De Beauvoir Tree Walk with Paul Wood

Paul Wood is the maestro of London street trees and the author of a number of books including London Street Trees, London Tree Walks and The Urban Forest ( I knew from hearing him speak on other occasions that he views Hackney as having a particularly fine collection of street trees: but had not quite anticipated how fine and diverse- all in the small area that we were able to see on a wet dark blustery October evening before dusk stopped play.

Hackney has many mature trees but the Council has embarked on an ambitious programme of replanting with varieties thought to be particularly suitable for climate change and the development of London’s micro climate. Also, as is now apparent, many trees are susceptible to insect predation and disease.

Our well-attended group (including two very well behaved dogs) met at St Peters. First we visited the corner where De Beauvoir Road meets Northchurch Road. We looked at a young fruiting peach tree (Prunus Persica). Club members need to know that since the walk it has sustained some damage to a small branch and more major damage to the main trunk. The one remaining fruit had disappeared so this may have been in aid of a little light scrumping if that is an appropriate term for peaches.

We then travelled southwards down de Beauvoir Road. We saw several beautiful ash trees – unaffected so far by dieback – including a very beautiful manna ash.

We made our way to Downham Road, taking such exotics as Perrotia persica ‘Vanessa’ (Persian ironwood) which was only just beginning to colour on our visit but is now on the cusp of its glory), Freemans maple, a cross between silver and red maples and famous for autumn colour and Halesia (snowdrop tree).

We turned right into Downham Road where there is a stately plane of some age. Paul told us that it is now thought that there are a number of local varieties – Hackneys’s are to be seen in the magnificent Victoria Park.

Also to be seen were a Gleditsia (locust) with golden pinnate foliage and spiky branches, a saw toothed Zelkova, a small leaved lime (Tilia Cordata), and a silver variegated maple. 

Returning to De Beauvoir Road and continuing south we admired a huge Ailanthus Tree of Heaven. This species was frequently planted in the past but found to be extraordinarily invasive. The plot housing this fast growing tree is full of suckers and seedlings. Still it is very lovely and will need to be protected when the adjoining archive building is demolished and the site redeveloped. There are several liquidambars, and a hackberry with a striking trunk.

Turning eastwards into De Beauvoir Crescent are a selection of cut-leaved alders Alnus imperialis and Betula Lacianata, tooth leaved birches, an unusual species with characteristic gleaming silver bark, not as white as the Himalayan birch but equally lovely.

Turning northwards into Hertford Road we found a choice selection of conifers, evergreen and deciduous including Larix (Larch) interspersed with Gingko biloba (maidenhair tree), passing a red barked birch on the way. Paul explained that this is not a random selection the trees have been chosen as likely to cope with climate change and periods of water shortages, and are interspersed so as to make losses less noticeable if they occur. Also interspersing species reduces the risk of disease transmission. Ginkgos are an ancient species dating from before the age of the dinosaurs classed as conifers though they have leaves rather than needles. They are now commonly planted but there are some problems. They are dioiceous (two sexed) and the pollen of the males can be a respiratory irritant and the fruits of the females smell rank.

Two very unusual species are sited diagonally opposite each other at the junction of Downham and Hertford roads, On the southwest side is a metasequoia (Dawn Redwood). Paul told us that it has grown fast and although the received wisdom is that it will not achieve the height expected in the wild in fact that its progress suggests that it will grow large. On the north east side is a Sorbus Torminalis (Chequer tree). The fruits were known as chequers and used to be used to clarify beer in the brewing process- thus the common name pub name Chequers. It grows wild in in UK – there is a colony on Hampstead Heath as it increases by seeds and suckering.

On the corner is also a young fig, very pretty although its leaves are afflicted by some leaf mining activity.

In de Beauvoir square we not only admired the stately plane and lime trees, and a golden Robinia, but paid particular attention  to the foxglove tree (Paulownia) which occupies the centre of the garden. This was rarely grown in England in the past – I remember seeing it first in Paris in the rarely 80s with its blue blossom against a grey sky but is now more frequently seen. Young seed grown plants can be stooled and the leaves are then enormous. There is a a selection against a south facing wall in the square which are probably cultivated for ornamentation.

We then returned to the crypt for wine and nibbles and a question and answer session.  

by Judith Parker