Rare trees found in Neasden

ONCE they were the pride and joy of some wealthy family's ornamental garden. But times change, and Neasden is not what it once was. Today these two exceptionally rare pride of India trees stand opposite Jones Autos on a scrappy piece of waste ground by the BR railway lines in north-west London.

No longer are they attended by skilled gardeners; they have only a heap of empty paint-cans and a pair of feral cats for company.

Nobody even knew they existed until two weeks ago, when a surveyor undertaking a study of London's trees for the Countryside Commission spotted them. It is thought there are fewer than 50 pride of India in the whole of the British Isles, out of an estimated tree population of five billion.

The grandly named tree, which is actually a native of China, Japan and Korea, was introduced to this country sometime in the mid- 18th century, though in very small numbers. Until now it was thought that all the specimens were in private collections or public gardens.

They are also known as golden rain on account of the spray of yellow flowers that covers their branches each spring. Although no study has yet been done to gauge the age of the two trees, they are thought to be among the oldest in Britain.

'They really are very special,' said David Coleman, director of the Countryside Commission's Task Force Trees programme, which made the discovery. Its surveyors have been analysing trees on London's streets since the beginning of the summer as part of a replanting project set up in the wake of the 1987 hurricane.

'They were first brought over when there was a fashion for things with an oriental flavour,' Mr Coleman said. 'Their red, lantern-like seed pods made them particularly attractive. Normally when land changes use, as this has, the trees go. We suspect these survived because they were on the edge of a plot of land with the train lines marking the border. Then they were forgotten.'

According to John White, head of dendrology at the Forestry Commission, which has been advising the Task Force Trees project, although the find is exciting, it is not that surprising. 'I grew up in north-west London and I have always known that it is one of the richest areas for rare tree species in the country,' he said.

Rare though the species is, pride of India may soon be a common sight. The Forestry Commission is looking at new species of tree to introduce en masse to our verges and pavements, and pride of India is under consideration.

(Photograph omitted)