Fungi 🍄: keeping up with the polypores

This week I stumbled across two of the more charismatic polypores you can find at this time of year. Polypores are bracket fungi that grow like shelves, usually from a tree trunk but sometimes also at the base or from a branch.

On a morning walk I went to check on the progress of a polypore I’d spotted several months ago (pictured above in late June 2021!), growing at the base of a large oak tree.

Oak bracket is one I posted about almost exactly a year ago during a visit to Suffolk. It also goes by the name of weeping conk, with a scientific name of Pseudoinonotus dryadeus. It’s a parasitic species, which means that this tree may be suffering some internal, ‘mechanical’ trouble. I hope not because it’s one of the largest in the area and is right next to a path. This makes it much higher up the chopping order if public health might be deemed to be at risk. I will never forget being taught that trees weren’t a hazard until we showed up.

This is a very attractive fungus, if you like a dough that drips caramel. It grows at a fairly critical part of the tree, where it meets the ground. It’s crucial because the tension of the roots holding the trunk upright.

Look into those hundreds of caramel eyes and tell me this is not one of the most beautiful fungi out there.

Later that evening I cycled out to the countryside on what was the end of a September heatwave. The landscape was very dry and smelly. I could smell the manure from my house two miles away in the daytime. That evening I became acquainted with the stench up close – muck spreading in the fields. It was absolutely rank, undoubtedly made far worse by the heat and lack of rain.

My route took me past the 800-year-old Sun Oak. Like the large oak I saw earlier that morning, this tree was also home to a charismatic polypore fungus.

This red button is a beefsteak fungus, Fistulina hepatica. It may also have been a red button – do not press the red button. Unless you want to continue watching this programme (BBC joke).

Oh go on then.

In reality this fungus will grow out to form something that looks like a human bodily organ (hepatica). It’s often on oak or sweet chestnut, especially more mature trees. It’s another parasitic species but it’s said to grow too slowly to ever cause the tree structural problems. We should remember that these fungi have been growing with their hosts for potentially millions of years. It’s the impact we have had on their habitats that have made the trouble. Check yourself before you wreck everything else.

Here’s a recent example that cost me several milligrams in blood as the mosquitos were hanging out under this tree waiting for me to arrive. Beefsteak indeed.

Thanks for reading.

More mushrooms

The Sussex Weald: the Saxon oak

The West Sussex Weald, February 2021

The final day of February. The seasons are exchanging but only in light. The first blackthorn flowers are breaking buds at the roadside. Two cyclists float past:

‘Do you really want Louis back?’ one of the women says to another.

They swerve away from two horse riders, one dismounted: ‘At least I know when to get off now. There’ no point pushing him if he’s so nervous.’

The light is golden, low. Birds are singing at spring levels, minus the continental recruits like blackcap, chiffchaff and willow warbler.

The ancient pond was frozen last week but now the water shimmers black and blue with broken reflections of the dark branches against the clear sky.

At the old road’s margins bluebells are leafing in patches. Beyond the shrubby edges the field opens out, home to a massive pine tree. Looking at the 19th century map of this landscape, the pine is there. It must be ancient but how old may not be discoverable.

Two jackdaws fly away from its branches, perhaps having found a suitable nest hole.

Winter is still here in the treetops at the field edge, where fieldfares chuckle, moving in small flocks deeper into the open field. Soon they will make their way north to warming breeding grounds. They feel like a treat, I don’t see or hear them that often.

A breeze rustle the oak leaves on the ground, building into a hush in the leaves of redwoods high above.

At the end of the lane stands an ancient oak tree, the Sun Oak. It probably marks an ancient boundary. A couple of weeks ago I was stood here admiring the tree and a man commented in passing:

‘Amazing, isn’t it? The farmer says it’s in the Domesday Book.’

I had always thought it was 800 years old. A refence to it in 1086 would mean it was already of significant size then. Could it really be over 1000 years old?

That puts it in the Saxon Age, a time so long ago it seems inconceivable. But that’s what makes these trees so special. They are living things that have, in their ecological existence, witness and processed so much time.

This tree, the Sun Oak, is of course on the 19th century map, too.

