January 20th, 2017

It’s wonderful that Westonbirt Arboretum is a place where 500,000 people come every year to escape the stresses and strains of everyday life. As part of our Heritage Lottery Funded project we’ve successfully introduced a community programme, part of which enables us to provide some focused engagement with members of the community who are learning to live with a range of mental health conditions. Being from the community ourselves it should be no surprise that we, the staff who work here, also experience many of the same emotions and conditions as the people who visit us. Here, one of our number, Tomas shares his own journey with depression in the hope that his experience may help others…

 

Living with Trees

Tomas Dewey, Arborist at Westonbirt Arboretum

I am 29 years old, male, and I am an Arborist at Westonbirt Arboretum. I have suffered from Depression since I was 13 years old. When I was 18 years old, without leaving a note or telling anyone where I was going I drove my car to a motorway bridge in the middle of the night and climbed over the railings. It was the thought of my parents’ grief that caused me not to let go. I had attempted suicide, and failed.

It’s sometimes very difficult to explain to someone who does not understand quite what depression is.

One of the reasons it is so difficult is that most people have a preconceived idea of what depression is. I would wager that you could probably remember a time in your life when you have described a particularly dreary Monday morning in winter as depressing. Or described yourself, or others as depressed during a period of sadness or frustration. In reality, Depression is a debilitating and potentially fatal illness. It is a startling fact that in 2014, 6122 people from the UK committed suicide, of this number around 75% were male. But most shocking of all, for males under the age of 45 – suicide is the most common cause of death. If you are reading this and you are a male under 45; you are the thing most likely to kill you. And it’s because we, as men aren’t talking about it. Arboriculture is one of those stereotypical ‘macho man’ industries and so, works as the perfect way of describing the problem, with us blokes that is, causing the dreadful statistics I mentioned earlier.

I just cannot imagine descending down from a 30m pine after a hard afternoon’s slog. As a combination of sweat and dirt pours down my face. Packing up my climbing harness, and putting my chainsaw back in the truck whilst attempting to brush the sweat soaked sawdust from my arms and t-shirt. Before then turning to a colleague and saying,

“Last night I sat in my car, in a McDonalds car park and cried for the best part of four hours because I really don’t want to exist anymore. And I’m trying but I can’t find anywhere I want to be more than nowhere at all.”

I can’t imagine saying that because I don’t want anyone to think I am a ‘wimp’ or a ‘girl’. As well as that I don’t want to impose my weaknesses on them. In spite of knowing I am in the rare but lucky position to have a supportive and understanding team around me, I still struggle to overcome that age old stigma that a Man should be a Man. Brave. Unafraid. Strong. The societal expectation that I should be able to pull myself together and just get on with it. After all, isn’t it common knowledge that sitting down and chatting about your feelings is something that only Women do? Come on, Man up!

‘Manning up’, however does not help. It only aids to make things worse. It adds to the stigma. It reinforces the ideals that keep us quietly pretending to be ok. The reason why I am writing this is because I want to be able to be honest. The proof of how successful I will be in this endeavor will be if my name is included in the title.

But, I should talk about trees. Aren’t they just amazing? Depending on your level of interest, trees can be seen as giant, complicated organisms or as just something beautiful to look at, or both. They’re capable of feats of engineering greater than anything man has ever created. For example, to achieve the remarkable efficiency of photosynthesis trees employ quantum superposition, a fundamental principle of quantum mechanics. Physics aside, they can be used practically. Tree lined roads reduce the likelihood of speeding. In urban areas they can increase property prices and an area’s desirability so much so that new housing estates often name roads after trees to make up for the lack of them. They provide us with the oxygen we need to breath and to neatly tie us back into the theme of the article, they can help aid recovery from depression. There is a simplicity about trees that is quite wondrous. They are calming. If you happen to find yourself away from the bustle of your busy lives and find the time in spring to lie beneath a tree and look up through the branches as the sunlight works its way through the fresh leaves, then you are experiencing something the Japanese would call komorebi (木漏れ日). A word that has no direct translation into English.

