5 posts tagged with

sessile oak (Quercus petraea)

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The fall of the Pontfadog Oak: Britain has lost one of its greatest trees

Thursday last week I heard from my father that a great oak had blown down overnight near Wrexham. From the internet I learned it was the Pontfadog Oak that had fallen – Britain’s second-biggest-girthed sessile oak (Quercus petraea). After doing a bit of research and discovering two other named oaks nearby (a story for another day), I decided to pay my respects and get some photographs of the fallen champion. So on Saturday morning I jumped in the car and drove the 100 miles to Wales – hey, if Yorkshire’s greatest lapsed treeblogger can’t do that, then who can?

Arriving in the tiny village of Pontfadog in Wrexham County Borough about midday, I called in to the post office, bought a Tango, and nonchalantly asked the man behind the counter where exactly could one find ‘the old oak’? He was hesitant. I assured him I would seek permission from the landowner before approaching the tree. Still doubtful, he nevertheless spilled the beans: “up the hill by the pub, left at the chapel, then right along the private drive”. After passing the chapel without realising it, I wandered up and down various lanes until my eagley eyes picked out the prostrate behemoth from a distance.

Once I homed in on Cilcochwyn Farm it became apparent I wasn’t the only one who had made the pilgrimage. A small group were gathered in the farmyard with cups of tea discussing the fate of the unfortunate Pontfadog Oak, which lay sprawled before them, its extremities pressing on the farmhouse. A few other people were standing around the oak, some with their cameras out. I addressed a bloke in the farmyard group.
“Is this your farm?”
“It is.”
“Can I take some photographs of the tree please?”
“Of course you can!” The man in the post office needn’t have been so reticent; there was almost a party atmosphere here!

I had only taken a few pictures when an old man asked if I was looking for the other ramblers. “No, I’m here to see the tree,” I replied. “Really?” He seemed pleasantly surprised. “Where have you come from?” “Sheffield,” I said. “Really?” Surprised again (maybe even astounded). “What’s your interest in trees?” he asked. I told him that I’d studied forestry and ecology at university, that I’m an arborist, and that I have a general interest in trees, really old ones in particular. He produced a small notebook and with the aid of a quick sketch explained the theory put to him as to why the tree had fallen over. The tree was splitting in half so an iron band was installed around the trunk to keep the two halves together; but when one half was ready to fall it had no choice but to bring the other half with it. I didn’t think this plausible. More likely, I explained, was that the oak had little left in the way of structural integrity - the inevitable consequence of an exceptionally long life and the work of wood-decay fungi. Yet it still maintained a respectable crown which unfortunately acted as a sail in the wind. Enough wind that night and over it went. Perhaps if the tree had been propped up, like many grand old trees are, then the Pontfadog Oak could have survived last week’s gales and remained standing for many years to come.

A snapped root; the tissue appears to be living albeit with fungal rot present.

Still, I was in for a shock when I saw both the underside of the tree and the soil on which had it stood for centuries. Where were all the roots? For all intents and purposes, there was nothing at all to anchor it to the ground. The biggest roots there, which were really nothing, were completely rotten. There were a couple of small straggly roots that were live wood, but had they really managed to sustain the whole tree? Like I said, the crown was quite respectable, so I was completely baffled by the apparent absence of anything to pull water out of the ground. The only reason the tree remained upright prior to Wednesday night was the sheer bulk of its enormous trunk: simple gravity! When too much wind dragged in its sail (which was still leafless, so not even that effective a sail) the whole tree just rolled over without a fight, exposing a bare patch of undisturbed soil. The Pontfadog Oak really ought to have been artificially supported!

A completely dead and rotten snapped root. This could no longer anchor the tree in the ground.

