This Week: It has been a delight to watch Emperor dragonflies chasing across the Common and having time to pause and chat with people about our acid grassland is and why it is so important. Judging by how low some oak branches are lying, I reckon we are in for a mast year. Many of the trees are already heavily laden and the acorns have yet to swell. Already there are moments when there is a decidedly autumnal feel and the seasons are again on the turn.
APPLE, CHERRY and PLUM trees belong to one of the largest plant families, Rosaceae. Relations include most native fruit trees and roses. Apples (Malus) include some 25 different species as well as many hybrids and cultivars. Although these trees grow easily from seed in almost any soil, successful fruiting often relies on cross pollination and most commercial fruit trees are grafted onto rootstocks that control the size of the tree and consistency of fruiting. Although in more rural or suburban areas care must be taken when selecting apples for individual planting in gardens to ensure, as for many this is needed for successful pollination, the proximity to fruit trees from orchards, private and public gardens in London means this is not such an issue. Sadly, perhaps due to the breeding and selection process, many good fruiting apples are prone to various diseases.
The true native ‘crab’ apple (M. sylvestris), is not found on the Common. All our apples are garden escapes or have grown from pips of discarded eating apples – easily distinguished by hairy shoots and leaf undersides, often more pink flowers, and certainly sweeter fruit.
Apples have their place in English folklore and are often associated with true love: throw a pip in the fire and if it explodes your love is true – or not if it just burns away. Wassail is an old custom, where people gather around a bonfire in the dark days of January, sing to the health of newly planted and existing trees, tell stories, dance, make noise to drive away unfriendly spirits – and of course, raise wintry spirits with warming mulled cider. FoBC is pleased to be preserving with its annual event that we hope will be held again in January 2021…. not one to be missed!
Although apples on the Common are not native, they have still been highly valued. When the Common was grazed, the apple crop was much prized for fodder; there is a seventeenth century record of one commoner being fined the enormous sum of five shillings for taking too many for his pigs. Today the fruits are rarely harvested, but some of the trees are supporting mistletoe, which was absent until we ‘inoculated’ several trees with seed some ten years ago as part of the local mistletoe species action plan.
PRUNUS is the family of stone fruits which includes cherries, plums, almonds, and peaches, among others. There are numerous cherry trees on the common, bordering on becoming invasive in some areas. They certainly are ‘growing wild’ but I doubt many to be true wild cherry (P. avium) as this fruit should be black or dark red with little flesh. Most cherry trees on the Common reproduce by ‘suckering’, a trait of many cherries. We also have a pretty tree, Prunus cerasifera on the Common and at Leg o’ Mutton. This is a native of central Asia and Southern Europe, and those in this country usually have quite large fruit. This trees flowers and comes into leaf as early as March, often even before the native blackthorn (P spinosa), for which it is often mistaken.
Cherry wood has a lovely red colour and fine grain, making it popular for furniture, wood carving and turning. There is surprisingly little folklore, except in Japan where it is the national tree and often planted as a memorial. In Europe it was thought to have useful medicinal properties, against coughs, promoting good complexion and sight, breaking up gallstones and for other urinary complaints. I think we are lucky to be alive in more enlightened times.
It is worth adding one other member of the Rosaceae family, which is Amelanchier lamarckii: this garden escape can be found in various parts of the Common – it is a deciduous, spreading shrub. The young leaves unfold bronze, amid a profusion of star-shaped white flowers, followed by clusters of red fruits. The leaves are green through summer and then offer a brilliant autumn display of yellows and reds. Small wonder it is a popular plant for the garden, and especially for those who want bird-friendly plants, as the berries attract many birds. It can be mistaken for another native member of the Rosaceae family, Rowan (Sorbus acuparia) due to the clusters of berries, although the leaves are quite different. It is the value of Amelanchier’s berries as bird food means we are not quite so assiduous in rooting it out as other garden escapes, in what should be a nature reserve focused on native plants. However, it is something we would not like it to be more than ‘occasional’.