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JUST outside London there is a circle of fine, large houses, each standing in its own grounds, highly rented, and furnished with every convenience money can supply. If any one will look at the trees and shrubs growing in the grounds about such a house, chosen at random for an example, and make a list of them, he may then go round the entire circumference of Greater London, mile after mile, many days' journey, and find the list ceaselessly repeated.
There are acacias, sumachs, cedar deodaras, araucarias, laurels, planes, beds of rhododendrons, and so on. There are various other foreign shrubs and trees whose names have not become familiar, and then the next grounds contain exactly the same, somewhat differently arranged. Had they all been planted by Act of Parliament, the result could scarcely have been more uniform.
If, again, search were made in these enclosures for 1 English trees and English shrubs, it would be found that none have been introduced. The English trees, timber II trees, that are there, grew before the house was built; for the rest, the products of English woods and hedgerows have been carefully excluded. The law is, "Plant planes, laurels, and rhododendrons; root up everything natural to this country."
To those who have any affection for our own woodlands this is a pitiful spectacle, produced, too, by the expenditure of large sums of money. Will no one break through the practice, and try the effect of English trees? There is no lack of them, and they far excel anything yet imported in beauty and grandeur.
Though such suburban grounds mimic the isolation and retirement of ancient country-houses surrounded with parks, the distinctive feature of the ancient houses is omitted. There are no massed bodies, as it were, of our own trees to give a substance to the view. Are young oaks ever seen in those grounds so often described as park-like? Some time since it was customary for the builder to carefully cut down every piece of timber on the property before putting in the foundations.
Fortunately, the influence of a better taste now preserves such trees as chance to be growing on the site at the moment it is purchased. These remain, but no others are planted. A young oak is not to be seen. The oaks that are there drop their acorns in vain, for if one takes root it is at once cut off; it would spoil the laurels. It is the same with elms; the old elms are decaying, and no successors are provided.
As for ash, it is doubtful if a young ash is anywhere to be found; if so it is an accident. The ash is even rarer than the rest. In their places are put more laurels, cedar deodaras, various evergreens, rhododendrons, planes. How tame and insignificant are these compared with the oak! Thrice a year the oaks become beautiful in a different way.
In spring the opening buds give the tree a ruddy hue; in summer the great head of green is not to be surpassed; in autumn, with the falling leaf and acorn, they appear buff and brown. The nobility of the oak casts the pitiful laurel into utter insignificance. With elms it is the same; they are reddish with flower and bud very early in the year, the fresh leaf is a tender green; in autumn they are sometimes one mass of yellow.
Ashes change from almost black to a light green, then a deeper green, and again light green and yellow. Where is the foreign evergreen in the competition? Put side by side, competition is out of the question; you have only to get an artist to paint the oak in its three phases to see this. There is less to be said against the deodara than the rest, as it is a graceful tree; but it is not English in any sense.
The point, however, is that the foreigners oust the English altogether. Let the cedar and the laurel, and the whole host of invading evergreens, be put aside by themselves, in a separate and detached shrubbery, maintained for the purpose of exhibiting strange growths. Let them not crowd the lovely English trees out of the place. Planes are much planted now, with ill effect; the blotches where the bark peels, the leaves which lie on the sward like brown leather, the branches wide apart and giving no shelter to birds — in short, the whole ensemble of the plane is unfit for our country.
It was selected for London plantations, as the Thames Embankment, because its peeling bark was believed to protect it against the deposit of sooty particles, and because it grows quickly. For use in London itself it may be preferable: for semi-country seats, as the modern houses surrounded with their own grounds assume to be, it is unsightly. It has no association. No one has seen a plane in a hedgerow, or a wood, or a copse. There are no fragments of English history clinging to it as there are to the oak.
If trees of the plane class be desirable, sycamores may be planted, as they have in a measure become acclimatised. If trees that grow fast are required, there are limes and horse-chestnuts; the lime will run a race with any tree. The lime, too, has a pale yellow blossom, to which bees resort in numbers, making a pleasant hum, which seems the natural accompaniment of summer sunshine. Its leaves are put forth early.
