If a tree falls in a forest……

A few weeks ago, I was minding my own business (hanging out the washing, since you ask), when a sequence of loud cracks made me turn around in time to see half of the large beech tree on the other side of the burn slowly collapse into ruin like a demolished factory chimney.P1010880

There was not a breath of wind. The weight of its summer foliage alone had become too much for it. A tiny number of extra cells built into a leaf or a developing fruit had tipped the scales and set off the chain of destruction.

Ancient beech trees have a habit of doing this. This is because the beech is an expert in spreading its canopy as widely as it can, and, given freedom to do so, will  push out branches at almost ninety degrees to the main trunk. As these develop into heavy limbs, they become massive cantilevers, depending on the huge strength in tension that wood has to stop them splitting under the weight. You can see this engineering in what remains on the right hand side.P1010885

Beech is a short-grained wood, so it has little of the springiness of spruce or willow, depending instead on the packed bundles of its cells to reinforce itself against gravity. But where water collects in the junctions of its limbs, and eventually penetrates the bark, it is fatally at risk.P1010882

The grey wood here has been penetrated by water over the years, and the bundles of cells have swollen, rotted in places, or have split apart. Each strand that can no longer support the tension places an added burden on the rest. Eventually, it all becomes too much…P1010886

A fallen tree disturbs. It is somehow wrong to find the vertical made horizontal; to be able to explore the canopy as if one were a bird. A fallen tree is a stranded fish – out of its element – all the wonderful fractals of its twigs, branches, and limbs lying with their balance destroyed and no longer a purpose to any of them.P1010888

In geological time, the life of a beech tree barely registers. But I am reminded of the mountain, split by frost, reduced by rain, crumbling slowly to mud.P1010887

But the mountain cannot reproduce. The beech tree can.

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Spring cleaning the birch tree

How much greener life would be, were it not for Herr Kärcher, supplier of power washers to the universe! Moss would infest every concrete slab, grass seedlings would flourish in cracks, and algae would turn my beautiful silver Himalayan birch – betula jacquemontii – entirely green.P1010462 It is time for the annual ceremony of cleaning the tree.

It’s a still, cold day, perfect for the hydraulic blasting away of all the algae and strips of loose bark to reveal the shining trunk beneath. At first, the colour is a milky tan, but exposure to the light will turn it glistening silver within weeks.P1010466

As usual, though, nothing is perfect. Something has been digging into the bark in a perfectly spaced series of little holes, to which the tree reacts by forming a black scab, thus upsetting the flawless silver, and upsetting me too.P1010463

I used to think the claws of grey squirrels were responsible (I’ll blame everything I can on those pests). But now I wonder if it isn’t a woodpecker doing a little investigation in the hope of a meal? If so, I trust it will go elsewhere.  Anyway, the job is done, and the birch is clean for another year. As I wind up the hose and stow the washer, it starts to snow. I emerged from hibernation too early – that is clear.P1010464

The noble fir cone

The cones of the Noble fir (Abies Procera) grow up from its branches like squat fireworks waiting to be lit. In October, they turn from the shade of purple blue found in the shadow of sea-clifffs to a mix of teak and lemon like an overripe pineapple. In a week or two, they will disintegrate, letting the wind take the seeds where it will. I cut one cone down before it was too late.

The defences are built against small predators. They must negotiate those spiral spiked railings, then penetrate between the woody layers of bracht scales to reach the seeds nestled close to the central pillar.

The grey squirrel doesn’t care about such trivialities: she will rip her way into the heart of the cone if she’s hungry. November is a battleground between the squirrel’s autumnal appetite and the speed of the cone’s ripening. This year the squirrels are sated and the cones are spared.

The bracht scales form a perfect spiral staircase, working to Fibonnaci’s famous sequence. Each feather-light pair of seeds lies snug on its bracht, protected by that curling grey lip. As packaging goes, it outdoes bubble-wrap.

Change the scale, and you have slabs of lichen-speckled granite up which the climber labours, girt with rope, drenched by the downpouring of water. One touch, and the slabs float free. A finger will do. The table on which the cone rests is bespeckled with drifted scales.

Soon the whole intricate spiral will fall apart as the wind breaks its last bonds, setting the winged seeds free. But these ones, I shall plant.

As for Andrea……

In the depth of January, the only sensible place to spend time is in the tropical glasshouse of the Edinburgh Botanic Gardens. A pleasing 30 degree heat and high humidity is quite enough to make you forget what is happening outside. So, this was supposed to be a post full of pictures of lush equatorial vegetation in contrast to the bare trees and soggy grass in the real world.

