There are only about 7000 native Black Poplars (Poplus nigra betulifolia) left in Britain, most of them south of The Wash (the bay where Norfolk meets Lincolnshire on the east coast of England). And only 600 of these are female. These females produce a cottony fluff when the seeds are ejected to be carried by the wind. As this can be a nuisance, local authorities and forestries have planted male trees. The result is that the native population has declined, rarely reproducing through seed and mostly by suckering and sending up new trunks if a tree falls over. Added to this, the draining of wetlands for development has meant that any fertile seed is unlikely to fall on the silty damp soil it needs to grow into a tree. The last blow to the native wild Black Poplar is that it easily hybridises with non-native species, like the Lombardy Poplar or the Cottonwood of North America.
On Thursday evening this week I led a small group to find the Black Poplars along a stretch of the River Lea beside Hackney Marshes – a large, flat grass space that is laid out for football pitches, used for training. There are as many as 20 mature Black Poplars here, some along Homerton Road as street trees, the others on the river bank in a beautiful, natural setting. Walking by the river, with swans and cygnets, anglers and limpid fresh water, it is hard to remember that you are less than ten minutes’ walk from the hipster bars of Hackney Wick and what used to be (before the 2012 Olympics) an industrial area of North London. The only “downer” on our walk was when we approached a line of Traveller caravans in order to get to the footpath by the river and co-leader Andrew was bitten on the leg by a nasty little dog.
In May this year the Conservation Foundation launched a new project called Morus Londinium that I helped to put together. From now until the end of next year I will be writing regular blogs for their website. The idea is to document and preserve London’s mulberry tree heritage and to research the stories behind some of the older ones, which are sometimes survivors of a past that has disappeared under urban development.
My latest post is on the mulberries of Cadogan Place Gardens, on the edge of Chelsea.
The Morus Londinium project on London’s mulberry tree heritage and its heritage mulberries is now up and running. We are carrying out the most comprehensive survey of London’s mulberry trees, with an interactive online map for anyone to add trees they know of, or learn about trees all over London. I am editor and researcher for the project.
I will be leading a photography walk as part of London Tree Week on 29 May, to see the extraordinary Hardy Ash in St Pancras Old Church yard. 150 years ago, the novelist and poet Thomas Hardy was working as an architect’s technician, supervising the removal of gravestones to allow the London and Midlands Railway to come into the new St Pancras station. The gravestones were stacked up around the trunk of the then young tree, and have since become part of its structure.
The walk is being organised by the Museum of Walking (started by Andrew Stuck), with support from the Mayor of London.
It’s odd that the blossoming of a tree that is native to the Himalayan mountains should herald Spring in suburban London, but that is what the magnolia does. And this one on the slope on the south side of Kenwood House is particularly splendid. It is now in full flower, on 16 March. In 2009 it was at the same state of blossom on 24 March and last year, 2012, it did not bloom until after 2 April, according to the newsletter of the Friends of Kenwood.
The tree was probably planted in 1925, or shortly after, when the house was bought by Edward Cecil Guinness, First Earl of Iveagh. Arthur Oxford was appointed first head gardener that year. When Guinness died in 1927, he bequeathed the house to the nation.
In March 2009, shortly after the birth of my second son, I went up to the south terrace of Kenwood almost every day to photograph the tree in full bloom. For several days I went home without a picture because the flowers weren’t completely out yet.
In 1945 the famous bird photographer, Eric Hosking, had taken a photograph of the magnolia at almost exactly the same time of year, for R.S.R. Fitter’s endlessly interesting book, London: A Natural History, published in 1947. What’s interesting in Hosking’s photograph is the oak tree to the left of the magnolia, with a bench around it, on which sit visitors to the grounds. The tree is no longer there.
Hosking, who famously had an eye pecked out by an owl as he climbed into a hide to retrieve his camera, was the anonymous photographer of the swan that was used for the drawing n the Swan Vestas matchbox.