How and why I learnt the names of my street trees during lockdown

My first ever blog post was all about trees. In early 2016 I wrote a list of tree-themed aspirations for the year ahead, including planting a tree, climbing a tree, getting better at identifying trees and learning the names of the trees on my street. It has taken me four years to tick off that last one, but finally, during National Tree Week 2020, I can proudly claim to know the species, and in some cases the cultivar, of all 40-odd trees on my street. Hurrah!

cherry tree in autumn
Cherry (Prunus ‘Snow Goose’)

Street trees are remarkable unsung heroes of our urban landscape. They help fight climate change, filter out air pollution, provide a wildlife habitat, tackle the urban heat island effect, prevent flash flooding, mask traffic noise, calm traffic and make our streets so much pleasanter to walk down. Having a tree outside your front door can even increase the value of your house!

London has 8.4 million trees – nearly one for every Londoner – and many of these trees are in our gardens and on our streets and not just in the city’s big parks. It’s due to all these trees that London can, according to UN classification, be considered a forest. It’s also because of these trees, as well as its many other natural assets, that London has been recognised as the world’s first National Park City.

Erman's birch street tree
Erman’s birch (Betula Ermanii)

I am involved with a community group and Tree Charter branch called Tottenham Trees. We were wondering how to celebrate trees during National Tree Week (28th November to 6th December) after the second coronavirus lockdown had caused us to cancel all our events. Then I thought that perhaps we could do something in people’s windows. Over the spring and summer months, the amazing people on my street and a few neighbouring ones hosted a couple of ‘art walks’ for which local artists and children displayed their art in their front windows for passers-by to stop and admire.

Cockspur Thorn (Crataegus x lavallei)
hybrid cockspur thorn (Crataegus x lavallei)

Given the popularity of these ‘art walks’, I thought perhaps people might be persuaded to draw a picture of a tree and put it up in their window for National Tree Week (NTW). It would be a nice way to show that we are still ‘treely connected’ (the theme of this year’s NTW) while abiding by lockdown and social distancing rules. I mentioned the idea to Robert, the neighbour who coordinates our community WhatsApp group, and he suggested that we encourage people to name their tree and a make a sign for it too. And so my investigations began…

cherry blossom street tree
Cherry (Prunus serrulata ‘Kanzan‘)

I’m pretty good at spotting our most common native and naturalised trees: oak, ash, lime, beech, hornbeam, silver birch, horse chestnut, London plane and so on. Up close, I can usually tell a sessile oak from a pedunculate (English) oak. But it has always been clear to me that most of the trees on my road are not any of these familiar species. So I took to Twitter and shared photos of each different tree, together with its bark, leaves and fruit – and if I had one – its flowers.

Japanese privet tree (Ligustrum japonicum)

The response was uplifting. Some incredibly knowledgeable tree people happily came forward to tell me what they thought each species was – in some cases tagging another expert for verification. Some people joined the thread just to remark on the beauty of a particular tree. A miss-matched leaf and tree photo combo caused some head-scratching initially, but the mystery was soon resolved – with one expert kindly commenting that “tree ID is hard at this time of year because the trees share their leaves”. I want to say a huge thank you to these experts, especially Paul Wood, author of many books about trees in London.

rowan tree on street with red autumnal leaves
Japanese rowan (Sorbus commixta)

Through these online tree ID adventures I also heard about an exciting new initiative called Tree Talk that is mapping all of London’s trees using data from local councils. The project hasn’t got to my borough of Haringey yet, but in other parts of London it is possible to look up the species of different street trees. The map has the huge potential to help inform tree planting and urban planning decisions as well as engage communities with their trees.

I was right that most of the species on my road are non-native. I’ve always known that my nearest tree was a rowan. But I now know that it is probably a cultivar of Japanese rowan (Sorbus commixta) due to the incredible blazing scarlet of its autumnal attire. I was surprised to learn that the biggish, twisty trees with lots of bristly, epicormic growth and pinnate leaves are a type of maple native to North America – box elder or ash-leaf maple (Acer negundo).

pollarded London plane trees
London Planes (Platanus x hispanica)

The elegant little evergreen is a Japanese privet tree (Ligustrum japonicum) and the tree with leaves like nettle leaves is an appropriately named nettle tree (Celtis occidentalis). I suspected the birch trees, with their creamy-white peeling bark were not silver birches and I was right – they are a species known as Erman’s birch (Betula Ermanii) and are the first birches to lose their leaves in autumn. We have several ornamental cherries on our street. The ones with outstretched branches and feathery white blossoms are a cultivar called Umineko or Snow Goose – and they do indeed have an wintry, avian quality to them.