So what can I tell you about the Pontfadog Oak prior to this catastrophe? Its demise has made the news, where unfortunately certain myths regarding this famed tree have been promulgated as facts. I’ll summarise here under the heading ‘Facts’ a few things that I think are safe to call the truth, followed under the heading ‘Non-facts’ by a few things I believe are doubtful or implausible. ‘Tis a valuable public service I perform…

I spotted this graffiti on a piece of old deadwood: ‘T.L. 1939’

Facts
- In 2007 the director of the Tree Register, David Alderman, measured the girth of the Pontfadog Oak at 1.5 m from the ground as 12.9 m. 1
- In 2006 the tree was around 11 m tall. 1
- In 2012 “a group of experts from the Ancient Tree Forum visited the Pontfadog Oak and put together a list of actions that they believed could help conserve it. Although the total cost was only £5,700, these actions were never taken as no funding source was available.” 2
- The tree is referred to by George Borrow in his book Wild Wales, first published in 1862. 3
- It was perhaps the third ‘fattest’ of our two native oaks, Quercus petraea and Quercus robur. 3 The Tree Register considers the Marton Oak in Cheshire to be the fattest, with a diameter of 446 cm, even though it is in a state of collapse with the trunk made up of three separated sections. The Tree Register’s Handbook records the diameter of the Pontfadog Oak as being 409 cm in 1999 “around collapsing parts”. The only other fatter oak listed is one at Great Witley, Worcestershire, which had a diameter of 411 cm at 1 m height in 2007 “under division of three parts”. 4
- Rob McBride, tree hunter: “…until about 200 years ago [it] was a tree that was pollarded – with branches and leaves regularly cut to feed animals and build fencing.” This guy was a local and I trust he knows his stuff. 5
- The Pontfadog Oak was designated one of fifty Great British Trees in celebration of the Golden Jubilee of Queen Elizabeth II in 2002 “in recognition of its place in the national heritage”. 6

Old deadwood colonised by colourful lichens.

Non-facts
- “The 1,200 year old Pontfadog Oak... is said to have grown near Chirk in Wrexham since 802 [AD]…” 2 It is next to impossible to date a tree of this size and condition with any accuracy. You can’t count the annual rings – the tree is hollow and very rotten, so the oldest wood no longer exists. You can’t make an estimation based on known growth rates of oak – way too many variables, especially on that time scale and with the likely variations in crown size over time. Arriving at one specific year – 802 – is frankly ridiculous and almost certainly wrong.
- “It is known that the Welsh Prince Owain Gwynedd rallied his army under the tree in 1157, before taking on, and defeating the English King Henry II at the battle of Crogen nearby.” 2 How is this ‘known’? Are there contemporary records pinpointing this exact tree? Could this information have been reliably passed down for nearly 900 years? (See the number of lost battle sites in this country.) Would the Pontfadog Oak really have been a large enough tree almost nine centuries ago for a Welsh prince to choose it as his rally point?
- “It was the oldest oak tree in Wales, probably the oldest in Britain and one of the oldest in the world. Although it has been said since it came down the tree was about 1,200 years old I believe it may be even older. I remember there was a millennium project done on it in 2000 and at that time experts suggested it may be even about 1,700 years.” 7 1,700 years old? I really can’t see it.

A burr (or burl) halfway up the trunk.

I wonder what will happen next to this enormous and extraordinarily long-lived tree. I hope at least that the trunk can be preserved in some way; it would be a shame to leave it to rot away in the corner of a field somewhere, or to have it carved up for firewood.

Last week this would have been a bird’s-eye view.

Sources
1 Sessile oak close to Pontfadog in Gyntraian. Monumental Trees.
2 Wales loses its oldest oak tree, the Pontfadog Oak. Woodland Trust.
3 Condolences for Wales’ National Tree. Woodland Matters.
4 Johnson, Owen (2011). Champion Trees of Britain and Ireland (The Tree Register Handbook).
5 Pontfadog Oak: 1,200-year-old tree toppled by winds. BBC.
6 List of Great British Trees. Wikipedia.
7 Expert says 1,200-year-old oak tree near Oswestry cannot be saved. Shropshire Star.

The massive, hollow, burred bole of the fallen Pontfadog Oak.


* * * * *

Next post: A visit to the nearby Oak at the Gate of the Dead & the Duelling Oak.


