As a writer of historical fiction, I want to be specific and precise about the world my characters inhabit. At the moment I am working on a book set in Iron Age Britain, fifty years after the Romans arrived. As this book will partly take place in woods and forests, I need to know my trees.
I love trees, but I'm not particularly good at identifying them.
I can spot the exotic or exceptional ones – like palms, yuccas, weeping willows and the bright red-blossomed bottle-brush plant that used to grow in the garden of my childhood house in Bakersfield, California.
When my family moved from Bakersfield to the Stanford campus I first encountered great groves of eucalyptus trees. Originally from the Australia, these were imported to suck up moisture from swampy ground. They are beautiful and distinctive, with their silver-green blade like leaves and their peeling bark scrolling away to show the smooth white flesh underneath.
I learned to recognise magnolia trees with their fragrant waxy flowers.
From the window of my parents' car I could easily spot oak trees, especially the evergreen California oaks that often stand sentinel on a golden hill.
Laburnum, with its clusters of bright yellow flowers, I met when I first went up to Cambridge and stayed in Whitstead, the graduate house belonging to Newnham College, where Sylvia Plath once lived.
And I will never forget the first time I came across wisteria. It was during my first trip to Athens, one May. I walked under an arbour in the National Gardens. It was like bathing in perfume.
I can point to plane trees, those great urban survivors planted along the banks of the Seine, Tiber and Thames. Their giraffe-neck trunk splotches and spiky spherical seed-cases give them away.
Silver birch I know, too: gentle and graceful trees with white trunks and trembling, heart-shaped leaves. There used to be one on the corner of busy York Road and Mendip Road in Wandsworth, not far from where I now live. It was a reminder of nature in an urban landscape. Sometimes I used to reach out my hand and touch it as I passed to give it a kind of affirmation. It was like a friend and it always cheered me up.
|A sliver birch blocked this building's sign|
But I have trouble identifying some of Britain’s oldest and most common species: lime, hazel, beech, field maple and sycamore.
So now that I’m writing books set in Roman Britain, I have decided to learn the names of the trees that would have been here in the late first century.
|Sweet Chestnut planted in the early 1700s|
Tomorrow I'm going to find Barney, the giant plane tree in Barnes.
|Helen Forte's "Minimus" in a yew tree (taxus)|
By the end of the summer I hope to be able to identify the native species in London's parks and garden squares, and at the very least the trees right outside my front door.