I have always been fascinated by trees and even as a young child was keen to find out the names of trees and learned to recognise them at all times of the year. They continue to give me a great deal of pleasure and as our horizons have been reduced by the Covid-19 lockdowns they have become increasingly important in adding interest to my daily walks.
Lately, I have been ‘tree gazing’. I choose a tree and spend time looking at it in detail. First, I stand at a distance if possible and take in its overall shape. Then I get underneath or beside the tree to examine it closely. Even in the depths of winter, there can be beauty to see. The tree featured in the photos is a large silver birch that I found on Hampstead Heath. It had been raining and the first thing that drew me to it, were the beautiful droplets of water on the twigs, that looked like tiny jewels. Small catkins were starting to appear. A mature silver birch such as this has extraordinary bark markings, usually featuring diamond shaped scars. These bark scars are deeply fissured and are often coloured with lichens that grow on the bark.
Staying under the tree for a while, you may be able to see some of its visitors. On this day, several blue and Great tits visited, picking at seeds in the catkins and insects in the bark. Long-tailed tits, my absolute favourite bird, are also regular visitors to birch and alder trees particularly in winter.
Islington is blessed with many parks, albeit mainly small ones, that offer plenty of trees to observe, and of course there is Hampstead Heath, But the borough is also extraordinarily rich in street trees. Our urban forest is second to none. Next time you are outside, why not spend some time observing one or two trees in detail. Take your phone or camera with you, or a notebook and pencil to record what you see. Try to record the overall shape of the tree: tall and slender or rounded; evergreen or leafless, the shape and colour of the buds, and any flowers or ‘catkins’. These details will help you to identify it, if you don’t know what the tree is (we have lots of unusual and rare trees in Islington). There are several good guides available online. The Woodland Trust has a wonderful A-Z Guide to British Trees on its website, and there is an App that you can download to your phone. The aptly named Paul Wood has written a superb book about the Urban Forest: London’s Street Trees (Safe Haven Books Ltd, 2017), which includes several maps of walks, one of which is around Archway featuring 13 different ‘special’ trees.
Trees add tremendous value to our landscape, through their beauty, through offering shade in summer which helps cool the city, and through capturing carbon and helping to clean our air. Take some time out to really appreciate them. I am sure you won’t regret it.
Community Development Officer