Category Archives: Environment

Styphnolobium japonicum (or when an Acacia is actually a Japanese Scholar Tree)

WP_20180807_13_03_38_ProI’ve got a definitive ID of the incredible blooming tree that I wrote about a couple of weeks ago . I wrote that it seemed to be in the Fabaceae family and I wondered if it might be some kind of sun loving acacia.  No one had seen it flower in over thirty years.

It is in fact a Styphnolobium japonicum (sometimes known as a Saphora japonica) a tree that’s a native of China but naturalised in Japan where it was discovered by European plant collectors. It was brought to Britain by James Gordon in 1753 and you can still see one of the trees planted at Kew in 1760.

It’s packed full of medicinal properties and has a special place in Buddhist culture where it is known as the scholar or pagoda tree and was often planted outside temples. The young monks would have lessons beneath its canopy.  In Jingshan Park in Beijing a large, old Styphnolobium japonicum is known as ‘The Guilty Scholar Tree’ .  The last ruler of the Ming Dynasty , the Chongzhen Emperor allegedly hanged himself from the tree in 1644 after the imperial capital, Beijing, fell to rebel forces led by Li Zicheng. Today it’s probably more often seen used in bonsai than it is in gardens.

The reason no one has seen this particular one flower is that it doesn’t do so until it’s at least thirty years old, sometimes quite a bit older. This one is around 35 or so years old.   The flowers are incredible and the whole canopy is alive with bees so I wasn’t surprised to discover that it’s recommended by The British Beekeepers Association as one of their ‘Trees For Bees’.

Planting a young Japanese Scholar Tree is probably for most of us something of a gift to the future one reason perhaps why it’s always been more of a tree for public parks than domestic gardens.   The person who planted the Heworth tree is no longer with us but it’s likely people (and thousands of bees) wil be enjoying those flowers on a yearly basis from now on.

Habitat Aid sell a variety of ‘Trees For Bees’  including the Scholar Tree on their website and half of the profits go to UK conservation charities.

A year of extremes

Working outdoors I’m perhaps more aware of the weather than most. My ‘summer timetable’ began on the tail end of The Beast From The East’.  Usually in March there’s enough glimpses of sunshine to complement the first flowers and to suggest that Spring is well underway. This year it was cold, the ground was sodden when it wasn’t frozen and working in it was sometimes a challenge. But you plough through the worse of March knowing that April will bring some sunny days, shirt sleeves and better weather. This year it didn’t. It was still cold well into the middle of the month and at times it felt like it would never stop raining. I lost count of the number of times I came home looking like a drowned rat.  I remember talking to clients about the similarities with 2012 which was famously wet and cold throughout.  There were weird goings on elsewhere however with the London Marathon being run in the middle of an unlikely heatwave. The Met Office this year has had to issue warnings for serious snow, flooding and heatwave.

May began with a continued wet theme  before the weather began to settle into the dry and increasingly hot pattern we’ve seen over the last few weeks.  My plans for this blog post were originally going to include something about helping your garden to cope with the lack of water but that now feels superfluous following the Biblical deluge we’ve had over the past few days.  Organisers of summer events who were gleefully anticipating perfect conditions for this weekend just gone were instead tethering down gazebos or issuing cancellation notices.

It’s hard not to think that something is going on.  It is, but perhaps not quite how we imagine. The weather in March was actually not particularly unusual for that time of year we’ve just adjusted to milder winters.  The earlier arrival of Spring across the Northern Hemisphere is a well-established phenomenon, and one that has been linked to the changing climate.

What’s happened over the past few weeks, not just in  the UK but globally however is much more alarming for climate watchers. The planet is getting hotter. There were times over the past couple of weeks when places in the Arctic Circle were as hot as southern Spain. The consequences for communities across the globe have been clear to see.

In our own country we might not face quite such extreme consequences (but the people living near moorland areas that have been ablaze recently might disagree) but a warming climate will have profound consequences for how we live our lives, not least how we garden.  Should dry hot summers become the norm lush lawns will become a thing of the past, some of our much loved plants which thrive in a temperate climate may have to become history replaced by tougher sun lovers.

Now thankfully I’m not spending as much time watering as I have been and the ground is thoroughly soaked.   As older born and bred Yorkies have been telling me over the past few weeks we’ve never had a hosepipe ban in York as our water comes from the rivers Ouse and Foss but you can’t help but worry about indiscrimate use of water on our gardens.

We might be a nation that obsesses over weather but this year has given us much to think about. I really wouldn’t want to predict what the second half of the summer into autumn will have in store but I do know that we all need to make changes to prevent unavoidable climate change becoming a global catastrophe.  It’s one very big reason why I’ve elected to be a cycling gardener rather than a man with a van.