VisitEngland’s Katie Rowe catches up with Simon Toomer, tree expert and Director of Westonbirt, The National Arboretum in Gloucestershire.
Once a wealthy Victorian’s pleasure park, it’s now part of the Forestry Commission and is home to some of the rarest trees in the world, including a few that smell like candy floss…
Tell us about the National Arboretum’s history...
It began as a rich person’s pleasure ground. There was a chap called Robert Holford and he started planting in the 1860s on the wider Westonbirt Arboretum Estate. Robert Holford loved trees and he loved landscapes so he combined those two passions and created a beautiful treescape and now 150 years on, managed by the Forestry Commission, it’s open for everyone to enjoy.
Why is the National Arboretum so special?
We have trees from over 80 countries and most of them are very rare in the wild. You see them at Westonbirt in captivity but like animals in a zoo they come from wild forests and many of them are very rare in the wild and we work with other people to try to conserve them. We’re going to South Korea this year with the Millennium Seed Bank (a worldwide initiative to collect seeds and save plants from extinction) and some of the seeds from South Korea will come to Westonbirt and some of them will go to the Seed Bank.
Best things to see in summer and early autumn?
The Downs are beautiful with long grass and wild flowers; at the moment we have bee orchids in flower. In late summer and early autumn one of the real highlights is the meadow saffron, sometimes called autumn croakers. It’s quite an unusual plant and we have lots of them at Westonbirt.
From about now, fruit starts to form so you get some really interesting fruits on the trees – some we all know about but some are much more unusual and strange and have weird colours and shapes.
"One of the strangest trees we have is called a Katsura. We sometimes call it the candy floss tree because come late summer/early autumn, when the leaves begin to colour, they give out this incredible smell of burnt sugar."
And the other seasons?
In autumn everyone must see the Japanese maples in the Acer Glade. During the winter go along to Holford Ride and see the great big structural shapes of the conifers and the evergreens too. In spring you need to go to Savill Glade and Circular Drive to see all the spring flowers.
What sort of wildlife can you encounter while visiting?
If you’re lucky you might see the roe deer we have. I quite often see weasels and stokes, we’ve got a lot of moles, which I quite like, and a really good range of birds. There’s plenty of rare wild flowers particularly on the Downs, the rides and in Silk Wood. We’re also a very important place for fungi – we have well over a thousand species.
Why do you think it’s important to spend time in forests?
I feel a real connection with nature by spending time in a forest. I think it’s something deeply inbred in all of us, probably because we still think of forests as being the kind of landscape and the wilderness that we hark back to. When we have had enough of the city, a forest is great for walking, cycling and building dens in the woods.
Can you recommend a few activities that are suitable for families?
We have things going on all the time, particularly during the school holidays (check out the list below!). There’s also a long balance beam – if you imagine putting it upright it would be the length of the tallest tree at Westonbirt, which measures 153ft. It then extends to the tallest tree in the world (360ft) so it gives you an idea of how tall that is too as you walk along it.
Tell us about Westonbirt’s weird and wonderful trees…
One of the strangest trees we have is called a Katsura. We sometimes call it the candy floss tree because come late summer/early autumn, when the leaves begin to colour, they give out this incredible smell of burnt sugar. We’ve also got three Wollemi pine. These are very rare trees from Australia. They were only discovered in the wild in 1995 – before that everyone thought they were extinct.
We’ve got an old lime tree, which gets cut regularly and Mark Ballard (Westonbirt’s curator) took the decision to cut it right down to the ground and now it’s re-growing again. That’s’ thought to be 2000 years old. The roots are enormous. They extend to around 20-metres across. We’ve had a sculpture made this year and we’ve used all the poles that were cut from it to build a giant tree.
Apart from National Arboretum, where is your favourite forest in England and why?
I love the New Forest and the Forest of Dean. They’ve both got a really rich history. They’re very diverse and are fantastic places to go and explore because they’re so big. I also love some of the more modern forests that have been planted in the 20th century, like Grizedale in Cumbria and Dalby Forest in Yorkshire.
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