But the event officially known as Windstorm Andrea put paid to this. Most of the Botanics were roped off and loud with the growl of chainsaws. 25 trees were blown over or damaged, the glasshouses had lost 400 panes and were firmly shut. So the outside is all that there was to be seen:The staff all seemed suprisingly upbeat. Perhaps a nice bit of windblow is a good opportunity to replace some of the missing trees with more interesting ones. I was not upbeat. It was cold, and I had really been looking forward to the warmth of the tropics.

Back home, the garden mostly survived, apart from a larch that I planted as a seedling when I was six. It had been going back for a year or two, and Andrea finished it off:Looking at the roots, it was clear that rot had fatally weakened the whole tree. I’ll blame the rain and the clay as usual:I’ll miss this tree. It was only just younger than I am, but has rotted rather faster. On a cheery note, that’s most of next year’s firewood fixed. Larch will dry enough to burn well inside a year. So I went out in the gloom with the Beast and lit a good bonfire to console myself:I need to find some catapult elastic in a hurry. I’ve been feeding the enemy, and a catapult is a useful device for keeping it away:The elastic snapped when I went after the first squirrel of the season, and since then they have been raiding the bird food with impunity. I might have to do something creative with the power washer…

The Countess and the birch tree

It is wet, and cold, and windy, and it starts getting dark at 3.30pm, so there is not much going on in the garden. Besides, my mind has been on crime.

But today I was cleaning the garage doors when I remembered the countess who went to visit her slightly-less aristocratic friend and produced the ultimate in garden put-downs. Looking out of her friend’s window, she remarked: “I see you don’t bother to wash your birch trees, Betty.”

My betula jacquemonte grows a lot of algae on its bark, and it somewhat spoils the pure white of its trunk (note the slug trails where they have been browsing the algae)So, not wishing to  suffer scorn from any visiting countesses, I heaved over the power-washer from where I had been using it.Since it was raining, a little more water made no difference to my morale. But the effect was most pleasing:I didn’t use a ladder (and don’t much fancy using one either) so I now have a tree that is nicely clean to about eight feet, but still green and mossy above that:Since the bark of b.jacquemonte peels very easily, and the loose bits were blasted off by the water, I now have grass covered in litter. At least it’s biodegradeable.

Being Scottish, and therefore mean,  I don’t start feeding the wild birds until about now, as it’s a waste of good money while there is still plenty of stuff they can eat in the garden.  Also, since my wild birds refuse point blank to eat wheat, barley, or niger seeds (not even the goldfinches),  I am forced to buy ultra-expensive bird food, complete with mealworms and other unheard-of delicacies. If I give them the cheap stuff, they just throw it around, and I then have a crop of wheat growing in my herbaceous border the following summer.
I was pleased to receive a visit from a great spotted woodpecker today. As the winter deepens, I hope I’ll have more.

November Cross-section, including Holly

Antiquity may excuse many things, but not bad verse. How grown-up people can stand and sing the old carol about the holly and the ivy in all seriousness, I don’t know: “The Holly and the Ivy, when they are both full-grown…Of all the trees that are in the wood, the holly bears the crown.”

What has ‘full-grown’ got to do with it? And when did ivy qualify as a tree? And why do we have running deer suddenly appearing later on? Beats me…
But when you have a tree laden with holly berries, the effect is goodHolly has been seeding itself all over of late. It never used to. But there are small seedlings all over my patch of woodland and they will grow fast. Quite apart from the prickles, holly is dangerous stuff to have around, as any trailing tip will root, and there will be a horrible thicket before you know where you are. It does burn with a satisfactory crackle, though.

It’s still too mild for comfort. I need frost to stop the primulas rotting, but we are not getting it.  The winter-flowering primulas are early. Here is p.moupinensis – which should not really be out before Christmas:Primula sonchifolia has lost all the cabbage-like leaves of summer and has reverted to its large egg-shaped resting buds. It really needs to be covered by snow. In January or February it will push out half-hidden heads of pale blue flowers:I’ve never had a lot of time for seed heads as decorative objects, but I make an exception for the various types of cow-parsley. The structure is such a brilliant way of getting every last flower into the sun.Now the azalea leaves are gone, the clumps of lichen which have grown on their branches become visible. Lichen is supposed to be a sign of pollution-free air. I’m pleased if that is so.