to reflect on the marvels of the plant world. But which tree is a cut (or should we say leaf) above the rest? Head Gardener Dan reveals his favourite species.

“What’s your favourite tree?”. If you ask me that question in early summer, I might say the handkerchief tree, likely flowering, with its beautiful, ghostly white bracts that hang from the boughs like little handkerchiefs offered to passers-by. 

Ask me at another time, in autumn say, and I might pick the dawn redwood. It’s probably the most attractive of the deciduous conifers that we grow in this country – with auburn coloured, very soft needles that flutter down from the crown of giant trees from a distant age.

Hankerchief tree
Hankerchief tree

But the truth is I could pick any number of species at any time of the year. Because what I love about trees is their qualities as a vessel for conversation, and the brilliant stories that they yield. 

Did you know, for example, that the handkerchief tree is not just stunningly beautiful in flower but was the primary subject of a plant-hunting expedition to China led by the famous Victorian plantsman Ernest Henry Wilson? He followed a gruelling trail on the hunt for a single tree – previously described by another plant hunter, Augustine Henry – only to find upon arrival that it had been chopped down and used to build a local farmer’s house!

Dawn Redwood Tree

The dawn redwoods are just as fascinating as they are beautiful too. They were first described in Japan in 1941 by Shigeru Miki, who thought he had a discovered the fossils of a tree long since extinct. However, in 1943 a living specimen was discovered in the wild, and later scientists sponsored by Harvard University’s Arnold Arboretum – and accompanied by armed guards – collected seed and began distributing them to botanic gardens across the world. It had previously thought to have been extinct for more than five million years!

The Wollemi pine was similarly thought to be extinct until as late as 1994. We’ve got two growing in the Australasian section of our geographical beds now, an example of one of the great plant conservation efforts of our age.

What about the Monkey Puzzle tree, planted here by our third and final private owner, John MacDonald Nicolson? Did you know the monkey puzzle tree produces seeds like pine nuts, which are prized cuisine in their native Chile? They are delicious when they’re toasted!

Wollemi pine tree leaves

Our native species hold plenty of interest too. The humble yew tree is famed as a source of great English longbows in days gone by and some even more gruesome toxic traits. Yew seeds, needles and bark carry an alkaloid poison called taxine and many believe that’s the reason you see yew trees planted in churchyards so often. They do an excellent job at keeping grazing animals at bay and away from protected graveyards. Shakespeare knew this all too well. The witches in Macbeth concoct a poisonous brew including ‘slips of yew silvered in the moon’s eclipse’.

I could go on. Stories abound. A walk around Winterbourne’s collection is more than just a walk amongst the trees. It’s a walk-through history, spanning continents and cultures. These stories tell us something about ourselves, our impact on the planet, and relationships with nature. They are all important stories to tell. And that is why, in many ways, I will always struggle to pick a singular ‘favourite’, but instead much prefer to appreciate them all.