Horse-chestnuts, too, grow quickly and without any attention, the bloom is familiar, and acknowledged to be fine, and in autumn the large sprays of leaves take orange and even scarlet tints. The plane is not to be mentioned beside either of them. Other trees as well as the plane would have flourished on the Thames Embankment, in consequence of the current of fresh air caused by the river. Imagine the Embankment with double rows of oaks, elms, or beeches; or, if not, even with limes or horse-chestnuts! To these certainly birds would have resorted — possibly rooks, which do not fear cities. On such a site the experiment would have been worth making.
If in the semi-country seats fast-growing trees are needed, there are, as I have observed, the lime and horse-chestnut; and if more variety be desired, add the Spanish chestnut and the walnut. The Spanish chestnut is a very fine tree; the walnut, it is true, grows slowly. If as many beeches as cedar deodaras and laurels and planes were planted in these grounds, in due course of time the tap of the woodpecker would be heard: a sound truly worth ten thousand laurels. At Kew, far closer to town than many of the semi-country seats are now, all our trees flourish in perfection.
Hardy birches, too, will grow in thin soil. Just compare the delicate drooping boughs of birch — they could not have been more delicate if sketched with a pencil — compare these with the gaunt planes!
Of all the foreign shrubs that have been brought to these shores, there is not one that presents us with so beautiful a spectacle as the bloom of the common old English hawthorn in May. The mass of blossom, the pleasant fragrance, its divided and elegant leaf, place it far above any of the importations. Besides which, the traditions and associations of the May give it a human interest.
The hawthorn is a part of natural English life — country life. It stands side by side with the Englishman, as the palm tree is pictured side by side with the Arab. You cannot pick up an old play, or book of the time when old English life was in the prime, without finding some reference to the hawthorn. There is nothing of this in the laurel, or any shrub whatever that may be thrust in with a ticket to tell you its name; it has a ticket because it has no interest, or else you would know it.
For use there is nothing like hawthorn; it will trim into a thick hedge, defending the enclosure from trespassers, and warding off the bitter winds; or it will grow into a tree. Again, the old hedge-crab — the common, despised crab-apple — in spring is covered with blossom, such a mass of blossom that it may be distinguished a mile. Did any one ever see a plane or a laurel look like that?
How pleasant, too, to see the clear white flower of the blackthorn come out in the midst of the bitter easterly breezes! It is like a white handkerchief beckoning to the sun to come. There will not be much more frost; if the wind is bitter to-day, the sun is rapidly gaining power. Probably, if a blackthorn bush were by any chance discovered in the semi-parks or enclosures alluded to, it would at once be rooted out as an accursed thing. The very brambles are superior; there is the flower, the sweet berry, and afterwards the crimson leaves — three things in succession.
What can the world produce equal to the June rose? The common briar, the commonest of all, offers a flower which, whether in itself, or the moment of its appearance at the juncture of all sweet summer things, or its history and associations, is not to be approached by anything a millionaire could purchase. The labourer casually gathers it as he goes to his work in the field, and yet none of the rich families whose names are synonymous with wealth can get anything to equal it if they ransack the earth.
After these, fill every nook and corner with hazel, and make filbert walks. Up and down such walks men strolled with rapiers by their sides while our admirals were hammering at the Spaniards with culverin and demi-cannon, and looked at the sun-dial and adjourned for a game at bowls, wishing that they only had a chance to bowl shot instead of peaceful wood. Fill in the corners with nut-trees, then, and make filbert walks. All these are like old story books, and the old stories are always best.
Still, there are others for variety, as the wild guelder rose, which produces heavy bunches of red berries; dogwood, whose leaves when frost-touched take deep colours; barberry, yielding a pleasantly acid fruit; the wayfaring tree; not even forgetting the elder, but putting it at the outside, because, though flowering, the scent is heavy, and because the elder was believed of old time to possess some of the virtue now attributed to the blue gum, and to neutralise malaria by its own odour.
For colour add the wild broom and some furze. Those who have seen broom in full flower, golden to the tip of every slender bough, cannot need any persuasion, surely, to introduce it. Furze is specked with yellow when the skies are dark and the storms sweep around, besides its prime display. Let wild clematis climb wherever it will. Then laurels may come after these, put somewhere by themselves, with their thick changeless leaves, unpleasant to the touch; no one ever gathers a spray.
