Solemn, stately and statuesque, they have towered over our countryside for some million years, offering breathtaking beauty, shelter, shade, fuel, food and the most versatile building material known to man. They are living documents of our very existence, which bring reassurance and hope through their indefatigable ability to outlive us. Often seen in streets and parkland, this galleon of a tree is a true joy to sit beneath in July, when its sweetly scented flowers attract gently buzzing bees.
Set apart by its generous trunk, sturdy, crooked branches and expansive crown, the female flowers bloom on upright stalks, with the male equivalent appearing as hanging catkins. Acorns develop, usually in pairs, next to alternate and distinctively scalloped stalkless leaves that have ear-like lobes at the base. London plane — Platanus x hispanica Brought here from Spain in the 17th century and planted for its ability to thrive in urban conditions thanks to its bark, which sheds in large flakes, preventing the tree from becoming suffocated under sulphurous grime , the London plane is a hybrid of the Oriental plane and the American plane.
Its large, bright-green serrated leaves are up to 6in or more across, set alternately on the stem and not in opposite pairs. Ball-shaped male and female flowers flourish on the same tree, albeit on different stems. Once pollinated by the wind, the female flowers develop into bristly fruits. Common beech — Fagus sylvatica The mature beech—which can reach ft and develop a massive, many-branched dome—is a sight to behold, especially when it comes into bright-green leaf in May.
The dense canopy means only shade- tolerant plants can survive. However, this is made up for by the way splendid stands of these trees set the countryside ablaze in autumn, when their leaves turn orange, then rich red-brown. Both male tassel-like catkins and female flowers grow in pairs, encased by a cup on the same tree, which, once pollinated by the wind, houses beech mast. Scots pine — Pinus sylvestris Scotland was once covered by ancient Caledonian pine forest, but, now, only about 50, acres of these Tolkein-esque trees remain in the Highlands.
Evergreen needles, which are shorter than those of other pines and have a blue tinge, are slightly twisted and grow in pairs on side shoots. Yellow male flowers appear at the base of these shoots and globular, blood-red tipped female blooms grow at shoot tips. Once pollinated by the wind, female flowers turn green and develop into cones. Crack willow — Salix fragilis Difficult to distinguish from the white willow, the crack willow—which likes to grow on lowland wet soils, particularly by water and in woods—is so called because of the sound its branches and twigs make as they snap and fall to the ground.
English elm — Ulmus minor var. Often spotted in hedgerows, it can be identified by the five, rounded lobes of its olive leaves—which fade to ochre in autumn—svelte twigs and light-brown, flaky bark. After pollination by insects, they become large, winged fruits, which are scattered by the wind.
Common hazel — Corylus avellana Long believed to possess magical powers, the hazel is often coppiced, but can reach 40ft and live for up to 80 years. Long, pale-yellow catkins appear and shed their pollen in February, before toothed and hairy leaves unfurl. Holly — Ilex aquifolium Glossily evergreen, this much- loved conical-shaped tree, with its prickly, darkest-emerald leaves and bright-red berries which only adorn female trees , has been used as a winter decoration since pre-Christian times.
The thickness and waxy surface of its leaves help them to resist water loss and last up to four years on the tree, which explains how sprigs and wreathes can survive the festive season. Seen as a fertility symbol and a charm against witches and goblins, cutting down a holly tree—which only has spiky leaves at the bottom to desist browsing animals—was considered unlucky.
Hornbeam — Carpinus betulus Often confused with common beech, but the buds on winter twigs of hornbeam lie flat, rather than sticking out at a wide angle as with beech. A fluted trunk also distinguishes the tree, along with hanging clusters of triangular, ribbed nutlets ringed by long, three-lobed bracts. Male dangling catkins and female leafy buds form on the same tree and, after pollination by the breeze, female catkins become green-winged fruits known as samaras.
Horse chestnut — Aesculus hippocastanum Introduced to Britain from Turkey in the s, the horse chestnut is more common in parks, gardens, along roads and on village greens than in woodland. Although the fruits ripen in October, they remain throughout the winter as brown, woody cones, until the seeds are dispersed in spring. Common ash — Fraxinus excelsior The ash is one of our tallest trees, easily distinguished by fronds of 6—13 avocado-coloured toothed leaf- lets that sit opposite each other.
Look out for short, black buds in opposite pairs on smooth, grey twigs. The ash, on which spiked clusters of purple-tipped flowers usually appear on different trees, but, paradoxically, can develop male and female flowers on different branches of the same tree, is susceptible to ash dieback.
With dainty trunks cloaked in silvery-green bark, often pitted with diamond-shaped pores called lenticels, individual aspens produce exclusively male and female flowers catkins in March or April, before the leaves appear. Fertilised female catkins ripen during the summer, before releasing tiny, tufted seeds. Rowan — Sorbus aucuparia The rowan is a graceful, open tree with smooth, grey-brown bark and pinnate feather-like leaves comprising eight pairs of long, oval and toothed leaflets.
By September, these have become the lipstick-red berries that make a great jelly to go with game. When mature, it forms a broad and spreading crown and tends to be taller, with a more elongated, straighter trunk, than an English oak. Male and female flowers are found on the same tree, with male flowers forming green catkins and females appearing as discreet clusters of bracts modified leaves , which resemble red flower buds. Its delicate leaves, with a straight base and large teeth, alternate along slim, whip-like, red-brown twigs and the branches usually droop downwards, hence the Latin name pendula, which means hanging.
In winter, when viewed en masse from a distance, the naked branches of this feminine and graceful tree radiate a soft, purple hue. Sweet chestnut — Castanea sativa Widespread in coppices and park- lands, but rare in the North and West, the sweet chestnut has grown in Britain since Roman times.
As cool British summers prevent nuts ripening, most chestnuts eaten in the UK are imported. Large, narrow trees with long and slim leaves, saw-like teeth and parallel veins and lots of low branches, sweet chestnuts punctuate parks or former parkland.
Unusually, its catkins bear mostly male flowers and others have both male and female—female flowers form at the base and tassel-like male flowers at the tip of the catkin, which in autumn, develops into a spiky husk containing up to three nuts. Sycamore — Acer pseudoplatanus Introduced from France in the Middle Ages, the sycamore is a common sight in woodlands and gardens. Greenish-yellow flowers appear, along with the leaves, in May and June.
Yew — Taxus baccata Long associated with churchyards, the yew can reach years of age, with some British specimens pre-dating the 10th century. A symbol of immortality, but also a harbinger of doom, the yew has small, ramrod- straight needles with pointed tips that grow in two rows on either side of each twig.
Male and female flowers—which grow on separate trees—appear in March and April. If you liked our simple guide to identifying British trees you might also like: