I have always loved looking at trees. As a child my main interest was assessing their climb-ability, but as I grew up the admiration became more aesthetic. Like most of us in the UK I enjoy their seasonal change: the wonderful bonfire of colour in the Autumn, the tender greens of Spring foliage and, as I grew older, the stark architectural forms of winter-bare branches against winter skies. It’s in winter that we can really get to know trees, their characteristic shapes and the different textures of bark from the deeply fissured trunks of willow or oak – like elephant skin – to the silvery smoothness of mature beeches. However, it’s only relatively recently that I’ve come to delight in the subtler shades of spring trees before the leaves come.
There’s only a short time to enjoy it. Already the horse-chestnut tree beside the Health Centre in Ilkley, always the first, is well ahead. Sticky buds have swollen and the young leaves are thrusting out – not leaf-green at all but brownish amber. The woods across the valley are more cautious. Sap is clearly rising and the treetops are awash with the subtle colours of this half-way season. Alders growing in the damp flushes are suffused with amethyst, the colour of the tightly clenched catkins too; birch twigs are a deeper wine-red and the forest giants are just beginning to get tinges of light yellow or rich bronze. The most showy of this twig-fest are the sallows. I don’t mean the pussy willows: they’re certainly a gladdening sight with their bright yellow pollen-drenched flowers. No – it’s the long whippy branches of the willows growing round ponds and reservoirs that are even more striking – a vivid barley-sugar orange.
All this colour is a sign that the trees are awake and busy. They have to haul enough water and nutrients up from root to canopy to fuel the great leaf-burst. Apparently, if you were to press a kind of tree-stethoscope to a trunk you would hear the sounds of all this happening. Just one of the manifestations of the huge pulse of energy powering the new season.
Because of the hard and prolonged Winter we have just endured, Spring will happen very rapidly. Already the birds in my garden are speeding around carrying huge beaks full of nesting material; I’ve noticed several queen bumblebees emerged from hibernation and feeding upon the spring flowers and, I am reliably informed, hedgehogs are out and about.