Thursday, 9 June 2016

My Summer of Trees

I am calling this summer My Summer of Trees

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
Then, one terrible day I walked by and they were cutting it down, because it partly blocked the sign of a storage warehouse. I grieved for that birch and still think of it every time I pass the corner where it used to stand. Sometimes I want to cry, a think I have not done for some people I have lost. So yes, I always recognise silver birches. 

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. 


I've got my Tree Identifier app and my guide book. I have The Ancient Tree Hunt challenge and Kew Gardens. 


Sweet Chestnut planted in the early 1700s
Today at Kew I saw one of the oldest trees in the park, a Sweet Chestnut. Apparently the Romans introduced this species to Britain. 

Tomorrow I'm going to find Barney, the giant plane tree in Barnes.
Helen Forte's "Minimus" in a yew tree (taxus)
I've even got a small Latin-speaking mouse named Minimus to help me identify trees on a Pinterest board!

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. 

Caroline Lawrence is working on The Archers of Isca, partly set in a Gloucestershire glade. @CarolineLawrenc

5 comments:

Susan Price said...

If you can, visit Much Markle. In the churchyard there is a yew tree so big, there's a bench inside its hollow trunk. It's older than the church.

Caroline Lawrence said...

Thanks, Susan! It's on my to-do list!

Setyawan said...

I enjoy, result in I found exactly what I used to be looking for. You’ve ended my 4 day long hunt! God Bless you man. Have a nice day. Bye
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bvs said...

Wow Susan Price, I can hardly imagine. Caroline Lawrence could you Pls post a photo when you do go and see this marvellous specimen

Leslie Wilson said...

I loved this post!