Identifying trees was once part of countryman’s education

The story of the macrocarpa, aka Monterey cypress, is intriguing.

Identifying trees was once part of countryman’s education

On this lovely June morning I’ve been out identifying trees overhanging the stream on the edge of our garden. The beeches are obvious, and I’ve recognised an alder. Others, strangers to me, are, perhaps, mulberry and witch hazel. The jury is out; the tree books lie on top of my desk, slips of paper inserted to mark “possibles”.

An old estate lies on our boundaries, the house now in ruins, and the giant and the exotic trees around it are reaching maturity or have already fallen — dawn redwoods, live oaks, sequoias, and the two largest macrocarpas I’ve ever seen, one with a girth of 11m. My wife and I measured it again the other day. A macrocarpa in Co Down has a circumference of 12m, perhaps the Irish record, but it depends on where you measure the bole. If measured down toward the roots, our macrocarpa may well out-girth that specimen. If so, the record goes to West Cork.

Austin Clark, in his poem ‘The Planter’s Daughter’, wrote “The house of the planter is known by the trees...”, referring to the fashion amongst owners of estates and big houses in the mid 18th century to plant trees native to the Far East and the Americas. The peasantry, as we all were then, didn’t have the land, the means, or the leisure to do so. However, we are fortunate in that some of these estates still survive in their aesthetic glory, while others, in ruins, provide interest for the curious and jungles for wildlife, as is the case with our local ruin.

There may well be other specimen species as remarkable as the macrocarpa, but inaccessible in the thickets of briars, metre-tall nettles, giant hogweeds, montbretia, Japanese knotweed, and winter heliotrophe.

There certainly are old-fashioned apple and pear varieties still managing a few fruit, even as they are more and more suffocated by bindweed and eglantine in the walled orchards; they were harvestable when we first came here 25 years ago.

The story of the macrocarpa, aka Monterey cypress, is intriguing. All are descendants of a small number that survived the last ice age on a headland in California where the surrounding sea raised the temperature enough to hold back the ice.

Identifying trees may seem an eccentric occupation on a glorious June morning, wandering about with book, bins, and camera. I use the bins to search for fruits or buds in the foliage, for lenticels in the bark, and to estimate the length of the petioles that attach the leaves to the branches. There’s a new language to be learned by an amateur such as myself. It may be quickly forgotten, but I’ll be able to name the tree from its shape and characteristics, and I’ll know it again.

Macrocarpa Trunk
Macrocarpa Trunk

In past times, knowing the trees was part of the country person’s education. They grew up with the knowledge, learned by eye and ear from their elders. Apt learning meant they could readily find the most useful tree with which to weave a basket, or a pipe stem, or a fishing pole. They could identify trees that would give food or fruit for themselves or their livestock, and they would know in what month that tree would deliver its crop, ready for harvest. Tree knowledge was an invaluable asset. When I look through my books, I see that the knowledgeable country dweller could spend spring, summer and autumn long harvesting the produce of one tree after another, for there giving bounty in the wild.

Wordsworth described hedges as “...hedgerows, hardly hedgerows, little lines of sportive woods run wild...”, and such is the variety of bushes and shrubs in hedges that they are full of harvest — from common haws on whitethorns, sloes on blackthorns, to wild damsons, bullace and crab apples. And there are medicinal trees, to purge or cure toothache, to staunch wounds, or provide poultices. There are practical trees, to make glue, ink, paper, or pastimes.

To pass the time, a hedge can be dated by the number of species per 30 yards that grow in it, and many, even roadside hedges, are surprisingly old. They have seen coaches and highwaymen pass; armies or actual flying columns; pretty maidens, baskets on their arms, walking with their esquires to market. They have seen Travellers with their horse-drawn caravans and benders camp on the boreen edge beneath them. Some years ago I ‘aged’ a hedge near Dunmanway which, by Hopper’s Hypothesis, was 600 years old. Is it still alive? Is there hope for it?

This time around, can we have Government targets to reduce carbon emissions enacted as law, and progress made public on a quarterly basis.

Carbon tax? Yes, but Big Business should pay more, and breadline citizens nothing.

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