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How many trees have to fall before local councils see their significance?


Emma Townshend
Sunday 10 November 2013 01:00

The year turns inward now. The darkening dusks, the long shadows and the endless leaf-clearing leave few appealing opportunities for gardeners engaging in outdoor work.

At my grandma's the other day we watched a man spend a good hour leaf-blowing a huge riverside lawn. "It looks much better now," I said, looking out the window admiringly. My grandma was less sure. "I do not know how he can be bothered," she observed drily. "It'll last about five minutes. Be covered again tomorrow."

I can't myself get too worked up about leaves. The November garden door stays closed for days at a time, and if I do go out, I need a purpose. And last week I got on a bit of a mission after the predictions of storm winds. At Eid, my neighbour Hajra had brought me a delicious circular loaf of Turkish bread covered in sesame seeds (plus a slightly less tasty blueberry breakfast bar) and asked me to cut back the branches of my elder tree, which were almost banging at her window.

It seemed, especially after I ate the bread, a reasonable exchange. So hearing on Facebook that high winds were on their way, I hauled out the ladder, found the saw, and climbed up to start chopping. The good thing about being up a ladder is that it's a legitimate excuse to peer into everyone's gardens. I could see the terraces and decking the neighbourhood had acquired over the summer; and the slow, disappointing removal of almost every garden tree that had stood when I first lived here.

People worry about trees. They worry whether they'll affect their foundations, their property prices, their hours of sunshine, or whether they'll bear poisonous berries or attract wasps or fall over and require expensive tree surgery. But neighbourhoods need trees. I got really irritated about a recent local planning application that described a spring crab-apple tree as "not significant". On this basis, the tree was cut down so the whole area where it stood could be used for an extra two flats of new-build council housing.

My email to the planning committee mainly protested about the way the tree, a purple-leaved, pink-flowering beauty called "Purple Prince", was described. "I understand that the tree isn't as important as the building of new homes," I conceded. "I understand that it needs to go. But to describe it as insignificant is just inaccurate." The tree had significance to the bees that would come to look for nectar on those cold spring days; it had significance to the birds who would eat the fruit in noisy flocks, late in the summer. It had significance to anyone who'd ever queued for a bus beneath it on a spring morning, feeling blossom flutter down on to their hair.

At Royal Botanic Gardens, Kew, a sad two days of assessment after the storms had passed revealed that 18 trees were felled. The email listed their Latin names, with the poignant epithet "beyond repair". Eighteen trees seems relatively little compared with the 1,000 trees lost in 1987, but each had a story of its own, like the grand Deodar cedar, originally from the Himalayas, growing by Victoria Gate, a picnickers' favourite. And other trees were badly affected; the Ginkgo which is one of the "Old Lions" – Kew's five remaining original trees, dating from 1762 – lost a "large scaffold", one of the big limbs, a serious blow to its future health and stability.

Eighteen trees at Kew, or one tree at the bus stop, have little meaning when compared with human tragedy. But stop to ponder a tree and the world slows down. Look up and get lost in the structure, the raw growth, the colour of the leaves. To me there's no better argument for a little autumnal tree-planting – even if it does mean having to own a leaf-blower.

Four more trees you should plant

Malus 'Royalty'

Not quite the "Purple Prince", but still a regal crab-apple with its glossy leaves. One in the eye for the planning committee! £40,

Cotinus coggygria 'Royal Purple'

Offers extraordinary colour effects this month, when the regular wine-dark leaves turn to scarlet. £12.99,

Ginkgo biloba

An elegant tree for the garden, whose beautiful, fan-shaped leaves turn bright-yellow in autumn for added delight. £59.99,

'Shropshire Damson'

This is the one I want for Christmas. Someone gave me a bag of damsons, I made jam, obsessive love ensued. £39.99,

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