Cherry tree in blossom on street
Cherry (Prunus ‘Snow Goose)

(There is a whole debate about whether learning the name of a tree, or indeed any natural thing, brings you closer to knowing it or further away, but I feel that this experience has definitely helped me to know and appreciate my street trees better.)

Now, why is it, and is it a good thing, that most of my road’s trees, especially the ones that have been planted in recent years, are non-native? I had a little light shed on this issue when I attended a virtual session on how to protect urban trees hosted by The Woodland Trust on 28th November, which was not only the first day of National Tree Week but also Tree Charter Day.

box elder tree in winter on street
Box elder (Acer negundo)

A dusty London street is a very different environment to a temperate woodland. Non-native species may prove more resilient against pests and diseases and drought conditions brought on by climate change. That said, native trees are better for biodiversity. The berries of the hybrid cockspur thorn trees (Crataegus X lavallei) on my street are certainly not as popular with the birds as the ones on the native hawthorn if the big jammy puddles underneath them are anything to go by.

There is a big size variation amongst our street trees – from lofty, pollarded London planes to dainty little ornamental pear trees. The larger a tree’s canopy, the greater its benefits to people and wildlife. But obviously on a narrow, residential street, there’s not a lot of space for large trees. It’s become a cliché, but it does seem to be all about ‘the right tree in the right place’.

hawthorn tree in winter on street
Hawthorn (Crataegus monogyna ‘Stricta’)

My neighbours are very fond of their trees – large and small, native and non-native alike. Our street owes its leafiness in part to a scheme set up by our local residents’ association and Haringey’s tree officer, in which some residents part-funded the cost of their trees, and in some cases, requested its species. The hawthorn outside my neighbour Robert’s house was especially planted in memory of his mother.

cherry blossom tree
Cherry (PrunusAmanogawa’)

Caring for trees for the first five years after planting is essential as young trees die quickly from neglect. Over the years, ‘tree guardians’ have been appointed to water our recently planted trees over the summer months. Some people have also planted flowers around the base of their trees. I asked Russell Miller from the Hackney Tree Musketeers if this were a good idea, and he suggested waiting for three years after planting to ensure that the flowers and tree are not competing for nutrients.

Since I’m talking about street trees I should mention the importance of protecting mature, veteran and ancient ones. Tottenham Trees is sticking up for a 150-year-old London plane tree in our neighbouring borough of Hackney whose days have been numbered by a housing development. Hackney Council has granted planning permission to Berkeley Homes for plans that include felling the Happy Man tree, despite the fact that it was voted England Tree of the Year 2020 in the Woodland Trust’s annual competition. If you think the Happy Man Tree is worth saving then please show your support by signing the petition.

Back to my street. A few people have put tree pictures up in their windows, three trees have colourful signage and two are even sporting bunting. I would have liked a bigger response if I’m honest, but I suppose we are living through a pandemic and Christmas is just around the corner. Ah well, I will just have to think of it as a trial run for the Urban Tree Festival in May.

Until then, stay #TreelyConnected.

5 thoughts on “How and why I learnt the names of my street trees during lockdown

  1. Dear Charlotte, another wonderful tree post from you! You are a star! 🤩 I love it that you have so many different trees in your street, amazing, and of course, some might grow better than others, and in that there is a lesson. And just look at those windows! I love the birds on the wire! Wonderful! 🤗😘

    Liked by 2 people

  2. charlotte rixon

    Thank you for your kind words Ashley. My National Tree Week has been very enjoyable but quite exhausting! Hoping to take a break over Christmas, but with two small children this is probably wishful thinking!

    Liked by 1 person

  3. ruth

    Wonderful photos of your Street Trees, Charlotte! I too have always wanted to know the names of local trees. Two years ago our council planted a lot of new young trees in the verges and helpfully attached little labels – I was probably the only person stopping to read them! But we have nothing like the amazing variety you have. Luckily most of the new trees survived the dreadful periods of drought and heatwave – probably due to good choices of species and careful planting rather than thoughtful local residents with watering cans! I agree with everything you say about the benefits of trees in towns and cities.

    Liked by 1 person

  4. Pingback: My urban spring wildflower awakening – Little Wild Tales

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