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Do you know your trees, or do you fake it, like me?

PUBLISHED: 18:32 22 January 2019

The King Oak tree at Fairhaven Gardens, South Walsham.
Picture: Nick Butcher

The King Oak tree at Fairhaven Gardens, South Walsham. Picture: Nick Butcher

Archant © 2018

"Daddy," asks your child, during a stroll. "What's that tree called?" "Ah," you fib shamelessly, "that's rowan." (Or magnolia. Or London plane. Or another tree picked at random.)

A mature silver birch tree. The slender branches can get longer with age and give the tree a ‘weeping’ effect. Dog Max belongs to Simon! Picture: SIMON WILLSA mature silver birch tree. The slender branches can get longer with age and give the tree a ‘weeping’ effect. Dog Max belongs to Simon! Picture: SIMON WILLS

You can say it with confidence because said child is only four years old and knows less than you. By the time they’ve got to about nine, they’ve sussed your ignorance and limitations. And you, once The Wizard of Oz, have become weedy conman Oscar Diggs.

Confession time: that’s been me. Which is why a book called A History of Trees is something of a joy. It’s not an I-Spy Book of Trees, but it does have pictures of 28 – so I can now identify them, albeit about 20 years too late! – and stories and little-known facts about each one.

Such as:

* In 1911, the top of a wooden spear was found at Clacton-on-Sea. It is made of yew, is over 400,000 years old, and is the oldest-known worked wooden implement in the world

* Some hawthorns have survived hundreds of years. In the Norfolk village of Hethel is a tree known as the Old Thorn, possibly planted in the 13th Century.

“It may be the oldest hawthorn in England, but if not it is certainly one of the oldest,” writes history journalist and genealogist Simon Wills, whose book this is. “Its importance is such that it has become its own small nature reserve at around 0.025 hectares.

“In 1755, its girth was measured at just over 9 feet but although still living, its bulk has considerably decreased with age since then.”

Other snippets from Simon (who also advises the BBC TV programme Who Do You Think You Are?) include information about how trees got their names and details about why Europe’s most popular pear is called the “conference”.

Plus: Where is Britain’s largest conker tree? And how cider-drinking in the West Country could, many years ago, prove fatal.

(In the 18th Century, the cause of “Devonshire colic” – stomach cramps, stupor, death – was eventually discovered. The apple juice used to make cider was so acidic that over time it dissolved the metal of the equipment used by many small producers. Drinkers died of lead poisoning…)

“Trees impress us because of their size, majesty, beauty and endurance,” says Simon. “Many of them live to a greater age than we do, so it is possible to sit next to an elderly oak tree and ponder that it was standing throughout the reign of Queen Anne and when Nelson won at Trafalgar.”

A History of Trees is published by Pen & Sword Books at £25

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