Trees in close-up
Trees in close-up
Many naturalists rather despise the sycamore: it’s not a native species and, compared with native oak or ash, provides a limited habitat.
However with its hardiness and thick canopy it shades and shelters many a Dales farm house and, as for subtlety -just contemplate a mature sycamore trunk lit by winter sunshine, its merging patterns of grey, green, brown and pink – beautiful!
As a child I became a connoisseur of bark, and all because I was a keen and cautious tree-climber.
Healthy bark is vital to a tree’s survival, providing insulation and protection for the inner ring of living tissue through which the traffic of water and nutrients is conducted. As each year’s growth ring is added the outer bark is stretched and cracked into patterns, each particular to its species. These gnarls and fissures provide the crevices for the climber’s fingers and bare toes.
The smooth beech is unhelpful, though if you do get among the branches you’re wonderfully cradled within those great silver limbs. Oak and willow are a better bet, but my favourite was a tall alder growing beside the beck.
Alders are traditionally regarded as sinister – probably because when wounded the wood oozes orangey-red, like blood – but I appreciated its rough bark, and the tufts of sappy twiglets sprouting from the trunk offering further purchase. A bit of a struggle up six foot of trunk, but once on the first branch, successive branches rose like an alternating ladder, a thrilling ascent right to the crown. My knowledge then was myopic and strictly practical. Now, I can appreciate our trees, their shape and structure, their place in the landscape.
Winter is the right time to hone our identification skills – recognising trees from their bark or from their characteristic shape and architecture. There’s even more to admire. If you walk upstream from the Cavendish Pavilion towards the Strid, you’ll see a magnificent beech, half its root system uncovered by the slope, a great web of burnished silver clutching whole boulders in its toils.
And we should appreciate our trees while we can. Who, 60 years ago, would have imagined a countryside without those tall and graceful giants, the elms.
Yet now, though they continue to regenerate in hedgerows, elms have only to reach a certain height to succumb to the fungal disease that well nigh wiped them out. Alas, our horse chestnut trees are now in danger – from a bacterial disease, bleeding canker, causing lesions on the trunk that spread and eventually prove fatal.
Hopefully, the cause is now known, so research can start to find a cure. The horse chestnut’s fat sticky buds are one of spring’s harbingers, their red or white candles probably our most well-known tree flower and their conkers one of childhood’s great delights. Let’s hope they can continue to flourish in towns and villages, fields and parks, giving pleasure to future generations.