Tuesday, 27 March 2012

Trees in the Landscape

Now, in the south-east of England at the end of March, when our many native and naturalized deciduous trees are not in leaf, it is still possible to see far and wide across the fields and hills.

We all love trees in glorious leaf but the Hockney exhibition reminded me of the structural contribution that trees devoid of leaves make to the landscape. It is now in their unclothed form that we can see their bones - their silhouette - clear against the sky. And the overlapping canopies of tree belts, like medieval or Art Nouveau tracery, can be quite beautiful.

Tree identification is usually taught when trees are in leaf but, in fact, when trees are bare it is sometimes easier to appreciate their habit and identify them: how their branches divide, their twigs grow and the position of their buds or seeds is clearer.

Trees bare of leaf should of course be an important consideration when designing a landscape but so seldom are. Quite clearly, leaves are very important factor when choosing a species of tree. The colour of the leaf, the habit of its growth, the leaf size and shape and its texture will all form part of the decision.

Trees in our gardens and surroundings form boundaries and screens, views, enclosure and shade and there are species to suit them all. Their form or shape, habit and scale all contribute to the suitability of the choice. But it is, after all, for half the year that deciduous trees are bare and therefore this should be as important an aspect of the design as when they are in leaf.

There is only one book I have that celebrates bare trees in winter and that is a wonderful American publication, Trees in a Winter Landscape, and it is inspirational. Most books I have major on trees in leaf: some of them are beautifully photographed, others aspirational, most give good solid advice but, when you think of it, a tree in leaf is only half the story.

It is in winter that the wonderful peeling silver bark of the birch really makes an impact, that the rich red textured bark of the cherry adds such interest. The dramatic flowers of the magnolia stand out against its bare branches in our gardens, palest pink almond blossom - so delicate that it would be overwhelmed by leaves - covers the bare branches of the trees along our suburban streets. In the rural lanes, on bare hazel limbs, catkins already hang like lamb's tails while soft furry yellow and grey catkins glow on pussy willow branches.

With April just around the corner, the leaves have begun to unfurl and, given a few more sunny days, they will soon be out in all their cheering bright freshness. But please spare a thought for the bare old bones of the trees and remember to love them in winter too.