Rhododendrons it is unkind to attack, for in themselves they afford a rich flower. It is not the rhododendron, but the abuse of it, which must be protested against. Whether the soil suits or not — and, for the most part, it does not suit — rhododendrons are thrust in everywhere. Just walk in amongst them — behind the show — and look at the spindly, crooked stems, straggling how they may, and then look at the earth under them, where not a weed even will grow. The rhododendron is admirable in its place, but it is often overdone and a failure, and has no right to exclude those shrubs that are fitter. Most of the foreign shrubs about these semi-country seats look exactly like the stiff and painted little wooden trees that are sold for children's toys, and, like the toys, are the same colour all the year round.
Now, if you enter a copse in spring the eye is delighted with cowslips on the banks where the sunlight comes, with blue-bells, or earlier with anemones and violets, while later the ferns rise. But enter the semi-parks of the semi-country seat, with its affected assumption of countryness, and there is not one of these. The fern is actually purposely eradicated — just think! Purposely! Though indeed they would not grow, one would think, under rhododendrons and laurels, cold-blooded laurels. They will grow under hawthorn, ash, or beside the bramble bushes.
If there chance to be a little pond or "fountain," there is no such thing as a reed, or a flag, or a rush. How the rushes would be hastily hauled out and hurled away with execrations!
Besides the greater beauty of English trees, shrubs, and plants, they also attract the birds, without which the grandest plantation is a vacancy, and another interest, too, arises from watching the progress of their growth and the advance of the season. Our own trees and shrubs literally keep pace with the stars which shine in our northern skies. An astronomical floral almanack might almost be constructed, showing how, as the constellations marched on by night, the buds and leaves and flowers appeared by day.
The lower that brilliant Sirius sinks in the western sky after ruling the winter heavens, and the higher that red Arcturus rises, so the buds thicken, open, and bloom. When the Pleiades begin to rise in the early evening, the leaves are turning colour, and the seed vessels of the flowers take the place of the petals. The coincidences of floral and bird life, and of these with the movements of the heavens, impart a sense of breadth to their observation.
It is not only the violet or the anemone, there are the birds coming from immense distances to enjoy the summer with us; there are the stars appearing in succession, so that the most distant of objects seems brought into connection with the nearest, and the world is made one. The sharp distinction, the line artificially drawn between things, quite disappears when they are thus associated.
Birds, as just remarked, are attracted by our own trees and shrubs. Oaks are favourites with rooks and wood-pigeons; blackbirds whistle in them in spring; if there is a pheasant about in autumn he is sure to come under the oak; jays visit them. Elms are resorted to by most of the larger birds. Ash plantations attract wood-pigeons and turtle-doves. Thrushes are fond of the ash, and sing much on its boughs. The beech is the woodpecker's tree so soon as it grows old — birch one of the missel-thrush's.
In blackthorn the long-tailed tit builds the domed nest every one admires. Under the cover of brambles white-throats build. Nightingales love hawthorn, and so does every bird. Plant hawthorn, and almost every bird will come to it, from the wood-pigeon down to the wren. Do not clear away the fallen branches and brown leaves, sweeping the plantation as if it were the floor of a ballroom, for it is just the tangle and the wilderness that brings the birds, and they like the disarray.
If evergreens are wanted, there are the yew, the box, and holly — all three well sanctioned by old custom. Thrushes will come for the yew berries, and birds are fond of building in the thick cover of high box hedges. Notwithstanding the prickly leaves, they slip in and out of the holly easily. A few bunches of rushes and sedges, with some weeds and aquatic grasses, allowed to grow about a pond, will presently bring moorhens. Bare stones — perhaps concrete — will bring nothing.
If a bough falls into the water, let it stay; sparrows will perch on it to drink. If a sandy drinking-place can be made for them the number of birds that will come in the course of the day will be surprising.
Kind-hearted people, when winter is approaching, should have two posts sunk in their grounds, with planks across at the top; a raised platform with the edges projecting beyond the posts, so that cats cannot climb up, and of course higher than a cat can spring. The crumbs cast out upon this platform would gather crowds of birds; they will come to feel at home, and in spring time will return to build and sing.