The magic of
From the mighty oak to the magical hawthorn – native trees can improve our wellbeing, and provide vital habitats for all sorts of wildlife
Walk through any woodland or park at this time of year and you're sure to notice the variety of trees and their golden, brown and russet autumn leaves.
Spending time in nature is good for us – and being amongst trees may be particularly beneficial.
In Japan – where the practice of Shinrin-yoku, or forest bathing, has been popular for decades – researchers have found that spending time in the forest lowers levels of cortisone, a stress hormone that's linked with high blood pressure.
Being amongst trees can also help to improve mood and increase energy levels. And some studies have even suggested that forest bathing could boost immunity and help prevent cancer. Trees release aromatic compounds called phytoncides – airborne chemicals with antibacterial and antifungal properties that the tree releases to protect itself from rotting and disease.
But phytoncides can benefit people too – when these compounds are inhaled, . Phytoncides can also enhance mood, reduce inflammation and improve sleep.
If reading this makes you want to head straight for your nearest park or woodland, keep an eye out for some of our most remarkable native trees. These are immensely important for wildlife – providing habitat, shelter and food to countless creatures.
And many native trees have special significance for humans too, featuring in folklore and legends that have been around for centuries.
With its impressive size, shapely leaves and shiny acorns, the oak tree is one of the UK's best-loved trees.
Oaks can live for hundreds of years, and during this long life they support more than 2,000 species of bird, insect, fungus, and lichen. Many moths and butterflies rely on oak for food, and the tree attracts a wealth of different bird species such as woodpeckers and tree creepers. The acorns are eaten by squirrels, badgers, jays and wood mice.
As an oak tree grows older and bigger, cavities may appear in the trunk and larger boughs – providing homes for owls or bats. A mature oak tree offers decaying and deadwood habitats for numerous invertebrates like stag beetles and click beetles, as well as supporting fungi, lichens and mosses.
The mighty oak has been considered a sacred tree for centuries, and is a symbol of strength, power and wisdom. Oak trees were associated with the supreme gods of ancient Greece and Rome, the Celts and the Norse. Crowns of oak leaves were once worn by kings, and acorns were carried as charms to bring luck and good health.
With its reputation for strength and endurance, oak timber has long been used in construction.
And there are several famous oak trees that, legend has it, provided shelter for those in hiding – including the Major Oak, in Nottinghamshire's Sherwood Forest, where Robin Hood reportedly hid inside the tree's massive hollow trunk.
Also known as mountain ash, the hardy rowan was traditionally planted to protect the household against evil. People believed the colour red could deter magic, witchcraft and evil spirits – so the rowan, with its abundance of bright red berries from late August onwards, was an obvious choice.
The protective qualities of the tree were so widely respected that people carried rowan twigs with them to keep themselves from danger and to ward off ill health. It was even believed that stirring milk with a rowan stick would prevent the milk from curdling.
The rowan tree's autumn berries are much loved by blackbirds and members of the thrush family – including redwings and fieldfares, which visit in the winter months. Moth caterpillars eat rowan leaves, and the flowers provide pollen and nectar for all sorts of insects.
Hawthorns are wonderful for wildlife, supporting a wide range of species – including more than 300 insects. Hawthorn blossom – or May blossom – offers nectar for bees and other pollinating insects. And hawthorns are an important food plant for the caterpillars of several different moth species.
The thorny branches provide protective shelter for birds and other creatures. Birds such as thrushes, as well as small mammals, feed on the berries (known as haws) that appear in autumn.
Hawthorns were once closely associated with witchcraft, magic – and, in particular, fairies. It was believed to be bad luck to cut down a hawthorn, and also unlucky to bring any parts of the tree into the house.
Hawthorns feature in several old rhymes and sayings. 'Ne'er cast a clout till May be out' is believed to refer to May blossom from the hawthorn tree. Hawthorn is one of the first blossoms to appear, and usually means the weather is warming up a little – so it could be time to go outside without a coat!
The nursery rhyme 'Here we go gathering nuts in May' always seems a little puzzling, as nuts aren't ready to gather in May. One possible explanation is that the rhyme refers to 'knots of May' and the old custom of picking posies of hawthorn blossoms for May Day.
Yew trees can often be seen growing in beech woodlands, particularly in southern England. They are also commonly found in churchyards.
Every part of the yew tree is poisonous to humans, but birds can eat the berries safely. The berries travel so rapidly through the bird's digestive system that the toxins in the seeds aren't released. Blackbirds, thrushes and small mammals such as squirrels and dormice eat yew berries, and the dense branches of the tree provide shelter and nesting sites for many bird species.
Yew trees are the longest living trees in the UK, with the oldest specimen – the Fortingall Yew in Glen Lyon, Scotland – believed to be around 5,000 years old.
Yew trees are a symbol of immortality and resurrection, which is perhaps why they are associated with churchyards. Yew twigs were important at Easter, and were sometimes worn by worshippers. There are many ancient yew trees in the UK which predate the church itself – suggesting that the yew was a sacred tree in pre-Christian times too.
Hazel catkins appear in February, and are a valuable source of early nectar for insects emerging from hibernation.
The Fortingall Yew
Deer feed on hazel leaves, as do the caterpillars of several butterfly and moth species.
And in autumn, hazelnuts are a good source of protein for many animals, from squirrels and jays to dormice and woodpeckers.
Hazel trees tend to grow as a bushy thicket of stems, which offers good shelter for ground-nesting birds such as nightjars. The bark also supports a range of lichens and mosses.
Hazel is associated with wisdom and magic, and is a symbol of fertility. Hazelnuts were believed to hold concentrated amounts of wisdom, and people would often carry them as lucky charms. Carrying a rod of hazel was believed to ward off evil spirits, and hazel twigs were often used for water divining.
Little Green Space October 2023
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