Festive special – my favourite tree is….



Podcast-at-a-glance

An abridged text version of the podcast, which features Mark Ballard (Westonbirt, the National Arboretum), Simon Toomer (National Trust and PlantNetwork), Gary Long (Trewithen Gardens), Toby Beasely (Osborne, English Heritage), Tim Baxter (Ness Gardens at the University of Liverpool) and Rebecca Slack (PlantNetwork).

Mark Ballard’s favourite tree:

The Acer griseum at Westonbirt

My favourite tree, at the moment anyway, is Acer griseum or paperbark maple. It’s got a great backstory, a special place in my heart because we have a first introduction at Westonbirt, as was proved by recent study, and it’s actually a tree that I’ve adopted for my late mother so it has a special place in my heart even more.


Simon Toomer’s favourite tree:

Cercidiphyllum japonicum

I think my favourite tree is the katsura (Cercidophyllum japonicum) and this is a tree Mark will be familiar with from Westonbirt. I think it’s another tree that’s got fantastic all year round colour. And I think I love it because it’s often called the candy floss tree or the caramel tree or various names, because of the scent of its leaves as they break down in the autumn, which also have a fantastic range of colours. But I also think the beauty is in the detail as well as its leaves and I remember we collected katsura from way up in Japan, on the island of Hokkaido where there were absolutely massive trees. You think you know a tree from knowing it in the UK and then you go and see it in the wild and it so much larger. We collected a lot of seed from from the trees which all seemed to be 500 years old: whenever we asked anybody how old these trees were every tree was 500 years old.


Gary Long’s favourite tree:

Gary Long

Talking about your favourite tree is almost like to picking your favourite child, but there’s one that stands out in the garden, looking at the house from the south vista. It’s Stewartia sinensis within the Theaceae family. We’re an ICS (International Camellia Society) Garden of Excellence, Theaceae include camellias so it is in the camellia family anyway. And it’s just one of those trees that you have to hug; I’m not usually a tree hugger, but on this one you just have to as it’s got this lush, grey to cinnamon brown thin, peeling bark. We jokingly call it the ‘elephant’s leg’ because it’s like a grey trunk and it’s quite wrinkled although I’ve never stroked an elephant’s leg! So you’ve got the trunk, you’ve got the peeling bark. It’s deciduous so in the winter, you’ve got the really good form as well. While often described as a large shrub or small tree, our’s is definitely a tree and is also a champion as it’s the tallest of its type in the British Isles. When it comes into leaf, it’s got lush, almost lime green leaves. And then, just to add to that, it flowers: for us, this is late spring at the end of May to June or sometimes even into July. Single white camellia-like flowers. The best way to tell when it is in flower is to look on the ground because the little flowers fall off, then you look up and get the full effect. So, that is easily my favourite tree within the garden.


Toby Beasley’s favourite tree:

Toby Beasley

I’m head gardener at Osborne on the Isle of Wight, and one of my favourite trees is one of our cork oaks, Quercus suber. There are two reasons for this: partly botanical interest as it is a fantastic tree just to look at. It is a large spreading tree, very reminiscent of the Mediterranean region with rugged bark as you’d expect on a cork oak. The other reason is the historic element: I work for English Heritage and history is one of our main reasons for being. We have two of these cork trees which were planted on the same day, 4th December 1847. One was planted by Prince Albert and one by Princess Alice, who would have only been four years old at the time. They were planted as memorial trees – not to remember somebody who has passed away but just to commemorate a nice day, a birthday, a visiting dignitary… It seems that on 4th December 1847, the whole family went out and planted a tree. So there is an historic element to the tree and to think this tree was planted by royalty 173 years ago, it provides a tangible link to those people all that time ago. The only way to get a sense of this tree is actually to come and have a look at it! So if you’re on the Isle of Wight, come have a look at it as it is really easy to find, right in front of the house. [Click on the images below for a closer look.]


