Early March is when we anticipate blossom and the unfurling of new leaves, marking the arrival of spring. With snow now covering the trees and the landscape, spring is some way off. But as trees begin their new cycle of growth, it still feels like a good time to revisit John Gerard’s Herball, or, Generall Historie of Plantes (1597), to renew our acquaintance with our native trees and appreciate their place in England’s cultural history.
According to the Woodland Trust more than four fifths of us can’t identify an ash tree from its leaves and almost half cannot recognise an oak, underlining our profound disconnection from the natural world. The close connection between plants and people is inescapable in Gerard’s Herball. Pre-industrial society’s knowledge of local plants is linked to dependence on them for immediate needs, such as building materials, technology, food and medicine.
Amongst Gerard’s entries for trees we discover the wood of the alder tree was used for guttering because it is slow to rot and elm was used for making arrows and wheels. The boughs of the common willow were brought into the sick chamber for those suffering from fevers and oak apples were ‘read’ to divine the future.
Gerard’s Herball is a survey of the plants known in England in the late 16th century and is quite unlike a scientific book published today. Gerard’s commentary on each plant is delivered in a personal, anecdotal manner, mentioning plants growing in his own garden and reporting observations of other plant enthusiasts and growers.
The stylised illustrations generally show a branch of each tree with detail of the leaves, flowers and fruits, representing the tree in all the stages of its growing season. The overall shape of the tree is not usually depicted, although some illustrations show a trunk with roots, and one over-large branch as the canopy, which is actually a twig, showing detail of the plant. The rectangular illustrations are without a border, but are filled to their corners with a profusion of closely observed foliage, flowers and fruits.
Here are Gerard’s observations of some of our most common tree species. I’ve included the elm tree which was once common in the UK, but now largely absent as a result of Dutch elm disease. Recently I read the elm has returned to London as a street tree in Bond Street, so perhaps one day this tree will once more take its place in the English landscape?
The Birch Tree Betula
The common Birch tree waxeth likewise a great tree, having many boughes beset with many small rods or twigs, very limber and pliant: .. the rinde of the body or trunke is harde without, white, rough, and uneven, full of chinkes or crevices: under which is founde another fine barke, plaine, smooth, and thinne as paper, which heeretofore was used insteede of paper to write upon, before the making of paper was knowne; in Russia & those colde regions, it serveth insteede of Tiles and Slate to cover their houses withall:
in times past the magistrates rods were made heerof: and in our time also the scholmasters and parents do terrifie their children with rods made of Birch.
The Common Oke Quercus vulgaris.
Gerard records oak apples being used as a means of predicting events in the coming year:
The Oke Apples being broken in sunder about the time of their withering, do foreshewe the sequell of the yeere, as the expert Kentish husbandmen have observed by the living things founde in them: as if they finde an Ant, they foretell plentie of graine to insue; if a white worm like a Gentill or a Maggot, then they prognosticate murren of beasts and cattle; if a Spider, then (saie they) we shall have a pestilence or some such like sicknes to followe amongst men: these things the learned also have observed and noted; for Mathiolus writing upon Dioscorides saith, that before they have an hole thorough them, they conteine in them either a flie, a spider, or a worme; if a flie, then warre ensueth, if a creeping worme, then scarcitie of victuals; if a running spider then followeth great sicknes or mortalitie.
The Beech Fagus.
The Beech is an high tree, with boughes spreading oftentimes in maner of a circle, and with a thick body, having many armes: the barke is smooth; the timber is white, harde, and very profitable: the leaves be smooth, thinne, broad .. the catkins, or blowings be also lesser and shorter then those of the Birch tree, and yellow: the fruite or Maste is contained in a huske or cup that is prickly, and rough bristled; .. the rootes be fewe, and grow not deepe, and little lower then under the turfe.
The Beech flowereth in April and May, the the fruit is ripe in September, at what time the Deere do eate the same very greedily, as greatly delighting therein, which hath caused forresters and huntsmen to call it Buckmast.
The Alder Tree Alnus
The Alder tree or Aller, is a great high tree having many brittle branches, and the barke is of a browne colour, the wood or timber is not hard, and yet it will last and endure very long under the water, yea longer than any other timber whatsoever: wherefore in the fennie and soft marrish grounds, they do use to make piles and posts thereof, for the strengthening of the wals and such like. This timber doth also serve very well to make troughes to convey water in steade of pipes of Lead.
The Ash Tree Fraxinus
The Ash also is an high and tal tree; it riseth up with a straight body, and then of no smal thicknesse, commonly of a middle size, and is covered with a smoothe barke: the woode is white, smooth, hard, and somewhat rough grained:
The fruite .. is termed in English Ashkeies, and of some Kitekeies. The seede or Kitekeies of the Ash tree provoke urine, increase naturall seede, and stirreth up bodily lust, especially being powdred with nutmegs and drunke.
The common Willow Salix
The common Willow is an high tree, with a body of a meane thicknes, and riseth up as high as other trees do if it not be topped in the beginning , soon after it is planted; the bark thereof is smooth, tough, and flexible; the wood is white, tough and hard to be broken: the leaves are long, lesser, and narrower, than those of the Peach tree, somewhat greene on the upper side and slipperie, and on the neather side softer and whiter;
The greene boughs with the leaves may very well be brought into chambers, and set about the beds of those that be sicke of agues; for they do mightily coole the heate of the aire, which thing is a woonderful refreshing to the sicke patients.
The Elme tree and the Elme with broad leaves Ulmus, Ulmus latifolia.
The first kinde of Elme is a great high tree, having many branches spreading themselves largely abroad: the timber of it is hard, and not easie to be cloven or cut in sunder. The leaves are somewhat wrinkled and snipt about the edges .. This tree is very common in our countrie of England: the leaves of this Elme are pleasant fodder for divers fowerfooted beasts, and especially for kine and oxen.
The second kinde of Elme groweth likewise unto a great stature, with very hard and tough timber, whereof are made arrowes, wheeles, mill pullies and such other engins for the carriage of great waights and burthens.
The common Elder tree Sambucus.
The common Elder groweth up now and then to the bignes of a meane tree, casting his boughs all about, and oftentimes remaineth a shrub; .. little berries, greene at the first, afterwards blacke, whereout is pressed a purple juice, which being boyled with Allom and such like things doth serve very well for the Painters use,
The Hawthorne tree Oxyacanthus.
The Hawthorne groweth in woods, & in hedges neer unto high waies almost everie where. .. many do call the tree it selfe the May bush, as a chiefe token of the comming in of May: .. the fruite is ripe in the beginning of September, and is a food for birdes in winter.
Herball, or, Generall Historie of Plantes via the Biodiversity Heritage Library (Trees begin at around page 1146)