Whiteknights Park as an arboretum

Guest blog by Jonathan Gregory, National Centre for Atmospheric Science, Dept of Meteorology, University of Reading & Met Office Hadley Centre

I grew up in Welwyn Garden City, which has plenty of trees of many kinds. As far as I remember, I’ve always found them beautiful, as individuals and in landscapes. I learned to recognise ash, hawthorn and apple from the gardens of the houses I grew up in, my parents planted a tree (a silver birch) in ’73, and oaks (older than the town) were familiar from the streets of the neighbourhood. During these years most of the mature elms of Britain died, including a row of them not far from my junior school. I was sad about that, but too young to miss the sight of them in the countryside.

Some time in my twenties I was stimulated (by not knowing what a hornbeam is) to learn to recognise native and commonly planted tree species. It was an unexpected revelation, like learning an alphabet, which turns squiggles into meaning. Groups of trees turned from undifferentiated vegetation into collections of distinguishable familiar characters. A friend asked me why I wanted to know their names. One reason is curiosity about the surroundings. Another is that trees are sometimes used to evoke landscapes in descriptions, for instance a beechwood, or what Tolkien had in mind when he compared individual ents to chestnut and rowan trees. I want to recognise trees from a distance; it’s fun to try to name them as you pass by on a train.

A variety of trees in the landscape, on the north lakeside

Soon after I started working at the university in 2003 it occurred to me that Whiteknights campus could provide plenty of examples for anyone else who wanted to learn common trees, especially if some of them were identified (with labels or by photos), but I did not make time for this project until autumn of 2019. Since then I have spent many enjoyable hours taking photos and compiling a virtual arboretum, which aims to picture, identify and map a few individuals, in each season, of every species represented, along with details of leaves, bark, etc. The project grew as I discovered, with some excitement, what a huge diversity of trees we have. Rupert Taylor, Head of Grounds Maintenance, helpfully corrected misidentifications I had made because I had not imagined that there were many non-native species looking quite like native ones e.g. Fraxinus angustifolia and F. excelsior. (I expect that confusing this pair seems inconceivably careless to experienced botanists—and I also made a few more embarrassingly serious mistakes.)

I would welcome any comments and corrections, adding to useful suggestions I’ve already received (make the site mobile-friendly and in PDFs for download, include high-resolution images, link to web pages with species information). The X-rated virtual arboretum shows the trees I’ve not identified, in which I’d be grateful for help! I’d also be happy to know the location of any white poplar, downy birch, sessile oak, common whitebeam, crack willow and common juniper. I’ve appreciated encouragement from the Friends of the University of Reading, Alastair Culham and Jonathan Mitchley of the School of Biological Sciences, and my colleague Benoît Vannière.

Metasequoia glyptostroboides, the dawn redwood

Many thanks to Jonathan for providing this entry! If you’re interested in contributing to the Whiteknights Biodiversity blog, please email v.l.boult(at)reading.ac.uk

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