The glory of autumn has now departed, and whilst the bare branches of the deciduous trees still have their own special beauty, it is time to turn our attention for a few months to some more of the evergreen trees around Cambridge. This stunning Totara is to be found in the Leamington Domain near the playground. Endemic to the North Island and the north-eastern parts of the South Island (where it was known as Omakau), it is a lowland species found up to about 600m in altitude. Trees have juvenile, adolescent and mature forms, and female trees have bright red edible fruit. Totara can live up to 1800 years and may reach 30 metres in height with an enormous root system and a trunk of two to three metres in diameter. Regarded as a chiefly tree (rakau rangatira) by Maori, such was its prestige that when an important rangatira died, it is said that a mighty totara has fallen.
The totara is prized above all other trees by Maori who use it for making waka, houses, tools, weapons, musical instruments and toys. Importantly it is the best wood for carving with stone tools. The reddish stringy bark is used to make baskets to hold preserved birds. Since colonisation, totara wood, which is reddish, straight-grained and durable in water, has been used for joinery and furniture, fence posts, wharves and house piles, but is now becoming a rare resource.
The totara also has medicinal properties. The active substances are the diterpenes, totarol and its dimer, podototarin. which have antimicrobial properties, and podocarpic acid, which has astringent, febrifuge/anti-pyretic and oestrogenic properties. Testing has shown totarol to be effective against nematodes, protozoans, insect larvae and a number of bacteria including Mycobacterium tuberculosis, and possibly methicillin –resistant Staphylococcus aureus. It also has anti-inflammatory and antioxidant properties, and at present is mainly used topically for eczema, rash, anti-ageing creams, boils, toothpaste, sunscreen, shampoo, and soap. These antimicrobial substances do not develop in the tree until it is about 150 or 200 years old, which goes to show that we should treasure our old trees. You never know what they will come up with! (some information from The Meaning of Trees by Robert Vennell)
These two trees stand in the grounds of St Andrews Church. The seeds were brought back from the Garden of Gethsemane in 1956 by Basil and Cynthia Hewett, and raised at McWhannells nursery before being planted at St Andrews. It is thought that this fastigiate variety of cypress (stricta) was an ornamental Roman cultivar of the original spreading variety (horizontalis). Popular throughout the Mediterranean, its tall columnar form punctuates the landscape of southern France, Tuscany, Greece and the Middle East and parts of North Africa. The ancient Egyptians used the resinous wood to make sarcophagi and insect-proof chests.
The cypress tree gives its name to the island of Cyprus, where it is native. The copper mines on this island were vital to the Romans for making bronze. They called copper the ‘metal from Cyprus’ or aes Cyprium, which then became cyprum or cuprum, the source of the chemical symbol Cu which is used today.
The tree is named after Cyparissus, a mythical figure who accidentally slew Apollo’s favourite stag. Full of remorse (and probably scared stiff), he begged that his grief would last forever, whereupon Apollo turned him into a cypress tree, whose resinous sap is said to represent his tears. The cypress thus became the symbol of the Underworld, eternal death and the immortal soul, and is still widely planted in cemeteries, including that of Cambridge.
(source: Around the World in 80 Trees by Jonathon Drori)
This attractive pyramidal tree, growing in Forrest Road, has the most intense bright scarlet leaves in autumn.
A row of these trees have beenplanted at Te Ko Utu park, and some also in the Meadow Walk; they will be a stunning sight in ten years or so, and especially when they reach their mature height of 25 metres. At this stage the bark will apparently resemble alligator hide.
The various different names of the tree are a clue to its characteristics. Nyssa is the word for a Greek water nymph, indicating its preference for a damp site, while sylvatica refers to its normal woodland habitat. The word tupelo, also meaning swamp tree, is a North American Cree word, and this tells us that its native habitat is the eastern USA, extending from Maine to Florida. It is sometimes referred to as ‘sour gum’, to distinguish it from the well-known ‘sweet gum’ or liquidamber with which it shares a broadly overlapping native range. And finally in Martha’s Vineyard, Massachusetts, it is called ‘beetlebung’, referring to the use of its wood as a mallet, known as a beetle, for hammering bungs into barrels.