During my younger years, I worked for a year in New Zealand and whilst I was there I spent a few days tramping in the Nothofagus forests of Fiordland. Tramping trails in New Zealand aren’t quite like our well-worn public footpaths here in the UK. They are barely visible at all, marked only by the occasional orange triangle. As I walked through these woods, I experienced a quietness like I had never before. Not that the woods were quiet, the wind in the leaves and the chatter of birds kept me company as well as the sound of the forest floor crunching under my boots. It was an internal quietness. My mind, stripped of the pressures of everyday life, was calm.

I don’t think I can explain fully how spending an hour or two up in the broad spreading canopy of a Beech, walking a quiet woodland trail or sitting between the buttress roots of an ancient oak can give me a peace when my depression takes hold, other than that it is a place of safety in which to breath.

Numerous organisations and charities take advantage of this phenomenon, using woodland skills and workshops to assist vulnerable people. At Westonbirt our excellent community outreach programme has helped hundreds of people suffering with one form or another of mental health disorder.

As I write this I consider myself very lucky to be alive. And even luckier still that I get to spend my days in one of the most beautiful settings imaginable. I find that even in my darkest moments that I can be proud of myself for contributing to the upkeep of somewhere that provides so many with so much positivity. I enjoy the idea that on a daily basis I am benefitting from the work and visions of people who died long before their vision grew into fruition. Because I know that when I am no longer around, people will walk amongst the trees of Westonbirt Arboretum and enjoy what I too helped to create. But if I get the chance, as an old man, to return to Westonbirt and wander the glades to a tree I planted as a lad and lie on my back to watch the summer sun dance through the leaves, maybe I will think that without me, this tree would not be here, but without the tree maybe I wouldn’t be either.

For information and mental health support you can visit mind.org.uk or you can call the Samaritans on 116 123.

 

Tree of the month: January 2017

January 6th, 2017

What is the tree of the month?

Cheng fir (Abies chengii)

Cheng Fir Tree Branch

Why is it tree of the month?

This species was described in the 1980s from our single specimen here at Westonbirt. It was collected as seed by the Scottish plant hunter George Forrest in the 1930s and has been grown in collections under various names since. Our historical records indicate that our plant was planted in 1938. Recent literature suggests that it may be a variety or form of the related Abies forrestii, though this is not a universally held view.

Where can I find it?

Our tree, the TROBI champion for height, grows close to Willesley Drive and Byhams Ride in Silk Wood. You can locate specimens using the Westonbirt map

Cheng Fir Tree

Free entry to RHS Gardens has ended

January 4th, 2017

The Royal Horticultural Society (RHS) are no longer offering Westonbirt members free entry to any of their gardens after July 2017 using their Friends membership card.  Please read on to check when your membership will no longer be valid to visit any of the RHS sites for free.

  • All members had free access to any RHS gardens up to 31st December 2016.
  • If your membership was renewed or began between the 1st of January and 31st of July 2016 you will still be able to gain free entry until the expiry date on your current card up to 31st of July 2017.
  • If you are a life or 10 year Friend you will also still be able to visit up to the 31st of July 2017.

As of 1st of January 2017, RHS members no longer gain free access to Westonbirt Arboretum.

The Friends of Westonbirt Arboretum and the Forestry Commission were not consulted by the RHS before they made their decision and we realise that some Friends will be disappointed by this outcome.  However, we hope you still feel that being a member of Westonbirt is good value and understand how much your support benefits the arboretum.

In 2016 alone we were able to open the STIHL Treetop Walkway and the Wolfson Tree Management Centre and of course the work on our fantastic collection of trees and shrubs continues. This fantastic work would not have been possible without the support from you, our members.

