Trees of life and lineage

In her first gardening column for the Magazine, FIONNUALA FALLON looks at some terrific Irish trees, and recommends trees to …

In her first gardening column for the Magazine, FIONNUALA FALLONlooks at some terrific Irish trees, and recommends trees to plant in different gardens, and where to buy them

TREES – YOUNG AND OLD, native and non-native, real and mythical – have been on my mind a lot recently. It all started when a gardening acquaintance recommended that I read a short story called The Man Who Planted Trees. It is a kind of allegorical tale of one young man's long friendship with a reclusive French shepherd and Johnny Appleseed-like figure called Elzeard Bouffier, who spends most of the latter part of his life planting trees – oaks, beech, birch and maples – in the shelterless hills of Haute-Provence.

The story begins on a lovely June day in 1910 and ends some 40 years later, by which time the trees have become young forests that have transformed the desert-like landscape from a barren wasteland to a productive and fertile place. So very convincing was the author Jean Giono’s tale that many readers initially believed it to be autobiographical, a theory he flatly contradicted when he explained that his aim in writing the entirely fictional story was to encourage a love of trees, or more exactly, to encourage a love of planting trees.

Which is exactly what it does.


So very much so, in fact, that just a few months after reading it, I found myself helping a small and mostly very enthusiastic group of young school children to plant their very own patch of native woodland just outside Blessington in Co Wicklow. I say "mostly enthusiastic" because there was one small boy who really wasn't that enthusiastic at all. Even when I told him that the oak tree ( Quercus petraea) that he was planting could possibly live for hundreds of years. "I only like chestnut trees," he told me firmly. "Why can't we plant one of them?" And so I explained that although I also like horse-chestnut trees a lot (in fact, an awful lot), it wasn't a native Irish tree, while the sessile oak was.

"So how long does a chestnut tree live for?" was his next question. "At least a couple of hundred years," I answered, somewhat untruthfully, as I thought of the many lovely horse-chestnut trees in the Phoenix Park that have in recent years succumbed to the horribly destructive bacterial disease Bleeding canker ( Pseudomonas syringae pv aesculi), and have had to be felled. An experimental treatment that involves injecting a garlic extract, Allicin, at high pressure into the tree's vascular system has shown promising results, but even so, the thought crossed my mind that this little boy might not be able to enjoy his chestnut trees for much longer.

"Oak trees are just as cool as chestnut trees," I then said encouragingly, but he remained unconvinced. And so I decided that I'd bring the little boy (my son) home and show him some photographs of Ireland's "coolest" trees, as illustrated in Thomas Pakenham's classic book Meetings With Remarkable Trees.

Once he saw the picture of the king oak of Charleville in Co Offaly – a giant, spreading and ancient Quercus roburspecimen with a girth, or waistline, of 8.29 metres and a height of 19 metres – he changed his mind about oak trees.

Later that evening, I spent a very enjoyable couple of hours browsing the fascinating website of the Tree Council of Ireland ( and reading about Ireland's many heritage and champion trees, including the London Plane ( Platanus x hispanica) known as the Hungry Tree, which appears to be greedily consuming a park bench.

I read about the yew tree growing in Emo Court in Co Laois that the famous Irish tree enthusiast, Samuel Hayes, first mentioned in his book back in 1794 , and the oak tree in the grounds of Tullynally Castle that Thomas Pakenham nicknamed the Squire’s Walking Stick. And then I thought of all the native Irish trees (mountain ash, downy and silver birch, hawthorn, sessile oak, pedunculate oak and Scots pine) that the children had planted in their large school garden and wondered if one day, many years in the future, these too might be listed in its database.

I also stumbled across the brilliant publication, Our Trees; A Guide to Growing Ireland's Native Trees, which can be downloaded free from the Tree Council's website (and is also available to buy as a book for €5, plus €2 pp), which contains advice and information on everything from the ecological benefits of choosing native trees, to how to collect, store and sow their seeds and when, where and how to plant the young seedlings once they germinate.

So now, with the permission of its owner, I’m off to collect some acorns from the king oak at Charleville before the squirrels beat me to it. I will plant them into pots this month, so by next spring I should have some baby Irish oaks with a very regal lineage.

Ireland’s champion trees

According to Aubrey Fennell, the man with the responsibility for measuring and recording every one of Ireland's heritage trees for the Tree Council of Ireland, Ireland's oldest native tree is the Silken Thomas Yew tree ( Taxus baccata) growing in the grounds of St Patrick's College in Maynooth. When last measured, it had a girth (the tree version of a waist measurement) of 14 metres and is estimated to be in the region of 700-800 years old. As for Ireland's tallest native tree, the record is held by a 40-metres high ash tree ( Fraxinus excelsior) growing in the grounds of Marlfield House, Clonmel, Co Tipperary.

Pick of the crop

Three native Irish trees for a small town garden, as chosen by Mary Keenan, executive director of the Tree Council of Ireland, are . . .

1. Silver birch ( Betula pendula) "for its light crown, all-year-round interest and nice branching habit".

2. Rowan ( Sorbus aucuparia) "for its long season of interest and ornamental berries".

3. Bird Cherry ( Prunus padus) "for its decorative spring blossom".

Three Irish heritage trees to visit, as chosen by Aubrey Fennell of the Tree Council of Ireland, are . . .

1. The Muckross Friary yew ( Taxus baccata), Killarney National Park, Co Kerry, which Thomas Pakenham described in his book Meetings With Remarkable Trees as growing "at the precise centre of the cloister of the Franciscan Abbey, its red-brown trunk rising like a corkscrew, its stubby branches radiating like an umbrella".

2. The Noble Fir ( Abies procera) Walk in Woodstock Gardens, Inistioge, Co Kilkenny. Planted in the late 1870s by owner William Tighe and only properly revealed to the public with the gardens' recent restoration. Aubrey Fennell describes this historic avenue of trees as "a truly glorious sight".

3. The Tree that Ate The Church – one of two enormous ash trees (Fra xinus excelsior) growing in the ruins of Thilly Church, Laughaun, Coalraine, Tullamore, Co Offaly.

Three trees for a very exposed, seaside garden, as chosen by garden designer and nurseryman Seamus O’ Donnell of Cluain na dTor nursery and gardens ( in Falcarragh, Co Donegal are:

1. Ash ( Fraxinus excelsior);

2. Alder ( Alnus glutinosa);

3. Sycamore ( Acer Pseudoplatanus).

Where to buy them

Van Der Wel, Cappagh Nurseries, Aughrim, Co Wicklow,

None So Hardy Nurseries, Shillelagh, Co Wicklow,

Future Forests, Kealkil, Bantry, Co Cork,

Celt Tree Nursery, Scariff, Co Clare,

Annaveigh Nurseries, New Inn, Cashel, Co Tipperary,

Ravensberg Nurseries, Ashmount House, Clara, Co Offaly. It was established 31 years ago by John Ravensberg, who is a well-known member of the International Dendrological Society ( This nursery is technically not open to the public, and is only for true tree enthusiasts. Visits are strictly by prior appointment.

The very first book on Irish trees . . .

Written by Samuel Hayes, the "Irish MP, barrister, amateur architect and draughtsman and passionate planter of trees", Practical Treatise on Planting and the Management of Woods and Coppices, was first published in 1794. A first-edition copy of this book would now set you back about £550 (try Jiri Books, Lisburn), but a somewhat cheaper 2003 edition with a foreword by Thomas Pakenham is available from New Island Books (€30,