Take some time to admire our valuable native trees and shrubs and see how they shape our landscape
Who doesn’t love our landscape in Summer? The wild Irish landscape which surrounds us in countryside and even the city, is truly unique. The rich tapestry of layers and textures of our native trees, shrubs and roadside planting rewards us daily with its splendour but how often do we actually consciously take it in and notice the details of the natural composition? Most of the time, in our busy lives we may notice and appreciate the whole landscape around us, we may notice the sunshine coming through the trees, we enjoy the rustle of trees in the breeze and appreciate the scent of roses as we pass them.
How often do we notice the real details though. Those tiny up close details like the tiny tendrils of wild pea curling themselves around the stem of an ox-eye daisy or the delicately interwoven spiders webs in their geometric perfection between the rushes? To give nature this kind of attention this we need to take time out of our busy daily lives, time which many of us feel we don’t have. In taking this time out for nature however, we can truly appreciate the spectacular theatre nature performs every day.
Recently I did exactly this. I was in the middle of a huge design project and had a million deadlines and was finding it hard to concentrate on anything properly. I decided to get out for a walk with the dog and after a half hour I found myself wandering aimlessly along a road and for the first time in ages. Suddenly I wasn’t seeing the curve in the roadside as a hazard for pedestrians but rather I was astounded to study the delicate mini meadow this corner showcased. Or further on, the canopy of dense trees which normally feel like a tunnel when you drive through them, now opened up to offer a gorgeous shady walk full of massive ferns beside a trickling stream.
It’s only when you take the time to walk and observe that you start to fully appreciate the beauty of our native landscape in all its layers. First of all you have the top layer, with tree canopies and large hedges and shrubs, woven together with climbers. Then there are the lower levels of perennials full of colour and nodding heads of flowers and between these the grasses weave their way through, adding texture and frothiness. Thinking that our native landscape really is the best designed garden there is, I decided to take a closer look at the different layers and keep exploring it for this series of articles.
The first thing I wanted to look at is the top layer of planting- some of our beautiful native trees, shrubs and taller specimens. In order to look at out native specimens we have to this about our geographic history as a country. About 12,000 years ago Ireland was under ice and snow and when this ice melted after the Ice age, the climate became warmer and made the water rise. Now, where Ireland was once part of a mainland Europe, it had became an Island. Seeds for many trees we now call native would have come in by birds and even on the wind from land bridges to Britain and the rest of Europe. Therefore most of the trees we call truly native would have come here before the waters rose and separated us from the rest of Europe.
Native trees such as birch, oak, ash, hazel, rowan, willow and Scots pine make up many of our native landscapes and have mixed with trees which were introduced later by people such as sycamore, beech, horse chestnut, spruce, larch and fir. Trees such as birch, hazel, rowan and willow are instantly recognisable and simply step out of the immediate urban context and you will find them everywhere, happily reclaiming any area left uncovered.
When it comes to planting new trees, I recently learned a surprising and worrying fact about our own efforts as a nation. Where the European average of forest cover is approximately 40 per cent, today only 10.5 percent of Ireland is covered in forest. This leaves Ireland well below the average and sees us coming in statistically at joint last with Malta, a country which has a drastically different, much more arid climate than ours. What is worrying that the state is currently not even meeting a quarter of the annual target on planting native woodlands and the removal of the 2014 Forestry Act of numerous protections against tree-felling has made it easier for people to cut down trees domestically without a license.
So considering those statistics, what can we do? Well, plant trees for one, and native ones at that. Variety also plays a role in how wildlife can flourish and planting a wide variety of trees, shrubs and perennials will help encourage all animals from birds to bees and butterflies and more.
We should also think twice when we cut anything down. When I talk to clients I always say the first thing to look at is ‘what you have’ and that includes the many trees and shrubs that ay have self-seeded and grown organically. These can become strong parts of a design and a beautiful starting point for the whole scheme.
Aside from the many positives for wildlife, many of our beautiful native trees are also great additions of the domestic garden from a design viewpoint and create a great natural solution to making a new design feel at home in their settings. Trees also provide a great solution to privacy required in domestic gardens, particularly in urban settings where homes might be overlooked by other dwellings. Here careful choices of trees can bring a sense of nature into the urban space while providing personal privacy as well as a valuable home for wildlife.
Here are some of my favourite native specimens.
The favourite: Silver Birch
Beith gheal (Betula pendula)
As a garden designer I often find myself thinking about how can we pick up on native Irish flora and the Birch tree is one of the most recognisable ones for addition in garden design schemes. In Ireland we have two types of native birch- the silver birch and the downy birch. Each tree has different requirements in terms of moisture needs but both like a sunny position and make for great garden trees due to their pretty bark, delicate catkins and lovely dappled shade cover. It really is the one tree that makes gardens feel natural and native and I think every garden that has space should have at least some form of Birch.
The specimen: The Killarney Strawberry Tree
Caithne (Arbutus unedo)
This is a gorgeous evergreen tree which grows in the wild in numerous locations around our countryside. It’s an unusual tree in its distribution considering it grows only here in Ireland and parts of the Mediterranean. It is thought to have reached Ireland over land bridges from Brittany and can be found growing wild in Kerry, Cork and County Sligo. It is a wonderful tree to add drama and evergreen accent to a garden and often has a gorgeous architectural, multi-stem habit, perfect for contemporary schemes which underplant trees with grasses or ground cover.
The Producer: Elderflower
Trom (Sambucus nigra)
These large shrubs are found absolutely everywhere in Ireland and are wonderful additions to the garden. Not only is it a pretty medium -large size shrub with feathered foliage it also has beautiful scented white flowers in June which are perfect for making elderflower wine, champagne and cordials or syrup. It also has pretty black berries which are used by some cultures to make syrups and drinks and are said to have medicinal properties in treating colds and flu.
First published in the Irish Mail on Sunday