Early in the spring the the familiar hazel (Corylus avellana) catkin or lamb's tail opens up having been present but tightly closed for most of the winter. The hazel is not the only tree to produce catkins, others do too, most noticeably alder and other members of the birch family.
The catkin is the male flower of the hazel, its role is to produce pollen which is wind dispersed. The catkin does not produce the well known hazel nut however. Whilst we can't help but see the male catkin we often overlook the tiny female flower which appears on the same tree. This is actually much more like a conventional flower as it contains the seed box. The red petals-like structures are actually multiple stigmas that catch the pollen released by the catkins of neighbouring trees. The pollen then fertilises the seeds and the nuts develop.
The hazel, of course, is rarely allowed to grow naturally. It has always been a favoured source of wood for hurdles, fencing, thatching spurs, charcoal, even chair-bodging! As a result hazel was invariable coppiced and cut down to ground level so that it re-shoots multiple thin stems, ideal for these old country crafts. These days these crafts have all but died out and so coppicing is not practised as it used to be and often it is either left to becoming overgrown and straggly or it is just cleared and burnt to allow other plants to prosper. Hazel coppice is usually such a rich habitat, especially in spring, when primroses, wood anemones, violets, bluebells and so on all thrive on the coppice floor.
The hazel nut is a favourite food of the squirrel and, of course, the dormouse which is why, if you are looking for dormice, you should look in hazel coppice!
Silver Birch: warts and all
The silver birch (Betula pendula) is one of our native trees and is very good for wildlife in general. In Dorset it is a very common tree on our wet heathland but it also occurs all over the county, especially, but not exclusively, where it is a bit damp. It is easily confused with the very similar downy birch. On younger trees the bark is almost unblemished but as it grows larger and older so warty areas appear and that is why this is sometimes called the warty birch and this is one way to tell it apart from the downy birch with tends to retain its unwrinkled skin.
This tree is probably at its best in spring when dressed in a covering of light green fresh leaves but even in winter it has a certain delicacy about it. It quickly but has a fairly short life span of about thirty years. As it ages the common birch polypore fungus takes hold and the tree dies. The fungus itself is fascinating as it starts out brown on top and white underneath but as it dries out it takes on the same colouring and appearance as its host and you would think it was all part of the natural tree itself.
The silver birch freely self seeds and establishes itself. In some areas they have to be taken out to stop them dominating and overwhelming other forms of vegetation. It produces familiar catkins but we usually think of the hazel catkins, or lamb's tails, we see earlier in the year. Like hazel, the silver birch flowers before the leaves come. It flowers much later in than hazel in April and May whereas hazel catkins are out as early as January and all over by the end of March.
Downy Birch: the bronze medal
For years I roamed the Dorset heaths thinking that the trees with silvery bark were silver birch until, one day, a friend pointed out they were frequently downy birch (Betula pubescens); it came as quite a surprise! Obviously I wanted to know how to tell the difference.
There are small differences between them but they still remain a challenge to me. Firstly downy birch has a much smoother bark that silver birch. On silver birch the silvery bark tends to split as the tree ages and areas of dark under bark start to show. Not only is the bark smooth on a downy birch it also can be, especially when young, a bronze colour rather than silver. If you look at the outgrowing branches the downy birch has branches and twigs that tend to point upwards whereas on silver birch they tend to droop downwards. Twigs on a downy birch are hairy (hence the 'downy') and plain coloured whereas on silver birch they are smooth but with silver diamond shaped patches. There, you see it is quite easy! Even knowing this I still struggle.
One thing with both species is that they attract various micro lichens that create patches on the bark, different species of lichen form different shaped patches. They are even harder to tell apart than the trees.
Holm Oak: the evergreen oak
Now this can be a conundrum when you are out in 'the field' and not expecting it. They are acorns right? Then it is an oak tree? But those are not the usual oak shaped leaves, they look a bit like holly? And the leaves are not turning colour and falling, they are still green, and the tree itself, it is not big enough to be an oak, nor is it the right shape. This is the holm oak (Quercus ilex) is a true oak nonetheless, it bears the oak's Latin name of Quercus to prove the point but it is Britain's only common evergreen Oak although it is not truly indigenous having been introduced from the Mediterranean area during the 16th Century into large gardens and parks often as a wind break, especially in large estates near the sea because it is resistant to salt laden winds.
In Dorset it is quite common along the coast line and can be seen in abundance, for example, at Durlston Country Park where it was presumably introduced to help protect the old estate's garden from the south westerlies that blow in on these exposed cliffs. It can alse be found along the Fleet in places like Abbotsbury. In some places it has faired so well it has to be cut back to stop it taking over completely. Often overlooked, or dismissed because it cannot be named, look out for holm oak, it is an interesting tree.
Spindle: spinning a yarn
There are some plants that have really insignificant, sometimes almost indiscernible, flowers but come in to their own when autumn arrives and their fruits emerge. Holly is one that comes to mind but the spindle (Euonymus europaeus) is undoubtedly another.
