Plant-Lore

Collecting the folklore and uses of plants

REVIEW: Britain’s Tree Story

Julian Hight, Britain’s Tree Story: The History & Legends of Britain’s ancient Trees, National Trust Books, 2011.
This well-produced volume is essentially a compilation of over 120 trees or groups of trees, some of which are no longer standing, which feature in history and legend. Inevitably almost 50% of these trees are oaks (Quercus robur) and approximately 15% are yews (Taxus baccata). Other species include apple, ash, beech, elm, hawthorn, lime, London plane, Scots pine, sweet chestnut, walnut and wild cherry.
The strength of the book is its illustrations, nearly all of the entries have a recent photograph taken by the author, and an older photograph, often derived from early twentieth-century postcards, or an engraving. Most of the entries are given a double-spread, with a few being restricted to a single page. This means that trees which have lengthy histories, such as the Holy Thorn (Crataegus monogyna‘Biflora’), records of which date back to early in the sixteenth century or possibly earlier, have rather condensed accounts. However, the account of the Thorn is admirably up to date and records not only the attempted destruction of the tree on Wearyall Hill late in 2010, but also that new shoots emerged from its trunk in 2011.
It’s probable that the ages of some of the oak trees mentioned is exaggerated, and certainly the claim made by Ray Hawes in his foreword that oaks take a millenium or two ‘to develop’ is incorrect. It’s extremely unlikely that any British oak tree is over 1,000 years old. The author seems to accept much of which has been written about Druids venerating trees and worshipping in sacred groves. In fact very little is known about this ancient group, leading to a great deal of unscholarly speculation about who they were and what they did [1].
However, this is a book which will be frequently re-opened, especially when an unknown part of the country is being visited and one wants to know what historic trees can be found there.

1. For a sane account of Druids see Ronald Hutton, Blood & Mistletoe – The History of the Druids in Britain, 2009.

Image: the Major Oak, Sherwood Forest, Nottinghamshire, said to be associated with Robin Hood; Immanuel Giel, August 2010, Wiki Commons.

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