In the surrounding trees and woodland redwings are flocking, feeding and singing. It’s hard to describe the sound – like some distant chattering, a school playground carried on the wind perhaps. Whatever it is, it’s a sign of their need to gather. Along with the fieldfares, they will all soon be on their way and with them another season under the belt of the Sun Oak.

The Sussex Weald

The Sussex Weald: to fall is not to fail

St. Leonard’s Forest, West Sussex, October 2020

A jay swoops through the trees in silence, landing on an oak branch, an acorn held in its bill. A friend and I have a running gag. Wherever we see a jay we send a text or voice recording to eachother:

‘Jay.’

It originates from a trip to the White Carpathians mountains in Czechia one September. The bird we saw again and again was the jay. Always travelling around with or for acorns. As is now commonly known now, jays scatter-hoard thousands of acorns every year. They have helped pioneer Europe’s great oak woodlands along with squirrels and other smaller caching mammals.

Here in the Sussex Weald I find a fallen acorn split down its centre. The tannin red catches my eye. The shell is cracked because the acorn is shooting, seeking soil to establish itself in.

I’m tracing an old ditch or woodbank looking for fungi to photograph. There is an almost comical halt to the woodland where the heathland and its diminishing ranks of pine begin and the broadleaf oaks end. Marking that edge is an astonishing beech tree. Let me explain.

Part of the tree’s root plate has lifted. The lignified roots have become hardened like a drystone wall. They have developed into a lattice-work of branches, their function forever entangled by their appearance above ground.

The tree must have fallen about fifty years ago. But it has not died. Where the old trunk hit the other bank of the ditch it has made a sharp turn towards the sky to grow anew. Trees can teach us that to fall is rarely to fail.

The Sussex Weald

The Sussex Weald: thoughts turn to acorns

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Horsham, West Sussex, August 2020

It’s the hottest August day since 2003 so I’ve waited to go out until the evening. The sky holds all manner of clouds as the sun slips away. There is a purple hue to the sunset, a heft, as if the atmospheric pressure is close to breaking. Down in the valley where the Arun flows, a cloud hangs below the trees. I can’t work out whether it’s mist, surely not on a day like this.

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I glimpse the mist over the fields, but instead it’s a cloud of dust. On the horizon the sound of tractors rumble deep into the lingering evening heat. Following the old footway south I can see the tractor’s dust and so cover my face. With the advent of face coverings in shops and busy places due to Covid, it’s something I’m an expert in now. To the side, a tractor cuts the hay. I wonder what hay there is even to cut this year, it’s been so dry. The dust tells part of that story. I remember one of these fields back in April or May, brimming with buttercups, fresh and green. It lost its verdant glow so quickly as the rain dried up.

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I follow the byway uphill, stepping out of the way of two older men roaring down the track on e-bikes like they’re either escaping or attending to a crimescene. I pass a favourite local oak and thoughts turn to the autumn. Along the side of the path a green metal fence has been put up to stop people and dogs, I presume, from accessing fields where sheep, horses, and jackdaws, graze. Each time I come here I watch another tree in the horses’ field get closer and closer to a full ring-barking. One ash tree has already died this year. Anxious, I look for an oak tree which otherwise could live for hundreds of years. This evening the horses are gathered around something at the fenceline. I can only guess that there isn’t the grass for them to eat and so they’re being given hay.

I follow this new green fence and cross away towards the old park, where ancient sweet chestnuts and aging oaks dot the open landscape. In the distance cattle are grazing like moons in the grasslands. On the clay track back down, oaks overhang, laden with thousands of acorns. It makes me think of all they were once used for: coffee, flour, their galls used to make the inks that mark the Magna Carta and American Declaration of Independence. In America acorns were the staple of ‘balanocultures’, Native American communities who stashed and cached acorns as resources.

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Spangle galls

Off the hill, the path is penned in by lush growth of grasses, brambles, St. John’s wort and knapweeds. There are oak saplings too. Their translucent green leaves are pocked with the pin cushions of spangle galls. These galls are home to the larvae of gall wasps. Next month the galls will fall to the ground and wasps will continue their development through winter, ready to hatch in April and begin the process once more. The seasons, they’re inescapable.

