Tree choice: why I’m going native

I’ve changed my mind about using indigenous trees in garden designs – and urge everyone to do the same…

It’s not a groundbreaking thought to suggest planting more native trees. Leading designers such as Christopher Bradley-Hole have been advocating the use of indigenous species for years. In fact, I’m a little late to the party.

Like many other gardeners and designers, I’ve restricted the use of native trees to simple screening, within hedge lines or as retained self-set trees. Gardens are contrived and far from natural anyway, so why use a Betula pendula when you can use Betula utlis with its purer, whitewash bark?

It has taken a few events to shift my views.

First, was the impact of the terrible wildfires in southern Europe, and one particular image that showed a Portuguese farmhouse in a charred landscape of eucalyptus. Being an avid Lusophile, I was shocked to see the destruction but also drawn to the oasis of green, made up of oaks, chestnuts and elders around the house, that had remained untouched. The photo illustrated graphically the risks associated with eucalyptus plantings near houses – and how the fire retardant trees formed a protective barrier.

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I’ve also been hearing a myriad of stories about pests and diseases threatening non-native trees this year. At a recent talk about bio security threats by Professor Nicola Spence, UK Chief Plant Health Officer, I learned of a new bacterial disease – the Xylella fastidiosa – that could have a devastating impact on trees and shrubs in the UK.

Professor Spence’s lecture sharply highlighted the impact and influence gardeners and designers have in sourcing and encouraging the import of plants. Many of the plants we use travel thousands of miles and are grown in multiple countries, exposing us to new pest threats.

I must confess to degree of panic on hearing the current level of risk from imported plants. It could be all too easy to call for an all-out ban to protect our beautiful countryside. But pests also thrive in other transported goods: the wood of pallets, via people’s clothing or in smuggled plant material, so it is our connectivity that is the threat, not the plants alone. A ban would be impractical and ultimately ineffective.

Instead, gardeners and designers need to play their part by using more indigenous species. Why not promote the hawthorn from the hedgerow as a worthy stand-alone tree, for example; intermingle Field Maples with Japanese Acers; or use colourful Smoke Trees as that show-stopping accent or focal point? In short, could we bring native trees to the foreground of our gardens rather than keeping them in the shade?

With the physical space of the garden becoming ever-more limited in the UK, native trees offer an opportunity to appreciate and connect us with the countryside. It doesn’t mean rejecting the beauty of exotic trees altogether – after all, many of them may be the future beneficiaries of climate change and biodiversity – but instead, we need to change our view of native trees as ‘ordinary’. We often feel we ought to choose something more unusual, and forget that our own trees have magnificent qualities. Who knows, one day they may even stop your house from being burnt down.

My top 10 Native Trees (suitable for Cambridgeshire)

  1. Field Maple, Acer campestre – Fast growing tree with fabulous butter-yellow leaves in autumn.
  2. Wild Service Tree, Sorbus torminalis – A rare tree with attractive lobed leaves that tolerates shallow chalk, and has striking red leaves in autumn.
  3. Hornbeam, Carpinus betula – Beautiful as a group of trees or standalone specimen; has a gorgeous, tiered shape with attractive leaves.
  4. Walnut, Juglans regia – Some giant specimens exist in this county with attractive silver bark and glossy pinnate leaves.
  5. Betula pendula - Fine white bark, an attractive pendulous shape and small leaves that flicker in the slightest breeze. Beautiful yellow colour in autumn.  It should be high on the wish list.
  6. Hazel, Corylus avenlana – Admittedly, not your classic single stem tree, but its ‘shrubby' character is useful and enables regular coppicing. It also has attractive catkins and yellow leaves in autumn.
  7. Hawthorn, Crataegus monogyna – Often overlooked; simply because it makes up such a large proportion of our hedgerows. It has interesting bark, pleasant flowers, excellent berries, and autumn tints.
  8. White Willow, Salix alba – I look forward to persuading a client to include pollarded willow in a future design. I adore the soft grey green leaves and timeless characteristics of these trees in our landscape.
  9. Wild Cherry, Pruns avium – A noticeable feature in some of the older country gardens we maintain, intermingled with other native trees on boundaries, they grow tall and slender and have beautiful blossom and fine autumn colour.
  10. Holly Ilex aquifolium – For the drier parts of the county. Evergreen, spiky leaves with striking winter berries. Trees can be shaped and are good for screening.