August 2022. In Praise of Trees.


AUGUST 2022.

In Praise of Trees.

Groves whose rich trees wept odorous gums and balm,

Others whose fruit burnished with golden rind

Hung amiable, Hesperian fables true,

If true, here only.

(Milton: Paradise Lost)


I’m afraid I cannot wax so lyrical as Milton, but I share his, and many other poets, affection for these often-giant plants that appeared on earth some 400 million years, or so, ago. Having been born by the sea, on the bare and wild Cornish coast to be exact, that might seem odd, but my early years were spent growing up in the New Forest in Hampshire, so they provide an affectionate background to my earliest memories. There is also the small matter that all trees – as well as vegetation on land and sea – through photosynthesis, a process by which plants feed themselves, kindly produce a left over for us called oxygen. No small matter indeed! Trees have also, since time immemorial, kept us warm by providing wood for fires, and a means to cook our food. My blog for November 2020 demonstrated the classical Italian approach to this matter. They were certainly not a gift to be sniffed at. Which brings us to the matter in hand. Something on Trees.

This year has been a very destructive one. Wildfires have raged on both sides of the Atlantic, and also across Europe, destroying wide swathes of valuable timber. The Green lobby will throw up their hands in despair and blame the rest of us. But it is not something new. At eleven years old I remember the fires raging through the Gorse bushes and round our cottage on the Moor at Brockenhurst, leaving behind swathes of blackened stumps. No doubt valuable timber was lost elsewhere on the perimeter. As most trees take a considerable time to grow – hundreds of years for some of them – their loss is, or can be, little short of a tragedy.

It seems unlikely that such a thing as ‘instantaneous combustion’ is the only possible culprit.

That therefore, leaves us!  Probably you are aware of the multifarious clutter of glass fragments, or whole bottles, that litter the countryside, much of it tossed aimlessly from passing cars. Acting as magnifying glasses they are nearly as good as a match! Anyone, here in Italy, who has seen a lofty Cypress tree pointing sharply to heaven aside the road, the flames leaping over its dense svelte branches, smoke billowing skyward ignited by some oblivious cretin who has tossed their spent cigarette from their car window onto the dry grass at its feet, will know what a rage of anger means! My wife, on the other hand, has scathing words for those local councils and indolent owners who are oblivious to the considerable damage caused by Ivy, despite it being part of the oxygen cycle. There are some idiots who consider it very attractive, and it is true that in its early stages of growth the damage to the tree is sustainable, but eventually it reaches a point where the ivy blocks out the light weakening and smothering the branches, besides encouraging pests and diseases. Ivy is parasitic and absolutely no friend to the tree!

On a milder note, this affection for trees runs deep in the English soul. I seem to remember a brother of an Earl of Pembroke built a magnificent avenue of elm trees in the early nineteenth century on what is now the main road from the A36 to the A360, leading to Stonehenge. Running up to it from Wilton was an avenue of oak and beech trees. Obviously, the creator would never have lived to see it as you can today, in all its glory, but one knows he must have had a picture in his “mind’s eye” of this monumental piece of landscaping. Not so perhaps the Bronze Age person who may have sheltered beneath the 2500-year-old Yew tree in Perthshire, demonstrating the trees utility as well as its grandeur. It seems some trees have a penchant for living a long time, though it is only since the seventeenth century that their importance was recognised and social planting began to take place on a larger scale.

In Italy, at least in Tuscany, olive trees have been planted since time immemorial and the very old trees also have names, some with a ghostly connotation. The ’Oliva della Strega’, found at Grossetto is purported to be the oldest, being around for over 3000 years, and apparently gets its name from the ghostly contortion of the trunk and branches in the evening representing variously a witch, a large cat or a woman with long hair! This tree is considerably older than the ‘witch’ found at Gragnano near Luca being only a mere 600 years of age. But then she’s not an olive tree, but an oak, named the ‘Quercia delle Streghe!

To things more local, and our family experience with trees.  Naturally, having finally found our plot of land in Tuscany, it was in my other half’s mind to plant a tree or two, the first of which was an ‘English’ fig tree! This you might consider, was a little like ‘taking coals to Newcastle.’ But there is a story behind this event. The said fig tree was a much-travelled specimen, having arrived in Cornwall sometime in the eighteenth century from Sicily with a sea faring Captain looking forward to retirement. It apparently grew very well and in due course a cutting came into our possession and was planted in a beer barrel situated at the rear of our house where it took root and showed promise. At that time, we had itchy feet and moved to Bath along with said fig tree planted in the small patio of our new home where it grew rapidly up the wall. Alas, in fifteen years it refused to demonstrate any potential for growing fruit. At this point Tuscany beckoned and for some quite forgotten reason a cutting was carefully potted and came along in the back of the car. Why anyone would want to transport an unwilling fig to Italy is quite beyond reason in a country where they grow wild everywhere and have a reputation for destroying walls! No matter. Seemingly it had come home, growing strongly, but with a peculiarity all of its own.  It fruits twice! The first early in July – large juicy brown figs that attract a family of Blackbirds, besides my own good self. They are so enamoured of the fruit, that they built a nest in the nearby pergola! As that is covered in Uva Fragola - Strawberry Grapes, they were quickly persuaded to return to their original habitat somewhere in the nearby olive grove, though their presence remains, demonstrated by their chatter and half eaten fruit.  Then in late August a second crop appears, this time of very sweet small green- brown mottled figs proving that some people do ‘have their cake and eat it’.

The fig was rapidly followed by two ‘Corbezzoli ‘- strawberry trees, two almond trees, two olive trees and four Cypress trees. These last are traditionally planted on the corner of one’s land to mark the boundary as they have a penchant for growing to some height, though prosperous owners plant them in lines along their drives, and very handsome they look a decade later. The almond trees proved a difficult proposition, flowering abundantly in the early spring producing a good quantity of fruit – that is if the dreaded Tramontana wind doesn’t arrive at the same time to blow the flowers – and if later – the nuts themselves, in all directions. The ‘Corbezzoli’ trees grew well and fruited abundantly – edible yes, but not to my taste – and as they grow wild in this part of Tuscany among the dense macchia looked quite at home for over fifteen years before their mysterious and quiet demise. The Olive trees? In an area covered in olive groves one has high hopes, especially as those planted were not for oil but a variety suitable for eating. I counted about six large olives in possibly the third year, and absolutely none since. But they look the thing, and one lives in hope!

So, one can understand, trees are about as rational, and as variable as people. And it’s not just us. There is a magnificent Walnut tree next door that grows strongly, but produces very little edible fruit. The owner threatens to cut it down, but our protests have so far saved the behemoth. I doubt if one could convince him of the benefit of trees, so we must count our blessings! For now her gigantic presence remains intact!


As the aficionado says: HUG A TREE!