Cone artists: Stately, inspiring and creators of the headiest scents in the forest - conifers, says Emma Townshend, are for life and not just for Christmas

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The Independent Online

During the recent rubbish weather I have discovered the absolute best winter garden book to read in bed - Thomas Pakenham's Meetings With Remarkable Trees. This glossy travelogue-cum-catalogue has been a bestseller for 10 years so I get no marks for trend-spotting. But I'm the sort of person who is driven by my own stubbornness to ignore what's popular, especially in publishing. It pains me to buy books once they've been stickered with the seal of approval. Sorry, I just feel like a lemming.

The unfortunate flaw in my thinking is that books become bestsellers because people have loved reading them, and have then recommended them to their friends. So, of course, as soon as I actually started Pakenham's book - a fate I've been avoiding for years - I was totally hooked. I was like all those transfixed Dan Brown readers you see on the Tube.

Meetings With Remarkable Trees is a great lying-in-bed book, especially the little pocket-sized paperback edition I bought. Each tree gets about a page of text, but the most fun is gawping at the pictures, each one captures the size and complexity of the tree by placing a tiny human figure dwarfed in the corner of the frame. Pakenham, it has to be said, gets all over the place: freezing on Scottish moors, hitching a ride in an aristocrat's golf buggy to inspect Britain's biggest hedge, actually standing inside the massive yew at Crowhurst, Surrey. He even rediscovers a tree mentioned by Wordsworth that was thought lost long ago. I immediately found myself reaching for a map and wondering how easy it would be to go and visit some of these champion trees, which are nicely dotted across the British Isles. (Though none are in Yorkshire. I wonder what Pakenham has against that particular county?)

Several of the remarkable trees discussed in the book are at Kew, where visitors are being given extra help to appreciate the riches of the arboretum this month, with walks focusing entirely on conifers - members of the great taxonomic class Pinopsida. These tours were originally planned to run only over the Christmas period, but due to demand they have been extended until the end of January. Even if you feel like you never want to see another pine needle again after having to scrape them out of the carpet, try one of these invigorating walks, which will remind you once more of all the magic involved in a fir tree. Or a larch, or a cedar, or a cypress...

Our guide was Geraldine, who was interesting enough to completely make me forget the flight-path planes roaring directly overhead. The main lesson is the variety the cone-bearing trees offer. From the lacebark pine (Pinus bungeana), with its trunk of layered, delicately patterned greys, originally spotted by Western eyes gracing an imperial courtyard in 16th-century China, to the Himalayan spruce (Picea smithiana), which droops sadly as if expecting heavy snow any moment, conifers seem to be especially good at living in extreme conditions. This seems to be because they form particularly successful cooperative partnerships with the fungi at their roots, allowing them to live in places where other trees don't flourish. In fact, conifers can grow in soil that seems to be little more than rocks or sand. In prehistoric times, conifers flourished all over the earth's surface, but due to the success of the Johnny-come-lately flowering plants and trees, the conifers now specialise in the margins, producing their cones over months and years with stately calm.

And there's much to admire in those architectural cones, which Geraldine produces on cue from her capacious handbag: 'the deodar!' 'the spruce!' We all peer in, marvelling at the technical differences and adaptations. And one of the best things about Kew, being a botanic garden, is that it's possible to see so many different kinds of conifers on a short walk: to compare trees of the same species at different ages, or of different sexes - check out those lime-green fuzzy balls at the top of the female monkey puzzle tree. (Although, of course, most conifers have both male and female reproductive bits - another thing you learn, looking at the female pine cones and male pollinating cones, all on the same branch.)

Which brings me back to my other tree book of the year, Colin Tudge's The Secret Life of Trees: How They Live and Why They Matter. I think you'd have to be quite alert to read this one in bed, though, because it's crammed with amazing and slightly mind-boggling facts (as is Tudge's other book, The Variety of Life, an unambitious little guide subtitled A Survey and a Celebration of All the Creatures that Have Ever Lived). Tudge comes out with some brilliant notions - though he's very keen on classification, so you need to be on the ball; but I never knew that spruce timber was what the term 'deal' refers to, or that 'spruce' itself refers to Prussia, where that tree grows beautifully.

All in all, there's much to be learnt. But a book can never substitute for the real thing - sniffing pine-perfumed air, seeing delicious sap dripping from cones and that feeling of brushing your hands across those elegant needles. Don't miss it.

Weekend conifer walks take place at Kew until the end of January, availability is on a first-come, first-served basis. Tel: 020 8332 5604 or email tours@ rbgkew.org.uk for details. 'Meetings with Remarkable Trees' is published by Cassell, at £9.99. 'Secret Life of Trees' is published by Penguin, at £8.99

Q&A Emma answers your horticultural queries

Can I do anything with the bulbs I had in the kitchen over Christmas that have now started to die off? Do I have to throw them away?

B Miles

Mmm. You see, I dislike waste, so I hate it when people advise throwing indoor bulbs away once they're finished. The argument for doing this is that the bulbs have been exhausted by forcing and won't flower again for a year or so. However, I've planted them out in the front garden before and been rewarded (after a recovery year) by extraordinary scents on still winter's mornings, especially from hyacinths. Amaryllis, in particular, shouldn't be discarded, as if you feed them monthly during the summer and then give them a rest period in autumn (you have to completely let the bulb dry out) they should, hopefully, do well again next year.

While taking a slightly morose walk through the local graveyard, I found some acanthus

seeds in pods. Can I grow these?

R Hayes

As Val Bourne, author of the lovely book The Winter Garden, has pointed out, acanthus leaves were the inspiration of classical stonemasons, for all that frothy foliage on columns. In the Mediterranean, you have to watch out for the seeds popping out and hitting you on a hot day... They are definitely worth trying from seed, and I would just put them on top of some compost, one pot for each seed, then put a bit of soil on top and a layer of grit. Leave them for three weeks and I think you should see some sprouting. But watch out for slugs. Always watch out for slugs.

If you do one thing... sprout

New Year's resolutions are already being broken, but if yours was to 'eat more healthily', don't wait for vegetable sowing to begin outdoors. Buy yourself a BioSnacky sprouter pack (£4.99) and grow your own indoors. I'm not sure about the organic status if you water with tap water, but the sprouts are delicious.

www.bioforceshop.co.uk/products/biosnacky

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