Almost 50 years ago, when Bronwen Griffiths was growing up in the Worcestershire village of Belbroughton, she lost her heart to a tree. “That oak was part of my childhood,” she recalls. “I kissed my first boyfriend there. We didn’t stay together long, but he still has a photograph of the tree in his office in the US.”
Her love for the tree outlasted her teenage romance. “When my mother was old and could no longer go walking with me,” Bronwen continues, “I used to visit it for solace. It’s hollow inside, and one late afternoon I came eye to eye with an owl.”
Bronwen wrote to us just before Christmas, after we asked readers to tell us about their favourite trees. That first reply was followed by more than 800, from California to Canberra, Kilkenny to Kathmandu. Among many, many oaks – especially from the UK – were redwoods, junipers, ashes, gingkos, beeches, mulberries, rowans, chestnuts, hornbeams, poplars, London planes, maples, catalpas, baobabs, aspens, gumbo-limbos …
The highlights can be found in our new series Tree of the week, which starts next Monday.
What’s so great about trees? Well, to start with, as the Guardian’s Christmas appeal highlighted, they have huge potential to mitigate the climate crisis: “Trees are vital in producing oxygen and absorbing carbon dioxide from the atmosphere. They can prevent flooding and soil erosion. They provide shelter and shade, and reduce air and noise pollution.”
We are also inspired by trees’ “sense of permanence”, says Christina Harrison, the editor of Kew magazine and co-author of the book Remarkable Trees. “They live on a different timescale from us, and there is a powerful sense that if you plant or protect a tree today you are truly leaving a positive mark on the planet, which remains long after you’ve gone.”
You would, of course, also be giving animals a home and hunting ground. In New Zealand’s Auckland region, Barry Read’s Podocarpus totara teems with birds such as “tui, kererū, lorikeets, waxeyes and piwakawaka. It’s like a village in there!” Meanwhile, Pete Hallmann’s favourite oak in Hampshire “is host to squirrels, bats and insects. It acts as a perch for herons, woodpeckers and the resident kingfisher.”
We humans also have a soft spot for anything that feeds us. US-born Meg Cutts bought her home in East Sussex after falling for its apple tree. “I make chutney, apple sauce, apple butter, cider vinegar and cider every autumn,” she says. In Gers, south-west France, Dick Pyle harvests truffles from his favourite holm oak.
But trees nourish our souls as well as our bodies. We are intrigued by their complexity and contradictions; by the way they bridge the earth and the sky, by their inner busyness and outer idleness. They inspire awe and affection, comfort us in times of trouble, are landmarks in our journeys through the landscape and life itself. “He is my old friend,” Yves Barbeau says of the rain tree he used to pass every day on Holland Road in Singapore.
“Trees are shaped anthropomorphically,” Max Adams, the author of Trees of Life, says. “They’re upright, with armlike branches. It’s totally understandable how all cultures around the world, particularly in Europe, have this idea of trees as living, animated souls, such as JRR Tolkien’s Ents.”
One reader, Nicola Muir, a yoga teacher from London, recently encountered a sycamore on Hampstead Heath that had a powerful effect on her. “For some reason, I felt an urge to give it a big hug. Yes, I know that’s a cliche – for a yoga teacher to hug a tree – but I don’t usually feel compelled to embrace trees while ambling across the heath.”
She has been back to see it every day. “I love the feeling of support it gives me – thinking of its deep roots beneath me, feeling the steadiness of its trunk behind me, and gazing up at its seemingly endless branches above me.”
Now in her early 40s, Polly Gutkowski, from Wiltshire, has happy memories of the garden of her childhood home in Gravesend. “It was my adventure playground, with the weeping willow the central focus. My dad fixed a rope and a swing to it. My two brothers and I climbed it regularly and each had our own particular branch that we sat on. My branch was the highest; I could poke my head out the top of the leaves and see all across the neighbourhood. My dad pruned the tree sometimes and I remember making dens in the piles of the long twigs and branches.” Polly was cast out of Eden at the age of nine, when her dad died and the family home had to be sold.
In East Sussex, Louise Munn has been sharing her life with an oak for the last 15 years. “When I draw my curtains every day, I have a view of this majestic tree from my bed,” she says. “I have my morning coffee observing it and spend my quiet morning contemplation time with it in my eyeline. When in labour with my youngest child” – she has three – “I counted the spaces between the twigs and branches to get through each building contraction throughout the dawn. For my 40th birthday, my mum drew me a portrait of the tree, so I can still see its essence when the curtains are drawn in the darkness.”
