Fiona Stafford, author of the charmingly illustrated The Long, Long Life of Trees, explores the many ways in which humans interact with trees, celebrating our long history with these inspiring and much-loved natural companions. Keep reading for some of Fiona’s favourite facts about trees!
Did you know …
1. Some yew trees in the UK may be four thousand years old. Since these trees have a unique capacity to regenerate, their age is difficult to assess. Some of the yews in country churchyards have been there longer than the church building.
2. Sycamore seeds flew into space in 1971 with Apollo 14 and after orbiting the moon, they returned to Earth to be planted. They grew into healthy ‘Moon Sycamores’, and are still flourishing in the United States.
3. In Scotland people used to plant a rowan tree by their homes, to keep witches away.
4. Shrubby willows, or osiers, are often planted when industrial sites are decommissioned because they soak up polluted water and absorb metals.
5. When Thomas Gray evoked the ‘rugged elms’ beside the graves in his famous ‘Elegy Written in a Country Churchyard’, he, and most of his readers, would have known that coffins were made from the wood of elm trees.
6. Henry VII adopted the hawthorn tree as his emblem because he was crowned on the battlefield at Bosworth, after defeating Richard III.
7. The frame of Morgan sports cars is built from the wood of ash trees, because it is so light and flexible.
8. The horse chestnut tree that Anne Frank used to watch from the secret hiding place, where she and her family sheltered from the Nazis, was alive until 2010, and when it was finally blown down in a gale, slips from the tree were saved and have been planted across the world in her memory.
9. In a game of chess the White pieces are often made from the wood of the holly tree, because it is so pale.
10. The growth of a mighty Oak tree is often dependent on the jay’s penchant for acorns. Jays will gobble up acorns and bury the excess in the ground, often returning later to recover their store and, in the process, helping the oak seedling up to the light.
11. Pine needles provide a record of air pollution, because the particles settle in the wax coating of the pine’s foliage.
12. John Constable’s favourite tree was the ash tree.
13. Lombardy poplars became symbols of Liberty and Equality after Jean-Jacques Rousseau was buried in an island tomb, surrounded by these tall, straight, matching trees.
14. Some cypress trees can grow three or four feet in a year, making them the fastest hedges in the UK.
15. Pesto is made from the nuts of the Stone Pine, which grows naturally around the Mediterranean.
16. During the First World War, willows provided the lightweight wood needed for the huge number of artificial limbs for amputees.
17. The olive tree was sacred to Athena, the goddess of wisdom – and no wonder, since the olive, with its remarkable oil, was an essential source of food, fuel, light and timber in the ancient world.
Fiona Stafford is professor of English language and literature, University of Oxford. She is author and presenter of two highly acclaimed series for BBC Radio 3 titled The Meaning of Trees.