Nature Studies by Michael McCarthy: The small-leaved lime, lost tree of England


Some myths are so tenacious as to be virtually unshakeable, and one such is that the national tree of England is the oak. There is no Act of Parliament proclaiming Quercus robur to be an official symbol of Englishness, but there doesn't need to be, with a belief which has such deep roots in Middle England's psyche that David Cameron's Conservative Party ditched Margaret Thatcher's red, white and blue "torch of freedom" in favour of an oak tree as the new Tory emblem (although I notice that these days they tend to fill in the tree's outline with the Union Jack, just in case anyone doesn't get the point. Didn't Dr Johnson say that patriotism was the last refuge of the scoundrel?).

Steadfast, immensely strong and reliable, the oak was seen, at least in ideal terms, as standing for the English character, and there are many enduring connections with it in the English collective consciousness, such as the notion of Nelson's ships being "hearts of oak". Another is the memory of the Royal Oak at Boscobel House in Staffordshire, in whose branches the young Charles II hid from the pursuing Roundheads following his defeat at the battle of Worcester in 1651.

After the Restoration, this became the most famous tree in the land and was eventually destroyed by souvenir-hunters snapping off branches, although you can see one of its descendants at Boscobel today, and the legend lives on in pub signs: The Royal Oak is either the second or the third most popular pub name in the land, after The Red Lion and The Crown (depending on which survey you use).

But I also think that behind the cultural connections, there is a general sense of the oak belonging to England in natural history terms as well: great oaks still dot the landscape and there is a widespread belief that oak was the dominant tree of the Wildwood – the ancient forest that covered the country after the last ice age, before humans began to interfere with it.

Last week, I learned to my surprise that, for the English lowlands at least, this is simply not true: the dominant tree of the Wildwood was not oak at all, but a species with a mere fraction of oak's cultural resonance, indeed, one unknown to the greater part of the population: Tilia cordata, or small-leaved lime.

The land of limewoods; that's us, or at least that's what we were, in pre-history. We know this from pollen analysis, the study of the pollen of plants and trees which is often preserved in bogs and at the bottom of lakes, and can be identified and used to determine the vegetation characteristics of a given area at a given time. Although oakwoods did predominate in western England, Wales and the north-west, in the southern lowlands, small-leaved lime was supreme.

But while the oakwoods remain in the west to this day, the limewoods have largely disappeared, and in much of the country, T ilia cordata is now a rare and unfamiliar tree. No-one is quite sure why it went; it may have been climatic changes, or it may be the fact that lime grew on the land most suited for agriculture, and so was very readily cut down; and it is only in recent decades that we have understood that the lime was once, in effect, perhaps a better candidate than the oak for the title of the English national tree.

Oliver Rackham, our greatest woodlands expert, opened my eyes to this when I went to interview him in Cambridge last week about the row over the future of England's forests, and we fell to talking about their past, and in particular the Wildwood and its composition.

A key insight, Dr Rackham said, was that lime, which produces beautiful yellow flowers in July, is insect-pollinated, and therefore does not need to generate nearly as much pollen as oak, which is pollinated by the wind and has to scatter immense amounts of pollen far and wide. "So if you have a sample that contains 90 per cent oak pollen and ten per cent lime, it used to be thought that meant an oakwood with a few lime trees in it," Dr Rackham said. "It's now appreciated that it's more likely to be a limewood with a few oak trees in it."

Being shamefully ignorant of modern limewoods – and you can still find them – I asked him what they were like. "If left uncut for long enough, lime grows very tall and straight, forming 'cathedral groves'," he said. "It's reputed to be the tallest native tree. It's very densely shading, with particularly well-marked 'coppicing flowers' every time the wood is cut down."

There are other fascinations about the tree. It produces one of the best woods for carving, (limewood was the material used by Grinling Gibbons, the baroque master who was England's greatest wood carver); and the fragrant yellow flowers are used in an infusion which is called Tilleul in France, where it is as popular with herb tea enthusiasts as camomile is here.

But it is the place of small-leaved lime in our history which most catches my imagination. The truth is a quirky beast, not always according with our preconceptions, and even though the oak will never be displaced from its central position in our mythology, it is intriguing to learn that the ecological truth about Ancient England relegates oak to second place, and that the English Wildwood was really a forest of tall, dim, cathedral groves – it was the land Unter den Linden, as the famous Berlin boulevard is named, under the lime trees.