The Sussex Weald

 

 

 

The Sussex Weald: the realm of the ancient

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St. Leonard’s Forest, West Sussex, December 2019

The path slopes up between ranks of birch, beech and oak. On the banks bracken is encrusted with frost and the addition of oak and beech leaves. I love the sight of a silver-lined oak leaf and December is the month to find them.

It’s about 9am. Mist lingers up ahead like the faint hang of smoke from a campfire. All around I can hear the falling of droplets of water. Looking at my sleeves there is no sign of rain. Then I realise it’s the frost melting in the tops of the trees. Water only falls from their crowns.

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In among the trees small birds flock and feed. These mixed groups of species have been building since September. A trio of bullfinch slip away from me in birch branches and bracken. Their fluty calls are faint and sweet. A white bib on their backs marks them out as they escape deeper into the dripping woods.

St. Leonard’s Forest was once more open than this. You can find huge beech trees dotted around from when they had the freedom to grow uninhibited. Now many more trees compete with them for light in the sky, good and water in the ground. One of the beeches has been damaged in a storm. A third of its trunk has fallen, splitting in two directions. Its summer leaves are still held by the fallen branches, shielding the scene of its collapse.

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This is not a catastrophe. It could result in the tree living centuries longer. Looking more closely the trunk glows green with moss and algae. It raises one limb still high into the air. This is its lifeline. Its heartwood is now exposed and soon more insects and fungi will move in. This is not a symptom of human error or mistreatment. Its is the true wildness of a tree stepping into the realm of the ancient.

The Sussex Weald

The Sussex Weald: ancient oaks under the stars

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Cowdray Park, West Sussex, South Downs National Park, February 2019

Leaving work at five o’clock in the dark is never nice but it depends how you look at it. Inspired by the Dark Night Skies initiative, I made a stop off on my way home to see some stars. I have been photographing trees in the dark since about 2008, mainly of trees under street lamps in south London. It was something to do in those long, drawn out winter evenings. Since then I have started photographing trees in the daylight, too. Having had the chance to volunteer and work in woodland conservation has taught me a lot about trees and their ecology. Having moved away from practical woodland conservation in the day-to-day sense, though still leading the odd tree walk, I am reveling in photographing some of the trees that are found throughout Sussex. One of the trees I have had the pleasure of spending some time with is the Queen Elizabeth I sessile oak in the South Downs National Park. This tree is completely hollow and has perhaps been around for 1000 years.

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Photographing the same tree again and again isn’t always interesting for you or other people. A recent interest in the night sky (the fact I can now see it, being away from a city, rather than knowing anything beyond the moon and the plough) gave me the idea to use the early nightfall to try and photograph this amazingly old tree under the stars.

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The photos were taken with a wide angle lens and a tripod. I used my mobile phone torch to light the tree. The bright light above is the moon, something that plays havoc with night photography due to the fact it outshines many of the stars.

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The problem with my phone torch is that it goes off after a while so I had to trot back and forth to keep the light on. In this light the tree looks fleshy and bulbous, quite animal-like I think.

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When the mobile phone torch light did go out, this is how it looked. I like how the branches reach out to the stars and the astronomically-illiterate thought that they might get snagged in them.

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There are many ancient trees at Cowdray Park in West Sussex near Midhurst. It is almost a point of pilgrimage for people who love old trees and feel some kind of emotional connection to the eldest we have left. This oak has lost almost all of its heartwood and has sinewy remnants decaying inside the bark. I love the purple hue in this photo and the way the distortion of the 10mm wide angle lens warps the trees in the background. I love the rawness of the tree in itself and the stars touching the outstretched twigs.

 

Land of the lousewort: healing a broken landscape in the White Carpathians

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In September 2017 I visited the White Carpathians on the Czech side of the Czech-Slovak border. The White Carpathians hold wood pasture meadows with the highest plant diversity on Earth per square metre. This is a landscape heavily impacted by people but may be fairly close to the pre-human ‘wildernesses’ of Europe. Here conservation efforts have yielded great success in preserving part of a once international wildlife corridor.

The White Carpathians, Czechia (a.k.a Czech Rep.), September 2017

The sun beats down on the village of Vápenky and in the trees high winds blow off from over the White Carpathians. The sky is a deep, summer blue but in the orchards the colours of autumn are appearing. The meadows are dry and grain-coloured, red apples and green pears drop into the cropped grass.

