When You Get To Know One Tree; You Learn to Love the Forest.

Malus in Bloom

London National Park City.

In many respects it should be no surprise that London is the world’s first National Park City.  One of the criteria for this is to be: “A large urban area that is managed and semi-protected through both formal and informal means to enhance the natural capital of its living landscape.” 

With about eight and a half million trees that provide cover for about a fifth of the area it is, sometimes, also referred to as an urban forest. The Mayor of London even has an online map which shows where many of them are should one want to find a particular type of tree.

Like many of my blog posts, if clicked-on many of the pictures are links to further information.

View from Tower St Peters Brockley2

These views from the tower of St Peter’s Church, Brockley, show this tree cover.

View from Tower St Peters Brockley

The Great North Wood

Some of the trees in the pictures above are, or are descended from, remnants of what is now referred to as the Great North Wood.  At one time the area that arches through South London would have been totally wooded. By the time of the Norman Conquest large parts had been cleared, and by the 20th Century it had been reduced to pockets of woodland and a few coppices.


In 1992 the Friends of the Great North Wood was formed to promote interest in, and sympathetic cohesive management of the woods across the various landowners involved.  In 2017 the Heritage Lottery Fund awarded £700,000 to the London Wildlife Trust  to help restore and preserve what remains of the woodland. Locally, each year sees more tree whips and trees being planted, transforming green deserts into richer more varied habitats.

Yesterday I was walking in Sydenham Hill Wood, which is managed by the trust, when for a few minutes the sun came out and brightened up an otherwise dull December afternoon.

Sydenham Hill Woods

My Favourite Tree

One of the parks I regularly cycle through has many fine trees in it including a remnant of the Great North Wood. My favourite tree in the whole park is a rather age wearied old crab apple or, as it is known to arboriculturists, Malus sylvestris. The introductory picture at the start of this post, is of that very tree in bloom.

Crab Apple tree sign

But of all the trees in the wood, why is this Malus my favourite?  Like all crab apples, it has a ‘crabby’ rather dishevelled appearance that reminds me of what my hair, when I had it, used to look like. Most of all though is that despite its far from prepossessing appearance, when one takes time to look more closely, many great facets of it become clear.

Naked Malus in Winter

In folk tradition, crab apples are associated with fertility and linked with love and marriage. One much quoted myth is that if you throw pips of the crab apple into a fire while saying the name of your sweetheart, the pips will explode if it is true love. Use of this imagery can be seen in the etchings below.

Daniel Hopfer

These are by Daniel Hopfer 1470 – 1536, who was an armourer by trade. Sometimes also listed as a German Old Masters artist, he was one of the first artists in Europe to use this technique for print making. The oldest surviving etchings by a European are those by Albrecht Dürer produced in 1515; whilst one surviving etching by Hopfer can be dated to 1523.

The association with fertility may also reflect that the pollen of the crab apple is particularly viable. Even today, you will find examples kept as a cross pollinator in commercial orchards growing varieties of modern apple that are not self-fertile. This role is enhanced by its long flowering season which, even if not required as a cross-pollinator, will attract bees and pollinating insects to the orchard prior to the commercial fruit trees coming into blossom.

Malus Fruit 1

Illustrations of the Adam and Eve story often included a crab apple to represent the ‘tree of life’ or ‘tree of knowledge of good and evil’. Until some of the Popes took exception to it, December 24th was also known in parts of Europe as ‘Adam and Eve Day’. As the Christmas tree tradition developed this was reflected by the use of apples as a decoration which developed in to the more familiar bauble. It is likely that this was also an appropriation of a pagan winter solstice tradition.

The fruit of the crab apple is small, hard and tart yet is in the DNA of every modern apple. These are mostly descended from the Asian wild apple Malus sieversii but about 20% of the genetic material will have come from the European Crab Apple Malus sylvestris.

Malus by Mattioli

Many of the wild crab apples identified as Malus Sylvestris, when tested turn out to be hybrids of the crab and cultivated species. This does however mean that the ‘pure’ specimens can be identifiedand the genetic material conserved against future need. ‘My’ malus in the park truly demonstrates the old saying; “the Fruit doesn’t fall far from the tree”.  It is now a small clump of crab apples – one more and it would qualify as an orchard. Most of the fruit is taken by wildlife and the pips are presumably distributed more widely.

Die Bäume und Sträucher des Waldes

A Cradle of Life

The most incredible thing about this old crab apple is the sheer amount of life it supports. Some moth species like the Eyed Hawk Moth below favour crab apple trees as do some caterpillars

Eyed Hawk Moth

It is covered by an incredible diversity of lichens and mosses.  These are not parasites but rely on the environment of the tree for survival. In summer when they need to conserve moisture, the tree canopy provides shade. In winter when they need more light to photosynthesise, the tree sheds it leaves to let the light in.  The fact that there are smaller trees growing alongside means that the next generations of these well matched species can continue to thrive together rather than having to find new hosts.

Moss and Lichen on Malus

Whilst snuggling up to a tree results in strange looks from passing dog walkers and joggers, it gives the chance to use a magnifying lens to look closer at what’s happening on it.  This reveals that areas of it are like mini rain forests and full of life in the form of tiny creatures.  These are in their turn a source of food for small mammals and birds.  The moss and lichens have, over many decades, managed to populate almost every part of the tree from the base of the trunk to the tips of the smallest twigs.

This tree is a cradle of life that supports a range of species that is out of all proportion to its size and visual impact, and yet it is one tree in a mix of trees that together support and maintain an even wider breadth of life.

Moss and Lichen on Malus 2

What this does is demonstrate the paucity of the argument put forward by developers and other that, for every tree they cut down they will plant another, or even more. The new trees will not support for many years the kind of localised ecosystem that a mature specimen does.  In the intervening years, other reliant species may well have declined. In urban areas the benefits brought to local air quality is lost.

Crab apples can be purchased on a range of rootstock meaning that there will be one appropriate for any size of garden or patio – why not give your local wildlife a treat and find a corner for one in your garden.


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Moss and Lichen on Malus 3



6 thoughts on “When You Get To Know One Tree; You Learn to Love the Forest.”

  1. Peter, the other thing about crab apples is that they are helpful in combatting arthrits, as long as you eat them pips and all. You probably ate one as a child as a dare and spat it out and went “Yeugh”! When women hit the menopause and men the andropause, our tastebuds change, e.g. younger people like honey and older people like marmalade. Try eating a few each day for as long as they are available on the tree.


  2. A fascinating and clearly very comprehensively researched piece. This takes me back to my childhood growing up in the Isle of Man on a farm where we had a long-established and luxuriant orchard – alas now deceased – with a variety of fruit trees of which the crab apple was one. Crab apple jelly springs to mind and even to the taste buds…?


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