Suggested Topics
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Keith Fraser says we should give Isis sympathises free flights to join Isis (AFP)
Life and Style
Google celebrates the 126th anniversary of the Eiffel Tower opening its doors to the public for the first time
techGoogle celebrates Paris's iconic landmark, which opened to the public 126 years ago today
Cleopatra the tortoise suffers from a painful disease that causes her shell to disintegrate; her new prosthetic one has been custom-made for her using 3D printing technology
newsCleopatra had been suffering from 'pyramiding'
Arts and Entertainment
Coachella and Lollapalooza festivals have both listed the selfie stick devices as “prohibited items”
Nigel Owens was targeted on Twitter because of his sexuality during the Six Nations finale between England and France earlier this month
rugbyReferee Nigel Owens on coming out, and homophobic Twitter abuse
  • Get to the point
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Recruitment Genius: Senior Web Designer / Front End Developer

£28000 - £32000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: This fast expanding web managem...

Ashdown Group: Trainee Consultant - Surrey / South West London

£22000 per annum + pension,bonus,career progression: Ashdown Group: An establi...

Ashdown Group: Trainee Consultant - Surrey/ South West London

£22000 per annum + pension,bonus,career progression: Ashdown Group: An establi...

Ashdown Group: Recruitment Consultant / Account Manager - Surrey / SW London

£40000 per annum + realistic targets: Ashdown Group: A thriving recruitment co...

Day In a Page

No postcode? No vote

Floating voters

How living on a houseboat meant I didn't officially 'exist'
Louis Theroux's affable Englishman routine begins to wear thin

By Reason of Insanity

Louis Theroux's affable Englishman routine begins to wear thin
Power dressing is back – but no shoulderpads!

Power dressing is back

But banish all thoughts of Eighties shoulderpads
Spanish stone-age cave paintings 'under threat' after being re-opened to the public

Spanish stone-age cave paintings in Altamira 'under threat'

Caves were re-opened to the public
'I was the bookies’ favourite to be first to leave the Cabinet'

Vince Cable interview

'I was the bookies’ favourite to be first to leave the Cabinet'
Election 2015: How many of the Government's coalition agreement promises have been kept?

Promises, promises

But how many coalition agreement pledges have been kept?
The Gaza fisherman who built his own reef - and was shot dead there by an Israeli gunboat

The death of a Gaza fisherman

He built his own reef, and was fatally shot there by an Israeli gunboat
Saudi Arabia's airstrikes in Yemen are fuelling the Gulf's fire

Saudi airstrikes are fuelling the Gulf's fire

Arab intervention in Yemen risks entrenching Sunni-Shia divide and handing a victory to Isis, says Patrick Cockburn
Zayn Malik's departure from One Direction shows the perils of fame in the age of social media

The only direction Zayn could go

We wince at the anguish of One Direction's fans, but Malik's departure shows the perils of fame in the age of social media
Young Magician of the Year 2015: Meet the schoolgirl from Newcastle who has her heart set on being the competition's first female winner

Spells like teen spirit

A 16-year-old from Newcastle has set her heart on being the first female to win Young Magician of the Year. Jonathan Owen meets her
Jonathan Anderson: If fashion is a cycle, this young man knows just how to ride it

If fashion is a cycle, this young man knows just how to ride it

British designer Jonathan Anderson is putting his stamp on venerable house Loewe
Number plates scheme could provide a licence to offend in the land of the free

Licence to offend in the land of the free

Cash-strapped states have hit on a way of making money out of drivers that may be in collision with the First Amendment, says Rupert Cornwell
From farm to fork: Meet the Cornish fishermen, vegetable-growers and butchers causing a stir in London's top restaurants

From farm to fork in Cornwall

One man is bringing together Cornwall's most accomplished growers, fishermen and butchers with London's best chefs to put the finest, freshest produce on the plates of some of the country’s best restaurants
Robert Parker interview: The world's top wine critic on tasting 10,000 bottles a year, absurd drinking notes and New World wannabes

Robert Parker interview

The world's top wine critic on tasting 10,000 bottles a year, absurd drinking notes and New World wannabes
Don't believe the stereotype - or should you?

Don't believe the stereotype - or should you?

We exaggerate regional traits and turn them into jokes - and those on the receiving end are in on it too, says DJ Taylor