We follow the forestry road through tall beech woods that stand like the framework of a cathedral incomplete. The wind lashes them but some stillness rests in the opening low between the silver-grey trunks. The limestone quarry track bends up and over into a clearing where the forestry machines have deeply rutted the road. They have also cleared the trees but for one long, thin beech that stands alone, its bark bleached by the sun.

The landscape of a recently deforested area is shocking, wreckage. But this industry is one of the most important in the whole of Czechia. Many lives are sustained by it. Still, I wish we could find a way for horses to still remain an integral part – something I’ve seen in Romania – and that its culture was not so macho, chauvinist and driven by putting profit above good ecological stewardship.

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The clearing of trees has opened up views of the valley, showing forested mountains and peach rooftops. For a country that is nowhere near as pious as neighbours Poland and Germany, each village or town has it church, climbing above all else.

We are looking for a nature reserve called Porážky but our map failed to show the road we were taking some time ago. We speak to a Czech woman heading down a track with freshly picked parasol mushrooms in her hand. She points us back up the trackway, fingernails cut and painted indigo, her hair dyed reddish-brown.

The end of forestry land is always marked by a boost in tree diversity. Here hornbeam, a tree of no forestry value, grows. So too hazel, oak and small-leaved lime – the Czech national tree. These are all species of the pre-industrial forestry age, wildwood species of great use to human hand and hearth, but not the modern machine.

Light breaks through the edging of broadleaved wood to reveal grasslands and the sky atop the hill. Again the wind gusts. Reaching its top we enter Porážky, the protected area of wood pasture we had hoped to find. The landscape is cropped grass and single oaks. You would have not the slightest idea that these are the richest meadows on earth.

They are a man-made and exploited habitat, but they are the truest symbol of harmony between people and nature. In fact, they may even be closer to what the pre-human woodland landscape of Europe was like, due to the cropping of large, roaming groups of wild grazing animals we have now made extinct. ‘Rewilding’ in its purest or most puritanical form wants that world back.

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The White Carpathians are the lowest lying, most westerly extent of the Carpathians massif, stretching east to Romania where they reach their zenith. It is a landscape that holds great mystery, wildness and fascinating human cultures. What a life it could be to travel back and forth across the range, witnessing its wildlife and spending time with the people making a living from its soils, woods and meadows.

Eddie, my hiking companion, and I, have been to their furthest point, and there, too, are found meadows of great diversity. In Romania ancient traditions are dying out as people move to cities – what contrarily is thought to be the driving force behind the return of wolf, bear and other megafauna – the rewilder’s dream. In the White Carpathians conservation initiatives have led to the protection of the meadows and their continued management.

Two days ago we visited the headquarters of the Bílé Karpaty protected landscape area or CHKO in Veselí nad Moravou where we learned that one of the great successes for the organisation has been the return of orchards to the landscape. Vast tracts of this landscape have been returned from arable farming to species-rich grassland, righting wrongs of the post-war Soviet era. Fruit trees have returned because they offer something in return to local people – fruit.

Here in Moravia the Czechs have achieved great things. Grasslands are the most threatened habitat in the world, due to intensive agriculture, afforestation and development, and they have succeeded in both conserving what remains and bringing it back in other areas.

I have recently taken an interest in the Twitter account of Tibor Hartel, an ecologist in Romania whose work includes the mapping of ancient wood pasture. Unlike Czechia, Romanian wood pasture is poorly protected and local groups and individuals must act independently to save these amazing places often, it would seem, without government help. Imagine that this landscape once ran across the Carpathians, from Moravia, through the Ukraine, to Transylvania in the eastern corner of Europe. Even Prince Charles has taken an interest.

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Walking through Porážky it has the feel of an English parkland, the single oaks dotted amongst the green. I first visited here in 2014, hiking over the meadows with Libor Ambrozek, the former Czech Environment Minister and then head of the White Carpathians protected landscape area, or CHKO. I was blown away, the sheer abundance of orchids and the fact of its singular richness. In May 2014 a storm blew in and we were drenched in the open pasture. Today the wind overwhelms and the sun bears down, the glare intense.

