Thursday, 11 August 2011

Champion Trees of Britain and Ireland

Back in May I attended the launch of Owen Johnson's book Champion Trees of Britain and Ireland, held on a rather grey evening at Kew. Owen is probably the champion tree-measureer in the country, travelling prodigiously by public transport to reach target trees, and has a remarkable knowledge of trees.  This is a review of the book I wrote for The Plantsman, a shortened version of which will appear in the September 2011 issue.

Champion Trees of Britain & Ireland, The Tree Register Handbook,
by Owen Johnson, 368 pp, 2011, Kew Publishing, £22, ISBN 9781842464526

In its previous incarnation, published by Whittet Books in 2001, Owen Johnson’s Champion Trees was essentially a library reference work, tall and slim. The current version, however, is, if not quite pocket-sized, at least handy for keeping in the car and is a much more useful book than its predecessor.

The Champion Quercus castaneifolia, planted at the Royal Botanic Garden, Kew, in about 1846. It is 31 m tall, with a diameter at breast height of 245 cm.
Once again, Owen Johnson has produced a remarkable compilation of facts and figures about the champion trees of these islands, a champion being defined as the tallest, the thickest, or occasionally oldest, most spreading or exceptionally beautiful example of its kind. Each entry contains a brief note about the species (not a description) and the appropriate record-holding individuals. It’s not a list to read through, but to browse in, and although quite terse, many contain some very useful points about the taxon or individual tree concerned. It is sad to note among them, occasionally, the shameful comment ‘this estate does not welcome tree-recorders.’ In general, I suspect, the book will stimulate some healthy rivalry between owners and counties, and lead to a lot more interest being shown in our uniquely rich range of large trees.

Thuja plicata 'Semperaurescens' - one of several champions at Colesbourne Park, measured by Owen Johnson at 23 m tall;, 100 cm dbh in 2004. A beautiful tree in all seasons.

The records section also sets out to be a complete list of trees in cultivation in the British Isles, which is very helpful, though this is an ever-shifting position. There is also a list of all native trees, including, perhaps controversially, Sycamore Acer pseudoplatanus. There is an index of synonyms, of common names, and to location, making the guide easy to navigate. Navigation is also implied in the valuable gazetteer of sites with good trees, which takes a circuitously non-alphabetical course through counties around Ireland before heading through Scotland and anticlockwise through England to Wales – an interesting approach but irritating when trying to find a particular location in a hurry. It’s also very unfortunate that no key is provided to the symbols used, although a crown clearly indicates a champion and a blue leaf a noteworthy specimen.

The ex-Champion Quercus candicans,
 which reached 9.5 m before being
killed by last winter's cold.
Any survivor could be the current Champion...
 Two points are important. Firstly, most champions are destined to hold that status for a comparatively short time: it’s rather like being the oldest inhabitant. Death or discovery of a larger specimen causes their supercession, and several mentioned here are already dead. The champion Quercus candicans, in Devon, was killed in last winter, for example, and the fastest-growing specimen recorded, a Eucalyptus nitens at Harcourt Arboretum, Oxford, met the same fate after achieving 20 m in six years during the balmy period 2002-2008. Living or dead, this book records important baseline data. Secondly, a large number of taxa are described as ‘rare’ or ‘in a few collections’ so it is to be hoped that this will spur appropriate replacement plantings and conservation efforts.

This is a useful, well-illustrated book that all tree enthusiasts need, and I congratulate the author and the Tree Register on its production.

1 comment:

  1. john in coastal NS13 August 2011 at 14:08

    Hat's off to Owen. What incredible determination!



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