For some people, trees are the element that populate ‘nature’ – the countryside or the local park— they are just there, pretty but unconsidered beyond that.
For others, trees are essential to the garden; to make a bold statement, to provide shade, to block an unwanted view or to attract songbirds— in other words ‘functional’ –— chosen to enhance the space by delivering a benefit.
That’s the great thing about trees — they deliver many benefits and I’d like to look a three in particular which can be planted this weekend.
An edible choice
It will soon be Halloween and bobbing for apples is a seasonal childhood memory but so too are toffee apples and oven baked apples with a sprinkle of cinnamon and sugar or stewed apples with custard. Drooling already?
For my sins I have a few varieties of apple (Malus domestica) at home, mainly trained in to step-overs and cordons to allow more space for other plants but I do have a larger, unnamed late-fruiting variety that came with the house and it’s down at the very end of my garden and peeking over the top of my boundary wall.
What shocks me every year is how delicious it is and how none of the local children ever raid it.
I should be grateful you might say, but it’s dismaying that perhaps not one of them recognises the edibility of the tree – I am not that scary (I think) and they are not that courteous.
I know I learned as much of an appreciation of garden aesthetics hopping the hedges of back gardens in Dublin whilst robbing apples with my friends, as I did in all my time studying amenity horticulture and garden design. Maybe they need an app for it today.
So fear not to plant one, you won’t have to stand guard. What I love most about apples is their variety, so many shapes, colors and tastes (more than 7,000 varieties), but also their stretch of harvest across the seasons. We can plant to have three apple harvests: early, mid and late.
Early-season apple varieties are picked, depending on the year we have had, from early to mid-summer until late summer.
The harvest for mid-season apples commences in late summer and generally peaks in early autumn.
The late-season harvest starts in early autumn and may peak in late autumn or extend into early winter.
So if you had an apple today it might just have been picked a few days ago. And if it is keeping the doctor away then that’s due in no small part to it being saturated fat-free, with no cholesterol and no sodium, but with plenty of beneficial dietary fiber and lots of bioavailable Vitamin C.
Apple slices for lunch, apple in a smoothie or a baked apple for a treat — it is such a comforting, filling food. And it tastes from sweet and luscious to tart and tangy. The easiest of all the fruits to fulfil that five a day.
October is the best month to plant any new fruit trees and apples are in local garden centres waiting for you right now.
There are even patio apples — so miniature you can grow them on a balcony. If you are going for a garden variety then check the rootstock size before you purchase.
As a rough guide — M27 generally won’t grow above about 1.8m (5-6ft); M26 is not smaller but larger, and it will get to around 3m (10ft) while M9 grows to about 2.4m (8ft).
You can easily find the right size for your space and garden centers and suppliers will direct you well. You can of course investigate the possibilities of some heritage varieties by visiting Irish Seed Savers Association, in Co Clare. (irishseedsavers.com).
A medical source
Herbs as a source of medicine, people get, but trees are not often thought of in this context.
Yet there is such precedence; herbalists still forage elderberry trees for their immune-stimulating berries and big-business supplement companies actually farm hawthorn trees.
Even in conventional medicine, trees are often essential medicine; for example quinine to treat malaria comes from cinchona tree bark and today taxol harvested from yew trees is utilised in cancer treatments.
My medicinal tree of the moment is one that nearly broke my knuckles as a school boy, almost broke my back pruning them later when I was an apprentice groundskeeper, and which today I use to soothe tired legs after a mountain climb or long standing days at events like the ploughing or Bloom.
Have you guessed it — yes it’s the conker tree or Cnó Capaill — the horse chestnut tree (Aesculus hippocastanus).
Okay, averaging up to 25m (80ft) tall, its not necessarily one for the front garden, but this large tree with large leaves that consist of 5-7 leaflets splayed like a spanned hand, enhances our parks and public spaces.
Packed panicles of whiteish fragrant flowers with yellow/red blotches are followed by green defenced fruits that ripen with 1-3 seeds (the conkers) for October.
The name may owe its existence to a traditional Turkish remedy for bronchial horses, still harvested for use around the world.
Horsechestnut also has a history as a fodder crop In human usage they are not edible, but medicinal tinctures are prepared and taken internally and externally for varicous veins, bruising, sprains and strains.
Externally applied, horse chestnut extract or the mashed up meal of the nut is good to treat veins, cramp and tired legs.
The phytoconstituents (notably the anti- inflammatory and vasoprotective escin) in the plant are absorbed through the skin and help to stimulate blood circulation and strengthen delicate blood vessels.
If you want to ty it for yourself simply gather some nuts this week, remove each nut from its spiny green case, crack the shell and remove the meal. Place all the meal in a blender and cover completely with vodka. Blitz to a paste — add more vodka if the consistency is too thick.
Some herbalist like to let this extract sit for some weeks before syphoning of the liquid but I find the blend holds well in a fridge or dark cupboard and grows in potency — especially for topical applications. Shake well and rub into legs as needed.
The environmental factor
We know that trees absorb carbon dioxide and provide oxygen, that trees are the lungs of the world. So planting a tree is good for your local air quality but trees can also help with air pollution.
Not just absorbing Co2 but absorbing emissions from car fumes and local industries.
Trees capture dust and particulates from the atmosphere – preventing them entering our lungs.
A research paper published on environmental pollution back in 2014, found that a 10-by-10 kilometre space with 25 percent tree cover in London had the capacity to remove more than 90 tons of particulate matter annually.
The impact of which to local inhabitants was considered to be the avoidance of two deaths, and at least two less hospital admissions per annum.
Streets lined with trees are 50-60% lower in particular matter than those without.
So while any tree in your front garden will soak up pollution on your road, my favourite is our native silver birch (Betula pendula).
It’s a shallow rooter so wont expose the drains around your house in a few years’ time, it is airy so it won’t shade out your home or garden, and it can be purchased in exquisite multi- stemmed varieties that can be top pruned to maintain a great shape.
Best of all, its foliage is covered in ridges and upon closer inspection tiny hairs too – all of which efficiently trap the maximum of pollution particles.
Rainfall disperses the pollutants not absorbed to the ground where it is washed into the soil and tackled by the roots, leaving the leaves cleaned and reset to trap the next batch.
It’s also interesting to remember that Birch trees symbolise rebirth and rejuvenation and in Irish folklore birch is considered protective against evil spirits and the evil eye — who knew just how protective?
© Irish Examiner Ltd. All rights reserved