The flowers of the tupelo are very small but a rich source of nectar for bees, while the small blue-black fruit are popular with small migratory birds in the USA such as the robin, the blue jay and the American thrush. It will be interesting to see when the Cambridge trees mature whether they too, are useful bird food. The wood is pale yellow in colour, and being heavy, hard, cross-grained and difficult to split, it has been put to good use in the past for mauls, pulleys, wheel hubs, agricultural rollers, bowls, weaving shuttles, paving blocks, railroad ties, and tough factory floors. Today of course it is mainly cultivated as an ornamental tree in the damper spots of sheltered gardens.
Originally a native of the Allegheny Mountains, USA, this broadly columnar, deciduous tree is now widespread throughout the Americas, Europe and Asia. Its Latin name is after the head gardener to Henri IV and Louis XIII of France, Jean Robin (1550 -1629), who received plants from Canada. Its common name was given to it by Jesuit missionaries in the Americas who thought it was the tree that had supported St John in the wilderness, not knowing that it was neither a true locust, nor native to the Middle East!
Growing to between 30 and 50 feet in height, it is suitable as a medium garden or street tree. Pollution-tolerant, its height lends proportion to the streetscape. The delicate compound leaves turn yellow in autumn and are not a problem to dispose of. In spring, it has drooping racemes of white, scented flowers which look rather like wisteria and are attractive to bees. Indeed in the eastern USA Robinia is a major honey plant. In autumn, flowers are followed by pea-like pods about 100mm long.
In New Zealand Robinia is mainly grown as an ornamental tree, but around the world it is put to many practical uses, a veritable one-stop-shop. Traditionally the Cherokee used the beans as an emetic, and a painkiller for toothache. It also has astringent, diuretic and sedative properties. The flowers contain benzaldehyde, which has an almond-like odour. They are used in Romania to make an aromatic jam, and in Italy and France they are battered and fried in oil. The deeply furrowed grey bark is yellow inside and is used for dyeing. The wood is hard and strong, rot resistant, and competes with hickory for its high-lustre finish. It is used in boat building, flooring, furniture making, veneer, and also railroad ties and mine timbers. In India, Robinia is grown in coppiced plantations, completing the harvest cycle in a mere 27 years. It will grow in most well-drained soils and with its dense root system is excellent for erosion control, while its nitrogen-fixing abilities enrich poor soils.
This lovely specimen in Hemans Street was once on the Protected Tree list but has recently been delisted. Schinus molle is native to southern and western parts of South America, the dry regions of the Andes. In really hot, dry positions in sandy or stony soil it will be no more than a large bush, but on dry river beds where underground water is available it may grow to 15 metres in height, with a delicate weeping crown similar to this Leamington tree. It tolerates both salinity and alkalinity, and near the equator is found at altitudes up to 3900 metres.
It was traditionally used by the Inca people for textile dyeing and for embalming the dead, and also as a source of food. The essential oils in the leaves were used as a peppery spice in baking and candy, and the pink seeds were, and still are, often used as a pepper substitute. The ripe berries were used to make a drink, or mixed with maize to make a thick gruel. Even before the Inca, the Chicha people fermented the berries to make an alcoholic liquor, now called capaloclea.
The tree also has a long medicinal history as a source of anti-bacterial, anti-fungal and anti-depressant medicines. The bark, with diuretic and astringent properties, was used to treat diarrhoea, inflammation and tumours, and when heated the gum from the bark could be chewed as a purgative and digestive aid. The leaves served as a stimulant, an insect repellent, and a treatment for rheumatism.
Today in South America Schinus molle is often used for soil conservation, offering both erosion control and increased soil fertility from the 25% of its leaves which fall each year.
Japanese evergreen oak (Lithocarpus edulis)
Here’s an unusual one! Not only is it included in the list of notable Cambridge trees but also, sadly, on the International Union for Conservation of Nature’s (IUCN) Red List of threatened plants. Located near 24 Stafford Street, this architectural variety of "stone oak" with its dark, glossy, leathery leaves, slender, spikey, cream flowers resembling those of the Spanish chestnut, and seeds that resemble acorns, is now mainly an ornamental tree which can grow to 15 metres.
The nuts are actually edible, but because they contain bitter tannins are usually soaked in water before being dried and ground into meal for thickening soups and making bread or porridge. The bark of the tree is also rich in tannins and was used in the past as a dye and preservative for ropes. The wood is very hard and heavy and used mainly for fuel.
There are several different species of the genus lithocarpus; they include a tropical variety from South East Asia which grows to 30 metres in height, and a temperate variety from Oregon, USA which reaches only 10 metres. All, however, are found in lower montane forests growing on slopes with moist but well-drained soils.