Tim Baxter’s favourite tree(s):

I’m the botanist at Ness Botanic Gardens at the University of Liverpool, and my particular interest is in alders which are amazing trees. They’re not necessarily the most beautiful of trees, though some are incredibly beautiful, but they are one of the most useful groups of plants on the planet. They are very commonly grown in many areas of the world; the main reason for this is that they fix nitrogen in their roots, and can therefore grow in a whole range of different soils. Mostly people associate them with wet soils, but actually they grow in a whole range of soils. There’s one particular species at Ness which is one of my favourites: it is actually an unnamed plant, called at the minute Alnus alnobetula aff. maximowiczii. It comes from an island off South Korea called Ulleungdo which is a really interesting part of the world which has lots of very interesting, unique plants. It is more closely related to a North American species from the other side of the Pacific called A. alnobetula subsp. sinuata and it is the most beautiful of plants, because it grows at Ness on a very dry bank, but it self-seeds well into very wet, heavy clay. I think that gives you some idea of how adaptable alders can be.

Alders are commonly used in things like agroforestry, where they are a nurse crop for other things like coffee plantations, providing shade and nitrogen. They are also used for land stabilisation and land reclamation. Alders are also very old, arising somewhere in the region of 110 to 120 million years ago. It’s a great shame that some of the most beautiful alders are not as common in gardens as they should be. The most commonly grown is Alnus glutinosa although this is not necessarily the most attractive. Some of others have magnificant spring catkins. One of my favourite backdrops, which, unfortunately, the listeners can’t see, is an Alnus formosana from Taiwan. It is a very large tree, about 30 metres in the wild, very common in Taiwan, and it flowers in autumn, like a number of other alder species. While most people grow them because they like wet soils, they are a hugely varied group, with spring and autumn flowering species, that could be very useful in our gardens.


Rebecca Slack’s favourite tree(s):

Benny’s oak

I thought I would contribute my favourite trees, as well, to the podcast. I say trees because I’m having difficulty, trying to think of just one. Stewartia malacodendron is definitely a favourite with absolutely stunning flowers but we’ve already had one Stewartia in the podcast… I love Ginkgo biloba and I have a particular tree in my garden, which I planted 10 years ago that is incredibly special to me because it was bought from a garden centre I used to work at, and with my grandmother. So there’s lots of memories wrapped up in that tree. I also like Eucryphia glutinosa and I have one growing in a pot to the moment so hopefully one day, it will tower over me and flower in late summer time, giving that beautiful flush of white flowers. But I think I will have to choose Quercus robur, the not so humble oak tree. Oaks are so symbolic of the British landscape and British flora and they are centres of biodiversity as well for everything that they support. There is one particular tree in a woodland where I walk my little canine companion, Benny. He often sits behind the tree which is on a slight incline and rolls his ball to me, so it’s become quite a fixture in the 10 years or so that we’ve been walking and playing around that tree. I did collect an acorn quite a few years ago now, and it’s now a wonderful little tree at the bottom of my garden.


Blog from Dr John Grimshaw:

Catch the latest PlantNetwork blog from Dr John Grimshaw, Director of the Yorkshire Arboretum and Editor of Trees and Shrubs Online, describing the Trees and Shrubs Online project.


Find out more about the PlantNetwork Tree Forum

One of the oldest and most active specialist groups in PlantNetwork is the Tree Forum. Usually, there is at least one event every year which focuses just on trees. Previous meetings are all available from the Tree Forum page or take a look at some of the recent tree-related webinars:

Tree Health

19 November 2020, online



With thanks to Bruce Langridge and Will Ritchie of National Botanic Garden of Wales for question format and original podcast idea.

Music featured in the podcast is ‘In The Trees’ by Sir Cubworth and ‘Spruce Tree’ by Ashley Shadow. Both are available under the YouTube Audio Library licence.

All images courtesy of those interviewed, reproduced here with their permission.