Fungal Fatalities and Festive Fare

Originally published December 2012

Hello everyone, and welcome to my last scribble of the fleeting moment in time that was 2012. As we head towards the Solstice our countryside is finally aglow with the magnificent, multi-coloured dreamcoats sported by our lords and ladies of the wood. Sadly the last few months of the year have seen yet another one of our native trees, the ubiquitous Ash (Fraxinus spp.), under seige. Chalara fraxinea, the asexual, reproductive stage of the fungus Hymenoscyphus pseudoalbidus, has crossed the seas to invade our shores and attack our woodlands, parks and gardens. As indicated by the Latin name, the fungus is specific to Ash trees and is in the process of wiping them out with plague-like efficiency throughout a number of European countries. Fungal attacks on trees are certainly not an uncommon occurrence (see Katia, Lucrezia, Titania and Flopsy – Oct 2011) though many trees, with an admirable display of Darwinism, develop some degree of genetic resistance and survive the onslaught. This has been observed during this current epidemic and, even though the measure of our trees’ resilience has yet to be tested, offers some comfort in regards to the future of one of this island’s oldest inhabitants. In terms of fighting the spread of the disease we all have to become members of the ‘Home Guard’ and remain vigilant. Needless to say, we are keeping a close watch on the Ash saplings in Quarry Wood and I am consulting the clever bods in the Powdermill Trust on a regular basis. There is an excellent summary of the Chalara outbreak with information on how to identify infected trees, and the procedures to follow in the event of positive identification on the Forestry Commission website.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAWe are all familiar with tales of the various bio-invasions of this country, Rabbits, Grey Squirrels, Japanese Knotweed, Rhododendron and Dutch Elm Disease, to mention a few. Some brought in unwittingly and some with a purpose by people who were anything but ecologically aware. In these enlightened times we could be mistaken for believing that we put enough thought and planning into society to minimise the threat of spreading diseases such as Dutch Elm Disease and C fraxinea. Due to the very nature of fungal infection it is impossible to prevent spores being carried on the wind or transported by migrating birds; these being possible causes of the infection of older Ash trees in East Anglia. However, it appears that a combination of the current trade laws and irresponsible importing have left us vulnerable to a full-scale invasion. The lead up to the Queen’s Golden Jubilee saw three million saplings planted by the Woodland Trust; 300,000 more accounted for by numerous other organisations throughout the period from November 2011 to March of this year. Around ten per cent of the trees were Ash, many of which were imported from foreign nurseries. The Government has recently imposed a full ban on the importing of Ash trees but many landowners feel it is far too late; cases of Dieback have been confirmed in several counties including Sussex. It is tempting to think that any law obliging us to import one of our most prolific native plants is much more than a mere ‘Ass’. In a whirl of jingoistic fervour one cannot help but feel the Jubilee would have been enhanced by tree planting programs utilising native seed; perhaps propogated and grown over the last few years by schools, Cubs and Brownies?

On a more cheerful note, the season of warding off the darkness with bright lights and good will approaches. Let us finish off the year with a purely rhetorical show of hands and consider the sounds that mark Christmas for us. Melodic carols? Crackling fires? The happy squealing of children and adults alike? How about the sharp retort of woody shells cracking; often followed by muffled curses as fragile teeth attempt to tackle hard kernels. TQW Dec 12 nutsYes, it is time for us to scornfully reject the foil-wrapped packets of prepared nuts and fill large bowls with oddly-shaped delights, usually wielding something akin to a medieval implement of torture in order to break them open. To help discover why we go through this cullinary endurance test we have to look at the history of one of our smallest and oldest native trees. Hazel (Corylus avellana) colonised these Isles after the last Ice Age and is widespread throughout Britain and Ireland. A member of the Birch family, it is known by a whole raft of common names, Coll, Filbeard and Nuttall being some of its older monikers. The relationship between man and plant dates back to the Stone Age when our ancestors supplemented their diet with nuts. This early, practical regard for the tree took on more spiritual connotations in the folklore of the Celts. They knew it as The Tree of Knowledge, possessing many magical properties.

With a hefty dose of Roman pragmatism the Sandall’d and Toga’d Ones combined all previous qualities bestowed upon the tree. In addition to cultivating the tree for timber, they associated the Hazel rod with the God Apollo and adopted it as a symbol of authority. TQW saturnalia 2They also served nuts at their Winter Festival of Saturnalia, the week long celebration that started around the 17th December and involved sacrifices to the Gods, feasting and the giving of gifts. Each nut had a special significance. Hazelnuts, due to an episode of near-starvation during a siege involving the Carthaginian Commander, Hannibal, were thought to prevent famine. Walnuts, Pine Nuts and Almonds were similarly attributed with their respective properties, the latter giving protection to the effects of heavy drinking! Wealthy Romans flaunted their status by covering nuts in gold and decorating foliage with them before giving them out as gifts. This all sounds so familiar that one wonders if we should be donning togas for at least part of our festive celebrations; just mind that crackling fire!

Of all the trees in England,
Her sweet three corners in,
Only the Ash, the bonnie Ash
Burns fierce while it is green.

Walter De La Mare (1873-1956)

So let us keep vigilant in order to continue to enjoy the sight of our handsome Ash and revel in the bounty provided by many of the trees we take so much for granted.
Io Saturnalia!

Any thoughts to

Paul Johnson



Image 2:  Nut job by Ben Salter, used under Creative Commons License 2.0


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