Spindle is not an uncommon shrub, probably overlooked for much of the year. In summer it has tiny little creamy green four petalled flowers just a few millimetres across. In the autumn they produce brilliant coral pink seed cases that could almost be flowers in their own right. The pink seed cases then split to reveal a bright orange fruit inside. Quite unique amongst our wild flora and easy to pick out.
Spindle occurs mainly on our chalk downland and lime rich soils. It has thin twiggy branches, hence our use of the word 'spindly' for anything thin. The wood, however, is white in colour and hard and smooth in texture which led to it being used for traditional spindles that were used in spinning wool and cotton. It was also the primary plant for producing artist's charcoal.
Altogether an interesting plant that is popular with insets too.
Pedunculate Oak: hearts of oak
As the countryside begins to turn green again in spring one of the major reasons is the bright green leaves coming out on our most common tree in Dorset, the pedunculate oak (Quercus robur). As well as the lovely leaves they produce catkin-like tassel flowers. No wonder spring can be a difficult time for hayfever sufferers who are allergic to tree pollen!
Much more common than the sessile oak, the pedunculate Oak has its leaves and its acorns on 'pendules' or short stalks. This is missing on the Sessile Oak. In any event in Dorset the sessile oak is very scarce, usually occurring only where it has been planted whereas the pedunclate oak can be found almost everywhere except on our heathland and our coastal downs.
Complete books have been written about the British oak, it was used to build the ships of the navy that put the great into Britain! "Heart of oak are our ships, jolly tars are our men"; the regimental march of the Royal Navy. If books have been written about the oak what can I say in 200 words other than over 1,000 insects live and thrive on our oaks? Probably only that if you want to know more read one of the books!
Horse Chestnut: it came it saw it conkered
Of all our mature broadleaf trees surely the horse chestnut (Aesculus hippocastanum) has the most striking display of flowers. The wonderful flower spikes make the tree look like an enormous candelabra! It was the flower display that led the horse chestnut to be here in this country in the first place. It is native to the Balkans and Asia Minor and was brought here to adorn our parklands as long ago as the sixteenth century.
The horse chestnut is a prominent tree, usually found in avenues and in clusters in ornamental parks but some have self seeded elsewhere. Not only are the flower spikes and the conkers key features of this tree, it has a large, imposing frame, large seven-lobed leaves and, of course, has 'sticky buds' in spring. At junior school we used to put some twigs with sticky buds in a jam jar of water and watch them open
The centuries old game of 'conkers' is, I am told, dying out as schools have banned it on health and safety grounds but when I was young we used to collect the conkers to use in conker fights and buried one for a while which we thought would make harder! I guess if you do not go back and unearth it then there is a pretty good bet that a horse chestnut tree will appear.
Not a native but welcome none the less I think.
Holly: deck the halls with boughs
The Dorset woods in autumn and winter are brightened by the bright red unmistakable berries of holly (Ilex aquifolium). It is interesting that although holly is one of Britain's best known trees it is actually quite local occurring mainly in hedgerows and older, traditional forest and woods. It is tolerant of shade which means it can survive quite comfortably under other trees, especially ash and birch. The holly is also tolerant of clipping, and as it is evergreen, it is popular as a hedging plant. Another interesting feature is that only the lower leaves are prickly, presumably to give the plant protection against grazing. The upper leaves are often quite smooth edged.
The holly is unusual in that there are male trees and female trees, although occasionally both forms of flower appear on one tree. Obviously the male trees do not bear berries, its sole purpose is to produce pollen that will fertilise the flowers on the female trees which is where the berries will ripen and appear.
Holly was traditionally associated with ancient pre-Christian festivals but it has also become synonymous with Christmas and is a popular decoration as well as being mentioned in carols.
Scots Pine: far from home
Whilst the Scots pine (Pinus sylvestris) is a native British tree it is found only in its truly wild state in Scotland. Here in Dorset it was introduced for timber production and much of the heathland was covered in it, along with other conifer species, after World War 2 and it has prospered. It so likes the habitat that it readily seeds and young trees can be seen sprouting up almost everywhere. Being a native tree wildlife uses it, particularly in winter, and it is the place to look for visiting crossbill, redpoll and siskin.
It is easy to identify the Scots pine because the bark has a reddish brown rusty appearance, especially towards the top of the trunk. The trunk grows straight and tall making it an ideal forestry product and the timber is used for telegraph poles, fencing, construction work, boxes, paper pulp and wood board. It was also used extensively for railway sleepers and pit props, the market for which has now all but disappeared so the demand for Scots pine as a timber is reducing.
As with all conifers the fruiting body comes in the form of a 'cone'. It starts closed up then, as it dries out, so gaps appear between the segments and the seeds expelled. If you stop to look underneath any Scots pine you will often find cones that have been extensively chewed to get at the seeds and this is, usually anyway, the work of the grey squirrel. The leaves are the familiar needles, blueish green in colour. The twigs on which the leaves grow seem to be very brittle and prone to breaking easily, especially in strong winds.
In Dorset we are seeing extensive work to restore our precious heathland habitat and so many areas are being cleared of the Scots pine. We may actually be witnessing the end of the Scots pine in the area and I wonder what effect will this have on the gret squirrel population.