There are still a whole host of other benefits to Friends of Westonbirt members, including free admission to:

  • Batsford Arboretum
  • Bedgebury National Pinetum
  • Birmingham Botanicals & Glasshouses
  • The Yorkshire Arboretum
  • National Botanic Gardens of Wales
  • Royal Botanic Garden Edinburgh
  • Royal Botanic Gardens Kew
  • Royal Botanic Gardens Wakehurst Place

Of course your membership gives you free entry to Westonbirt every day (except Christmas day) and free entry for your children aged 18 and under. Plus free Westonbirt magazines, priority booking for Forest Live concerts, and priority booking and Friday discounts for Enchanted Christmas, which all help to ensure that your membership really is great value.

Best Wishes,

Catherine Hewer

Supporter Engagement Manager

Plant hunting…we’re back!

November 30th, 2016

After just over 3 weeks out in the field in Italy, we are now settling back into our daily routines here at Westonbirt.

The last portion of our trip was spent in the north east of the country, primarily to collect some of the European conifer species that grow in this area. We were working with staff from the Corpo Forestale dello Stato and as in the south, we benefitted from their encyclopedic knowledge of the native flora.

Collecting highlights here included Scots pine, Abies alba and Pinus mugo, all of which are currently important species here in the landscape at Westonbirt, though the vast majority of these are of no known origin. Our collections are significant as these plants will help inform us as to how Italian examples of these species will perform in our climate.

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In total, we made 77 collections, 16 of which were also for the Millenium Seed Bank. Though we didn’t quite manage to collect everything on our target plant list (that’s nature for you!), strong connections were made with our Italian colleagues and we are well placed to explore further collecting options in the future.

For all of us, the experience was one that will remain with us forever. We were treated to incredible hospitality throughout and without our Italian colleagues; none of this would have been possible. To marvel at these plants in their native habitat is of course incredible and to collect seed that will become trees in the collection here at Westonbirt is truly special. We are looking forward to it!!

Dan, Dendrologist

 

Tree of the month : December 2016

November 30th, 2016

What is tree of the month?

Abies fraseri (Fraser fir)

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Why is it tree of the month?

An increasingly common sight around this time of year, Fraser fir is widely used as a Christmas tree. It is however included on the IUCN Red List of Threatened Plants as Endangered, as it’s threatened by an invasive insect in its native range in the Eastern United States.

There it grows with a number of other species that also grow in the Westonbirt collection such as the American mountain ash, Sorbus americana and mountain maple, Acer spicatum.

In U.K cultivation it is generally considered not to be particularly long lived.

Where can I find it?

A small but fine specimen grows close to Holford Ride in Victory Glade and other, younger plants can be found elsewhere in the Old Arboretum. You can locate specimens using the Westonbirt map,  http://www.thewestonbirtmap.org.uk/

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Plant hunting…week two!

November 3rd, 2016

We’ve just left Naples to head for Arrezo in the north.

From 21st to 25th October we collected in The Pollino National Park which straddles Calabria and Basilicata and covers 193,000 hectares with mountains up to a height of 2,266m and is dramatic.

Collections are now at 60 and one of the most notable is Pino loricato which in Italy only grows in Pollino.   A long hard 10K walk to the top but well worth it.

 

Seed collecting Seed collecting

We also went to Alessandria del Caretto on the eastern side of the park where six species of maple grow including Lobel’s maple, Norway maple and Montpellier maple but very little seed collected.

 
It’s fantastic, but the less glamorous side is spending hours in launderettes , DHL offices, and travelling!

Tree of the month: November 2016

October 27th, 2016

What is tree of the month?

Pinus nigra  (Black pine)

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Why is it tree of the month?

An important tree in the Westonbirt landscape, black pine is native to parts of Europe and is split into 5 subspecies, though it’s taxonomic treatment is somewhat controversial! We hope to add to our current specimens through collections we have made in south Italy.

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Known as Calabrian pine to the locals, huge trees of what is generally known as Pinus nigra subsp. laricio grow in Aspromonte National Park and elsewhere.

Where can I find it?