Jays pass almost every few seconds, back and forth to stash acorns. They are in the process of ‘scatter-hoarding’the act of burying acorns in places that may well one day grow into the new oak trees of this landscape. These are birds in an autumn-pique. Beyond them buzzards soar but the wind deters the smaller species. In the grasslands clouded yellow butterflies feed on knapweeds and dandelions, red admirals bolt from the dark plantations. We find a single aspen, its trunk crooked, whipped north by decades of strong winds. Half its canopy shows red in its leaves.

To many this kind of landscape is at odds with the contemporary ethic of rewilding, or ‘allowing land to return to its natural state’. If that were to happen here many species would become extinct. One plant clinging on, Pedicularis exaltata, a species of lousewort, is only found in this area away from other localities in Belarus, Ukraine and Romania. Its presence suggests a once-continuous wood pasture landscape across the Carpathians between the Czech-Slovak border and eastern Romania. It can’t be seen today as it flowers in spring and summer. Instead the ground is dotted with meadow saffron, a pink crocus.

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The wood pasture as it looks today was created and ‘refined’ thousands of years ago by people clearing woodland – likely of oak, ash, hornbeam and hazel – to allow their domesticated cattle and goats and Mesopotamian sheep to graze. At least that is the common understanding, for could the presence of large, roaming groups of wild horses, bison, elk and other herbivores have meant a landscape more open than the idea of coast-to-coast closed canopy woodland? Compared with today’s measure, the deforestation work of our species was sustainable deforestation due to the population sparsity, moving a possibly more dense wildwood to something more open in places.

The current management and conservation of wood pasture relates to the belief that habitats which are species-rich are the ones which are most important and valuable. But they need to be maintained. If their management involves local people, provides sustenance and perhaps employment, it will work, especially in a place like Czechia. This may lack the perceived poetry of rewilding, but its practicality brings results: the continued existence of the world’s most important wildflower meadows and all the other chains of life which depend on them.

With thanks to my travel companion Eddie Chapman, friend and guardian Zuzana Veverkova, Ivana Jongepierova and everyone at the CHKO office.

 

Oaks of London: Bexley and Beckenham oaks on the edge

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This is an update on my Oaks of London photography series. The photos have been taken with DSLRs, compact cameras and my phone camera. Rather than trying to put together a glossy array of ancient oak photos, I want to draw attention to the unseen trees fighting it out with modern London, many of which are teetering on the margins. Lack of funding to protect and manage London’s oaks is biting, as is a lack of understanding and appreciation of their heritage and wildlife value. These trees have stories to tell.

Photographing the oaks of London is a fairly impossible but very slow and enjoyable project. South-east London is, quite literally, a walk in the park. Such is the extent of green space south of the river that there are many oaks to be found and some very closely concentrated, especially in Dulwich or Honor Oak, which I covered last year. But moving into new areas can be tricky, London’s oaks are on the margins now, they no longer form the central, spiritual role of Celtic or event recent times, when gospel oaks held prominence in settlements or when the Druids (the knowers of oak) made sacrifices before them, something I am not suggesting we bring back in 2017. One of the things I’ve learned this year, also after having read some of Aljos Farjon’s new book Ancient Oaks in the English Landscape, is that old parks and estates are key to the survival of oaks.

In March 2017 as part of a walk with London Wildlife Trust, we were led by Mathew Frith around Danson Park and Bexley Woods. Two oaks stood out in this walk, an area I would not have known about without the connections I have with the Trust and exposure to knowledge of people like Mathew. One oak, the Bexley Charter Oak, can be found in TimeOut’s The Great Trees of London, and it has a lovely fence around it protecting its root plate. The tree is some 200 years old and reflects the treatment that all these oaks deserve to have, if they stand in similar surroundings.

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Another oak is not faring so well and is not treated with the same level of affection, or perhaps simply a different kind. Walking through Bexley Woods and following the river Shuttle east brings you to an oak quite unlike one I’ve seen.

