Trees in winter
There are few things that symbolize the seasons more effectively than a tree. With fresh, new leaves that unfurl in spring, dappled shade created by leafy summer branches, and the flaming reds and golds of autumn foliage, trees are often the first things we notice as the seasons change.
In winter, too, trees are beautiful – and it's during the colder months, when branches are bare, that we can appreciate their majestic form and structure. Leafless branches mean it's also easier to spot the birds that shelter there or search for food.
Trees are havens for wildlife, and can even bring good luck! In winter look out for bark textures, birds in bare branches, and catkins
Bark becomes more noticeable at this time of year – and paying attention to the different textures and colours of bark during a woodland walk is a great way to banish the winter blues.
Birch trees are especially beautiful – with their smooth, pale bark they can appear to shimmer. Beech trees have a smooth bark too, usually a grey or greenish colour. In contrast a mature oak tree will have rough and cracked bark – sometimes with wide fissures that create homes for tiny creatures.
Mature deciduous trees can be veritable palaces for wildlife, supporting hundreds of different species, including birds, mammals, and insects.
Branches and bark offer homes for invertebrates or larger animals and birds. As trees grow bigger, cavities may appear in trunks and larger boughs – providing homes for owls or bats. And dead and decaying branches can be an excellent habitat for stag beetles and click beetles, as well as supporting fungi, lichens and mosses.
Trees provide food for many creatures too. Moth caterpillars eat the leaves of rowan trees, and blackbirds and fieldfares feast on the berries. Other bird-friendly berry-producing trees include holly and hawthorn.
Acorns are enjoyed by jays and squirrels – and squirrels also love to collect hazelnuts, burying them in autumn to provide a food supply through the winter months.
Hazel leaves are an excellent source of food for many moth caterpillars, and ground-nesting birds such as yellowhammer and willow warbler will shelter in coppiced hazel trees. And in early spring, hazels provide pollen on long yellow catkins – an early source of nectar for bees emerging from hibernation.
Many of our native trees are associated with folklore and superstitions. Hazel has long been considered a magical tree – during medieval times it was seen as a symbol of fertility. Hazel rods are supposed to guard against evil spirits, and are also used in water-divining.
Rowan trees are said to ward off evil too – so planting one in your garden could protect you and bring you good luck, as well as provide food in the form of blossom and berries for all sorts of creatures.
Also known as the mountain ash, rowans are a particularly useful tree for cold, exposed gardens.
Hawthorn was once closely associated with witchcraft, magic and fairies. It was believed to be bad luck to bring it into the house – and it was often left uncut in hedgerows, to avoid angering the tree's supernatural guardians.
The old saying 'Ne'er cast a clout till May be out' refers to May blossom from the hawthorn tree, and not the month of May. This proverb has some sense to it – hawthorn is one of the first blossoms to appear, and usually means the weather is warming up a little.
Oak trees have been revered for centuries, symbolizing power and ancient wisdom – perhaps because of the fact that oak trees can live for hundreds of years. The 'knock on wood' or 'touch wood' superstition is believed by some to date back to the age of pagan woodland gods when oak, ash and rowan were sacred trees – in those days people believed that if they knocked on the tree trunks, they would get help from the woodland spirits.
During medieval times it was said that driving nails into the bark of an oak tree could cure toothache. The Christmas Yule Log, was traditionally cut from oak, and acorns were carried by as charms to bring luck and good health.
Little Green Space January 2019