Looking up Posted on July 18, 2021

Where do plants find the extra reserves to react to rain with such glee? And where do they store them? Within hours of a downpour that flooded the streets (and sub-basements across the road that suddenly seemed not such a good idea) there were foot-long extensions on trees. Lammas, the ancient ‘Loaf Mass’ is traditionally the first of August, but Lammas shoots can happen after any good late-summer shower.

They are most obvious on oak, being pale green, or often red. I have not been so aware of them on elms, but was happy to see extensions of a foot or more on the pioneering file of disease-resistant Lutèce elms in front of Kensington Palace – trees that admittedly get preferential treatment from the Royal Park staff, with Kew-style circles of mulch.

I know I’m notorious for looking up when most gardeners look down. It earned me my name of Treedescant. I can’t help wondering, all the same, about so many people’s indifference to trees. People who will coo over the details of a flower ignore the giant vegetable offering them shade. The explanation can be simple: it’s not mine; I didn’t plant it, it’s not my business. It’s true that large numbers of gardeners have room to plant one tree, or none at all. Surely that makes the free gift of every tree in the street, the park, the square all the more precious.

You can collect trees without owning them. It’s been a hobby of mine for decades. After a while you identify and register the vast majority almost subconsciously. I still focus on an oak, say, if it surprises me in some way: size, different-shaped leaves, unhealthy dieback in the crown. And any tree that doesn’t fit a recognisable category demands a second look, even a detour, to find out what it is.

By happy chance our street is a mini-arboretum. I’ve never discovered which enthusiast chose to plant twenty different things instead of the customary avenue of one species. Right to left are: the common street pear, ‘Chanticleer’, two tall double white native cherries, a Caucasian maple, the Japanese Prunus sargentii, Amelanchier ‘Ballerina’, a fastigiate hornbeam (way past its prime), a London plane… and so on for three blocks of intriguing variety. Each contributes something, season by season. How many of the street’s gardeners even know their names? (I haven’t asked).

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