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The oak is entirely hollowed out until about human waist-height, with charred sapwood that shows it has had fires lit inside. It is a stunning tree, wild and exposed on the edge of the river and a footpath. It is a symbol of London’s oaks on the edge: unprotected, vandalised but fighting on. The tree still lives. In many ways the actions here of what you can only expect to have been children or ‘wayward’ teens, is a process of veteranisation. The only difference is that rather than being undertaken by arboriculturalists, it’s the unintended work of the public.

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Shifting south-west to the boundary of Lewisham and Bromley is Beckenham Place Park. This old country estate, fit with a mansion house very similar in style to that of Danson Park, has open parkland and many fine veteran trees. On the hill is a remnant of the Great North Wood, the typical oak-hornbeam and hazel mixture that can be found in chunks all the way up to Dulwich. Thanks to Lucy Mitchell for showing me round.

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The oak featured here is a lapsed pollard, meaning that it was likely once cut back higher up but has, like many old oak and beech trees across London, been left to restructure itself. This oak is somewhere between the two Bexley oaks mentioned above. It needs the care of the Bexley Charter Oak as it is experiencing stress and strain from its exposure to footfall. Looking closely at the buttresses you could see that dogs had been digging holes, pooing on the roots, and that the collective trampling was exposing roots in some places. It’s a tree you just want to hug and climb, but its spot right there in front of the house leaves it open to quiet, unintended harm.

Oaks of London archive
Oaks of London Flickr photos

Oaks of London: Sketch for Enfield oak

Enfield oak

This English oak (Quercus robur) is alongside the Great Cambridge Road near Turkey Street station in Enfield, north London. It was photographed on my phone in January 2017. It stands in what evidently was once a more open, rural landscape. It’s a big, healthy-looking tree, likely between 200 and 300 years old. What I like about this one is the clash of the old and the new, rural and urban. If it can remain in peace it could live a good many centuries. This is dependent also on a gradual reduction in emissions from the nearby traffic as predicted move towards electric vehicles progresses and its ability to remain unimpeded by either self-seeded trees or new plantings. If this landscape was abandoned in future, the oak would create a new woodland of oaks around it.

Oaks of London

 

Oaks of London: Rural remnants of Dulwich Park

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Trees: Old field boundaries of Dulwich Park, Southwark, London, September 2016
Species: English oak, Quercus robur
Age: Between 200-500 years?
Status: Fair

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This sizeable boundary oak lost a limb in a recent storm but it should be able to recover. It’s important to remember that many ancient trees lose their heartwood through storm damage, lightning strikes or by other means. It is also very pleasing to see that the fallen limb has been left to decay next to the tree. Southwark Council are generally good at doing this where conservation policies make it to grounds maintenance.

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One of the more intriguing trees is this heavily belted pollard oak. I like to call it the toilet oak. It has put on a lot of bulgewood over the centuries as it’s had to reach out to the light. My images are slightly distorted by the 10-24mm wide angle lens I use, seen in the lean of the toilet block. It seems in fair condition despite the erosion around its base, likely from the soles of children’s shoes as they climb it.

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In the fenced nature reserve area is a neat line of former field boundary oaks from the time of farmland smallholdings, likely dating further back to when this was Dulwich Common. These oaks also show a great deal of bulgewood from the interal shifting of the tree’s woody fibres as it has reached out towards the light. They once grew in full sunlight, undeterred.

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The one nearest the gate has all the signs of recovering from lost limbs, epicormic growth and the need to put on bulgewood. Immediate trouble for this tree is coming from the yew growing on the right hand side.

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It’s an impressive pollard, probably about 300 years old. It is reaching for the light outside the nature reserve.

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The furthest oak has lost one of its limbs and has a large wound in the heart of the tree. I can’t underline enough how important this is as a habitat feature for the fungi and invertebrates. It is a major wound but it should be able to recover over time now that the excess weight has been lost.

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The largest of the oaks is this fine one next to the boating lake. I remember this well from childhood (decades not centuries). It has fairly complete leaf cover, so few signs of stress despite its closeness to the path and amenities.

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The trunk shows the bulge of a former limb, the buttresses at the base holding the tree steady. When I photographed the oak it had been marked by the business card of a commercial dog walker.

Oaks of London archive
I’m leading a tree walk at Dulwich Park on Saturday 29th October 2016 
Dulwich Society
Dulwich Park Friends
My oaks of London gallery on Flickr