Posted in Notable trees





Sessile oak – developing acorns

These tiny acorns aren’t yet far along in their development. I’m sure this is a sessile or durmast oak (Quercus petraea) rather than an English or pedunculate oak (Quercus robur) because: a) the leaves are stalked; & b) the acorns are stalkless (sessile).

Photos taken earlier today in Oxley Park, Stocksbridge.

Brown, many-scaled buds sit to the right of three developing acorns. I wonder if the Lonely Oak will have any acorns this year?

Colourful late-season growth was rocketing from the tips of many of this tree’s branches.

This beech (Fagus sylvatica) was loaded with cupules containing their own developing nuts.


Posted in Gone for a walk





The Capon Tree in the snow

I spent a few days in Edinburgh at the weekend catching up with old uni mates. While I was studying, travelling between Edinburgh and Sheffield usually meant a long car journey. After making the trip a few times I found out about the Capon Tree, a veteran sessile oak (Quercus petraea) on the route just outside of Jedburgh in the Borders. On the journey home for Christmas 2005 I made my father and sister - who had driven up from Sheffield to collect me - stop at the tree in the dark! Since then, whenever I’ve taken this route I’ve always kept an eye out for the Capon Tree as I’ve passed. I’ve stopped a few times since – most recently on Monday when I was driving home from Edinburgh in the snow.

I’ve seen various sizes and ages attributed to the Capon Tree, but to avoid confusion I won’t repeat them here. The tree is a relic of the ancient Jed Forest which once covered much of the region. It used to consist of two upright stems but sometime during the twentieth century the tree fell in half; one of the stems remains upright and the other is supported almost horizontally by several sturdy beams keeping it off of the floor. The tree is alive and looking healthy but it’s totally hollow at the base; several people could comfortably fit into the space between the stems. I noticed a few mushrooms and icicles growing on the deadwood in there.

A fairly comprehensive web page on the Capon Tree can be found at John Peters’ photography site, complete with photos of the tree in leaf.

There’s a close-up look at some of the rotten timber inside the hollow:

In 2002, in celebration of the Golden Jubilee of Queen Elizabeth II, the Tree Council designated the Capon Tree as one of fifty Great British trees ‘in recognition of its place in the national heritage’.

The Capon Tree stands in a small field between the A68 and the River Jed, just south of Jedburgh. If you’re ever in the vicinity it’s well worth a visit, particularly if like me you’re a fan of impressively massive and ancient trees. I’ve heard of another giant oak nearby called the King of the Woods, but I’ve yet to seek it out. That’s a pleasure for a future journey!

Happy Christmas!


Posted in Notable trees





Photos from a field trip in Ormsary (September 2007)

I was on a field trip for a week at the beginning of September. A bunch of ecological science final year students in a cluster of chalets and a palace-like bungalow near Ormsary, Kintyre, Scotland. Galls, silver birch provenance trials, etc.

oak

Oak overhead! (Photo taken on the 2nd of September 2007).

sample plot in oak woodland

Standing in a sample plot in oak (probably sessile) woodland. Check out all the bracken! The red and white thing is a two metre tall ranging pole and marks one corner of the square plot. (Photo taken on the 2nd of September 2007).

tar spots on sycamore leaves

Tar spots on sycamore leaves. Tar spots are caused by the fungus Rhytisma acerinum and don't really harm the host tree, apart from reducing the photosynthetic area of the host's leaves. (Photo taken on the 3rd of September 2007).

larch and a pine

Larch and a pine at the edge of a grassy area. (Photo taken on the 3rd of September 2007).

mushroom cloud

An interesting cloud. Mushrooms, anyone? (Photo taken on the 3rd of September 2007).


Posted in Holidays and field trips





The Capon Tree (May 2007)

Last Saturday I travelled back home from Edinburgh. The Capon Tree at Jedburgh is en route, so it was no trouble to stop and check it out again. The old veteran has made it though another winter and is now in full leaf. These photos just don't do justice to the Capon Tree's impressive size.

the Capon Tree

the 'front'

the 'back'

the lower bough

the upper bough

the Capon Tree


Posted in Notable trees





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