There is a beautiful lime in the garden of Carolyn Folland’s home in the French region of Haute-Vienne. Carolyn, who is in her 70s, writes: “It comes into leaf earlier than most of the other trees – so it brings spring a little bit earlier. It shelters pine martens, and a golden oriole sings in its branches in the summer. Some of my husband’s ashes are buried among the roots, which are now planted with tulips and daffodils.”
Trees are natural memorials for many others, too. In California, Eric Castleman makes a daily visit to one that reminds him of his late father. “I speak to it as if I am speaking directly to him. Season after season it comes to life and sheds its leaves. I’ve watched it for 14 years and somehow just seeing it makes a bad day seem a little better.” In Staffordshire, there is a beech under which Anthony Cheetham proposed to his now wife, and later scattered the ashes of their first dog. “We now regularly walk to the tree with our children and new dog, Hector, to say hello and admire the view.”
Incidentally, if you’re wondering how to tell a beech from a birch, or a hawthorn from a blackthorn, Patrick Harding, who runs tree ID courses for the Woodland Trust, “heartily recommends” The Tree Name Trail, a guide to the UK’s native and common non-native species. That might help the readers who can only say that their favourite tree is “big”, “unknown”, “generic” or “not a larch”. The picture-search option on Google’s smartphone app is also favoured by many.
Patrick’s own favourite tree is a six-metre-tall strawberry tree, which he planted 20 years ago. “I can see from my study window. It is currently covered with creamy-white, bell-shaped flowers, but for much of the rest of the year, it will be covered with fruits like tiny ripe strawberries. The fruits do not taste nice; can’t have it all.”
Many readers told us how they feared wildfire, flooding or disease threatening their beloved trees. Drew Whitemore, from Suffolk, noticed that the walnut by his rented cottage was rotting from the inside. “The landlord thought it would need to be chopped down before it died and possibly fell on the house.”
Instead, Drew “decided to try a bit of instinctive surgery and began scooping out the rotting debris from inside the wound by hand. It was a smelly and quite distressing operation; I had my arm completely inside the tree and down below ground level, scooping the rot out as best I could. I then packed the space with soil from around and hoped it might stay alive a bit longer.”
That was nearly 20 years ago – “and the walnut is still with us”.
But that is a blink of an eye for some species. Readers wrote to celebrate yews that were 1,500, 2,000, 2,500 years old. Nicholas Nethercott’s, in St Michael’s church in the Powys hamlet of Discoed, “could be as old as 5,000”, according to a certificate signed by the botanist David Bellamy. “We regard great age as a supreme virtue,” notes Max Adams. “An ancient tree has defied everything and we admire it.”
Jonathan Miller, a librarian, has high hopes for the sand live oak that grew beside his former home in Florida. “The tree was magnificent, shading most of the roof, giving the quite ordinary house some character. In hurricanes, it would rock from side to side, but it survived at least one direct lightning strike during our time. It could live for hundreds of years if the owners of the house don’t screw it up.” He sold the house in 2017 – “but I hope that tree will be there long after the house, and perhaps our whole civilisation, is gone”.
And if not? Death does not stop a tree’s emotional pull. Deb Charles, from London, got to know a “majestic” dead tree in her parents’ garden in Lot, south-west France. Her dad died six years ago, and her mum has moved, “yet this tree still stands proud – and oh how I admire its defiance. My dad once told me when I was anxious about life: ‘Go stand under a tree and realise just how insignificant you are.’ And I love this tree and the view of life beyond it because that is what life is about. Courage. Defiance. And pride.”
Sally, from Cardiff, can’t identify the leafless trunk that she passes in nearby Marshfield, but that doesn’t stop her and her partner calling it “our tree”. “It has retained its magic and beauty even in death,” she says, “like the precious memories of a loved one who has died.”
Some trees can be chopped down or rot to nothing yet still cast a shadow. When Gillian Hughes was a schoolgirl in Liverpool in the 60s, she used to gather conkers from a horse chestnut and plant them in her family’s garden. Later, she says, “I was able to introduce my infant sons to the tree, to stand under its great spread in the snow, and to find my enjoyment of its majesty reflected in their young eyes.”
Last year, the tree succumbed to disease and had to be felled. “I am upset,” Gillian wrote, “but I understand the turning of the generations. And I am happy to see a small children’s play area constructed in the tree’s now- imagined shade.”
Tell us about your favourite tree by filling in the form here.