Trees possess all the virtues that we regard as good in life. Longevity, security, roots, openness and stability, says Peter Dowdall.

An elm tree was planted in Boston Common in 1646 and over 100 years later, a crowd gathered under its branches to protest against the British imposed Stamp Act, which was seen as a form of censorship. 

It was the first act of defiance in a groundswell which would in time, lead to the start of the American Revolution and eventually, full independence in 1776.

The elm became a rallying point and a symbol of the growing movement of resistance in that part of the world against British rule. 

The tree, as a symbol of liberty, was ridiculed by the British and was felled in 1775. It became known thereafter as the Liberty Tree.

However, it was not an elm, rather an oak, Quercus robur, the common oak which much later went on to become the National Tree of America. 

Trees possess all the virtues that we regard as good in life. They symbolise longevity, security, roots, openness and stability, they last for hundreds, sometimes even thousands of years.

There’s a yew tree in the grounds of Blarney Castle gardens that’s over 800 years old.

Trees stand tall, arms outstretched, welcoming all, supporting local biodiversity, offering refuge to birds, insects and other wildlife. 

They are open to the elements, and nature being the absolute wonder that she is, trees are designed so perfectly and aerodynamically that they can withstand all but the harshest of extreme weather.

Similar to humans, trees will die, either through old age, disease, pest attack or a severe storm, that’s not tragic, that’s nature. However, what they are totally vulnerable to is us. And the chainsaw. 

They have no means to protect themselves. Says a lot about people who will simply butcher a living thing which represents all the values which we hold as noble and good.

Mature elm tree
Mature elm tree

For me, the oak more than any other tree, symbolises strength and resilience. It’s what I visualise when I think of a tree. Majestic in all its forms.

Oaks will regularly live for hundreds of years, not something that we have managed to achieve yet. They offer more in terms of resilience than any building, adapting to change, able to withstand earthquakes and other natural disasters.

Ask a child to draw a tree and you can be nearly certain that the shape of tree will be like the canopy of an oak. 

A large tree, it’s not suited to most domestic garden situations as it can grow to 50m in height with a similar spread but as a parkland tree, or if your garden is big enough, then there are few if any, finer choices.

One species to keep an eye out for is Quercus coccinea which provides the most vibrant of red autumn foliage you are ever likely to see.

‘Fastigiata’ is a variety of Quercus robur which was found growing wild in Germany in the 18th century. It makes a perfect urban or street tree as it has a very upright or columnar habit.

It will still get up to 20m in height which again, is too big for most smaller gardens but it has a very tidy form and in a mature specimen has a girth of only 3m.

There are several evergreen varieties of oak, Quercus ilex also known as holm oak or holly oak is possibly the best known in this part of the world, as its quite widely grown and seen quite often in larger old gardens. It does well by the coast, where it is often grown as a hedge.

Quercus rysophylla or loquat oak is another altogether more different form and due to its larger leaves, it’s not quite as dark in colour as the Quercus ilex.

Quercus suber or cork oak will also achieve heights upwards of 20m and the common name comes not from any association with the great county, rather from the bark of the tree which, the Romans discovered, could float.

The Romans used it as a buoyancy material for boats and maritime pursuits and I’m not sure who it was, probably the French, who put it to its most valuable use, as corkage for wine bottles.

America needs the virtues that the oak represents at the moment. It needs, strength, it needs nobility and grace, it needs open arms and to be welcoming to all, for that is how any ecosystem works, it becomes a little universe in itself.

All the different elements working together and helping each other for the benefit of the tree and thus, themselves.

I’m not sure what happens next for America, but I do know that if they look to their national tree, then inspiration can come.


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