Two ‘pencil’ cypresses of my acquaintance have just died, quite suddenly – and they were both strapping young trees; the bigger one a good 20 feet high. One was my sister’s, a 10-footer, rather shaded by a magnolia but looking fine in the spring. She reports ‘caterpillars’; I see no sign of damage. The other, three gardens away, has the equivalent of the Plague’s black boils, the fatal mark of a brown stain spreading up one side. It looks exactly like the phytophthera that carried off our Irish juniper alley, all forty of them, one by one, at Saling Hall.
Naturally I gave my own small cypress (another 10-footer) a close going-over. There were brown needles here and there, and a lot of the small inner branches were dry, but there is no sign of pest or disease, While I was up the ladder I snipped out all the brown material. A lot of brown needles (not an accurate description, but leaves is hardly the right word either) were snagged in the branch
forks and clinging to the trunk. Thoroughly snipped and brushed down the tree looks a trifle sparse, but I shall be able to spot any sign of trouble straight away. Whether there is anything I can do about it is another matter.
It’s not so easy with box hedges – or any box, come to that. We and all our neighbours are on high alert for the boxtree caterpillar which eats the leaves and can denude a bush in a few days. He is tiny, with a dark green and yellow body and a black head; the yellow part is what to look out for; he is a demon at concealment. We were only away for a week last August when he attacked; already he had spun tiny webs al over the hedge and eaten the leaves inside. Now it’s a daily inspection, with Pyrethrum (sold as Py) at the ready.
You hear of gardeners panicked by the mere threat, and rooting out their hedges (as Roy Strong did at The Laskett at the onset of box blight). It would be tempting if there were a box substitute; in reality the Ilex crenata, the little berberis and hebe that nurseries propose, let alone the santolina or lavender I see suggested, can only remind us of the timelessness of box. A box wipe-out would be an international catastrophe. I think of great formal parterres and shudder. But we can dwell too much on threats. If every stag-headed oak is a premonition and we start at a dead branch in an ash the risk is that we stop enjoying all the glorious growth around us. Be watchful; be forearmed.