Young and mature specimens can be found throughout the collection. You can locate specimens using the Westonbirt map,  http://www.thewestonbirtmap.org.uk/

Plant hunting…week one!

October 25th, 2016

After an action packed 9 days in Calabria and Basilicata we have made a total of 45 collections from our target and associated species list. The pickings have been slightly mixed, with only herbarium material available in some cases, but our detailed collection records make all of this worthwhile.

Personal highlights for me so far include collecting seed of Oriental plane along a riverbed which was growing with alder and black poplar,  among many other species. The fruits of the Oriental plane can be irritant so we had to handle them with care!

Penny handling Oriental plane fruits Team seed collecting in Italy

 

We have also been on the quest for Acer lobelii (Lobel’s maple), a somewhat little known maple endemic to southern Italy. So far, we have found it growing in two locations but, alas, no trees with seed. We do however have other areas in which it grows to explore.

Dan with Lobel's maple

Dan with Lobel’s maple

We’ve sent the first batch of seed to the UK already and we are now off to begin our collecting at Pollino National Park, where we hope to have good fortune with a number of maples, limes, oaks and pines.

Dan, Westonbirt Dendrologist

Plant hunting . . . an exciting opportunity to make a difference!

October 7th, 2016

New specimens are the lifeblood of any botanical collection. They are needed to provide an all-important uneven age structure, which should ultimately ensure there will be trees for future generations to enjoy.

Together with an expert from Royal Botanic Gardens Kew, we are about to set off on a three-week trip to Italy this autumn to search for internationally important tree species.  We will be travelling light and covering as much ground as possible to make the most of this exciting opportunity.  We’ll start collecting in the far southwest, before heading to the northeast.

Dendrologist Dan Crowley, Propagator Penny Jones and I will explore hundreds of miles of Italian countryside to seek out a target list of species that we have carefully selected for a variety of reasons.  We will be accompanied throughout our trip by several Italian botanists and researchers, who have kindly helped us with the planning and logistics.

Left to right: Dan, Penny and Mark.

Left to right: Dan, Penny and Mark.

Some of the trees and shrubs identified as targets will be familiar, but it will be useful to test a more southerly provenance of these species in view of our predicted changing climate.  When I asked Dan what he was hoping for, he immediately stated his main aim is to collect seed from Lobel’s maple (Acer lobelii), as this is rare in the wild and in cultivation.  Penny wishes to see trees growing in their native range and habitat, which will importantly help us to position new plantings correctly within the Westonbirt landscape.

The species that are grand in size will be sought to maintain and develop the historic landscape at Westonbirt, but there is potential that some of these species could also have a big impact on the forestry industry in years to come.  In partnership with Forest Research, we have been gathering information on a few key species which have the potential to become timber trees, hopefully with less risk of pest and disease.

Recent work by our Forest Research colleagues has shown that European silver fir (Abies alba) can be a productive species when grown in Britain, and could be more widely used to diversify our UK forests.  The work showed that seed collected in Calabria, Italy performed well and we now need to establish better contacts in this area to collect new seed.  We also want to learn more about how altitude, soils and other factors affect the growth of this tree.

We will endeavour to provide a few updates along the way, and as always, we look forward to seeing how well these new trees will grow at Westonbirt and elsewhere.

Tree of the month: October 2016

September 27th, 2016
What is tree of the month?

Nyssa sylvatica

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Why is it tree of the month?

One of the very best trees for autumn colour, Nyssa sylvatica never disappoints. It is somewhat overlooked at other points during the year but come October, it stands out even among the riot of colour with leaves that turn strong shades of red, orange and yellow. It really is worth trying to catch our trees at their best.

Native to eastern North America, it grows in the company of many other of our favourites for autumn colour including cherry birch, Betula lenta, bitternut, Carya cordiformis and red maple, Acer rubrum.

Where can I find it?

Examples can be found dotted around both the Old Arboretum and Silk Wood, including on Pool Avenue, Holford Ride and Broad Drive.