Branching out to observe greatness of trees

LAST week I gave a talk about trees at Salterbridge House near Cappoquin as part of the Waterford Garden Festival.

It was a very suitable venue because the garden at Salterbridge contains very rare trees, along with particularly fine specimens of commoner ones.

Driving up the tree-lined avenue to the house I was struck by the fine sessile oaks. These are one of the best native species when it comes to supporting wildlife and the avenue still has a population of red squirrels.

It’s an old garden and, although its history is not well documented, it’s obvious that some of the planting dates back a long time. The four magnificent Irish yews planted in a rectangle beside the house are an example of this.

The original Irish yew at Florencecourt in Co Fermanagh, which is the clone-mother of all the Irish yews in the world, was discovered by George Willis in 1740. It was only a small sapling when he planted it and yews are very slow growing so it was some time before it was big enough to be cloned. I’ve only ever seen one Irish yew bigger than these and that one has a known planting date of 1801. So I estimate the Salterbridge trees are about 200 years old.

There is also one of the largest cork oaks in Ireland in the garden. These evergreen oaks from the Mediterranean basin are amazing trees. The thick bark layer which provides the cork probably evolved as a defence against wild fires. It’s mostly harvested in Spain and Portugal today and it’s all done by hand. This is a skilful and slightly dangerous business. Men armed with specially designed small axes climb the tree and strip the bark off the trunk and larger limbs in huge slabs. Any other species of tree would die after such treatment. But the cork oak not only survives but replaces the lost cork rapidly enough for it to be harvested again in 10 years or less.

One of the most elegant trees there is a Cox’s juniper. This rarity from the Himalayas doesn’t look at all like the Irish native juniper. It’s a fairly tall, conical tree with drooping foliage which looks more like a cypress, though if you crush the leaves in your fingers there is a faint gin smell to indicate its true family.

Standing alone in a field is one of the most magnificent London planes I’ve ever seen. Parkland specimens like this can develop a magnificent crown, quite unlike closely planted street trees. There are also some fine ash trees, most of them multi-trunked which makes me suspect they were coppiced at some stage in the past.

Another of the rarities is a winter’s bark tree. It belongs to a genus, drimys, that’s mostly known from fossils and grows in the southern Andes. If you look them up in a book the illustration is usually of a slim cone-shaped tree with upward pointing branches. But the specimen at Salterbridge, which was grown from the seed of a tree in the collection at Fota, has drooping lower branches which have layered and produced new trunks. It looks more like a small grove than an individual tree.

A tree that is just beginning to take off for gardens is the Korean fir. It’s a small fir that tends to have a very symmetrical Christmas tree shape and dark green needles. But the main draw is the large purple cones. The specimen I saw at Salterbridge is one of the biggest I’ve seen.


More in this section