Life Home & Garden

Wednesday 19 June 2019

Just like us, trees come in all shapes and sizes

Every tree is unique. As they grow, they adapt to their environment, writes Gerry Daly

The twisted, sprawling branches of a beautiful old tree
The twisted, sprawling branches of a beautiful old tree

With some wonderful sunsets in recent days, there came the opportunity to appreciate the remarkable beauty of tree silhouettes. This is the best time of year for viewing the dark outline of trees against low light in the early morning or evening.

Trees are never as bare as now and the light is ideal. It is usually well into late autumn before the last of the ragged leaves are shed. When these are gone, the skeletal shapes of the trunk, branches and twigs can be seen to perfection. Deeper in, winter light is too low and skies are often rainy and overcast. But even that kind of dreary scene still has its charms as a route to more delightful views.

Each species of tree, both deciduous, which is now bare, and evergreen, has a distinctive outline, formed by its genetic make-up. So, all oak trees have a similarity in shape but each seed-raised tree is different. Even though some species, such as poplar, can be raised from cuttings that have identical genetic content, the expression of their genetics is varied.

Every tree, just like humans or fish, is individual and has its own particular stature, shape, branch pattern and density. The silhouette of ash, oak, beech and chestnut are distinctive even at a good distance of a few hundred metres. The ash has relatively thick branches, less numerous and longer than those of oak or beech.

Oak has more branching near the ends of the branches, resulting in greater density, while beech has lighter twigs and a more feathery silhouette. Mature birch has drooping branch tips and moderate stature. Scots pine has a very handsome silhouette - a clear, twisted stem with a bulky head of evergreen needles. Being wind-resistant, it is often planted on the crest of a hill where it shows its lonesome pine silhouette.

The local environment may have a big influence. In a very exposed coastal area, the silhouette of a tree will take on a characteristic wind-shorn appearance. The side exposed to the most severe gales will be damaged by buffeting or by sand or salt spray. The branches on the opposite side, undamaged by the wind, will grow more quickly, resulting in the familiar, leaning-away-from-the-wind shape of trees close to the coast.

If a tree has been growing in woodland with other trees all around, it will have a tall slender shape with a long, clear trunk, which is why trees are grown close together in commercial forestry.

A tree of the same species, oak, sweet chestnut or ash, for example, standing alone in a field or parkland will have a much broader shape with heavy branches arising from a short, heavy trunk. Year after year, the tree develops thicker trunk and limbs to strengthen the tree against wind forces.

While countryside trees have distinctive silhouettes, garden trees can be more extreme, and have been selected for that reason. No wild willow species are as exaggerated as the garden weeping varieties, or weeping beech or cherry, and many more. The opposite, upright, pillar shape is equally appealing, such as Italian cypress, Lombardy poplar, Lombardy poplar cherry, fastigiate hornbeam, fastigiate oak and Turkish hazel.

While the silhouette of a tree by itself is attractive, and no two trees are the same, groups of trees can look well too. The contrasting shapes of trees, their branch patterns and their density make very interesting combinations, such as pine and birch or oak and holly. The weight of the evergreens contrasting with the lighter, more airy aspect of the bare trees.

GROW YOUR SKILLS: These quiet winter days in the garden are the ideal time to pick up some skills. Learn how to plan and plant an orchard or fruit garden, including choosing a site, rootstock and the best varieties of apple, pear, plum or nuts for your ground; €70, March 2 at the Organic Centre in Leitrim;

SPLASH OF COLOUR: There is something cheeky, even chirpy, about crocuses. They take the baton of spring bulbs from demure snowdrops (if a snowdrop can be demure). Crocuses bring a splash of colour in yellow, white, cream, blue and purple. Here are colours and relative size that get a flower noticed, not just by gardeners but visiting insects, and are well worth the trouble of planting.

SPRING SHOW: While the twinkle of a snowdrop or the beam of a daffodil may be the traditional sign that the worst of winter is over, the unique beauty of hellebores must be the real showstopper of the late-winter/early-spring garden. Easy, long-lived, and evergreen, hellebores are essential foundation plants for part-shade borders and under deciduous shrubs. Join Mount Venus Nursery for a celebration of these plants, March 2-3, where a hand-picked selection of beautiful hybrids to light up your garden will be offered. Visit

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