Trees help to define our landscape, but the British Isles are separated from the continent of Europe by sea, so not all trees found on the other side of the English Channel are considered native to the UK. The Woodland Trust has a helpful guide that identifies native trees, and this reveals that many of the UK’s commonest trees are actually colonisers from Europe.
The Romans had a significant role in this arboreal immigration. Into their province of Britannia, they imported quite a number of new trees such as the sweet chestnut, walnut, plum, probably the sycamore, and even the ‘English’ elm. We know quite a lot about Roman agriculture and domestic life, and have insight into the value they attached to certain trees. For example, the elm was planted to support the growing of their vines, and plums and chestnuts were sources of food. Walnuts were employed by the Romans for a whole variety of purposes, including preservation of wine, but they were also considered significant elements in the consecration of a Roman marriage.
Yet, aside from the Roman influence, there are other connections between trees now resident in the UK and the rest of Europe. The Normans gave us a number of our tree names such as the cedar and the almond. Another connection with France centres on the magnolia, named after a pioneering French botanist, Pierre Magnol (1638-1715). Furthermore, the commonest type of magnolia grown in UK gardens was created in 1820 by one of Napoleon’s cavalry officers after his retirement from the army. Étienne Soulange-Bodin had studied botany and he cross-bred two Asian magnolia species to produce a hybrid with a Latin name in his honour: Magnolia × soulangeana. It became quickly popular because it was easy to grow, and it produced a mass of beautiful large flowers. Since that time, many varieties of his original hybrid have been developed.
A number of trees have geographical names indicating their European credentials. Perhaps the most well-known is the Lombardy poplar, which is commonly seen marching out in long, upright, soldierly lines across the countryside. It was developed in Italy in the 1600s and although distinctive and elegant, it is relatively short-lived. Other examples of common trees with European origins expressed in their names include the Corsican pine and Hungarian oak, to name but two. For some the geographical link is less obvious. The Guelder rose is actually native to the UK, but its name indicates a link with Gelderland in the Netherlands where a popular variety of it was once created.
The Norway spruce is a well-known conifer, with a connection to Christmas. A large specimen is donated to London every year by the people of Oslo, Norway, as a token of gratitude for the UK’s assistance in the Second World War. It is cut down in November and brought across the North Sea by ship. The use of decorated conifers in UK households is a well-established aspect of our Christmas celebrations, but it was actually a custom copied from Germany. Members of the British Royal family with close family in Germany helped to popularise the idea of the Christmas tree including George III’s wife, Queen Charlotte, and Queen Victoria’s husband, Albert.