Wednesday, 11 December 2013

Tree Identification № 2: Cotoneaster

Cotoneaster is a genus of flowering plants with between 70 and 700 species. This seems a hugely vague thing to say but there's obviously something highly technical that makes plants possibly Cotoneaster and possibly not. And I probably don't know what it is.

At any rate there are a number of different types of Cotoneaster (and for those of you who don't know it is pronounced kəˈtnˈæstər rather than coton-easter) which flourish in this part of London.

There's the flat kind that grows along the ground or up walls which has tiny leaves and flowers on very straight stiff twigs, Cotoneaster prostratus. It seems to grow in every second garden around here. It's happy growing up against walls or under hedges and this year has produced a bumper crop of berries and some gorgeous autumn colour.

Then there's the sort that makes a very handsome hedge. I think it's probably
Cotoneaster franchetii because that's what is usually sold as a hedging plant these days. It makes a beautiful hedge with tiny flowers much sought after by bees, and brilliant red berries. You'd think that the berries would be snapped up by the birds but they are usually to be seen well into the winter, even if it has been very cold and food must be scarce. The leaves are quite tough and leathery and about the size of a finger nail (although narrower) and have quite a pronounced point. The central vein is obvious but the lateral veins only really show if you hold a leaf up to the light. Some years C. franchettii has vibrant red autumn colour; this year many local plants have turned a rich crimson.

You can see that the year I took this photograph our hedge produced no autumn colour at all.

Many Suburb roads still have the original hedges which were planted in the early years of the 20th century so Cotoneaster hedges can be spotted in Oakwood Road, Denman Drive, Blandford Close and Westholm. They are a welcome change from the now ubiquitous Privet and in fact make a good choice for a small front garden as you get a narrow hedge that doesn't bush out and take up too much room. Impatient modern gardeners want fast growing hedges of Laurel or Photinia or worse, Leylandii. Laurel and Photonia have large leaves which don't look good when you clip the hedge regularly, and as for Leylandii - there's no stopping it. Before you know where you are it's as tall as the house. But plant a little row of Cotoneaster and in a couple of years you'll have a well-mannered hedge that won't need cutting back every week, won't overwhelm your garden, and will benefit the local wildlife.

Also to be found in the Suburb are Tree Cotoneasters. This is simply a term for species of Cotoneaster
which will, as the word suggests, grow into trees. There are some planted as garden trees, but the most obvious are to be found in the section of Asmuns Hill between Willifield Way and Erskine Hill. When these houses were built in about 1909 - 1910 the street was planted with Tree Cotoneasters. No record of the Latin name was kept so it's not clear exactly which species was planted. However, these are quite short-lived trees and by the time I was taking an intelligent interest in street trees there were none left. The road was planted with a mix of pink flowering cherry and crab apples and birch; whatever happened to be available.

When the local Trees & Open Spaces Committee agreed a plan for street tree planting with Barnet Council, high on the list was replacing lost planting schemes so in the late 1990s first one, and then two or three Cotoneaster frigidus were planted in Asmuns Hill. I think C. cornubia was also planted. The planting is still mixed because you don't fell a perfectly healthy tree simply because it doesn't fit your planting scheme.  One day perhaps the road will look as originally intended.
Tree Cotoneasters have narrow strap-like leaves (although essentially, er, leaf-shaped), perhaps 7cm long and quite leathery. The veins are quite pronounced giving a slightly quilted effect that doesn't really show in photographs. The white flowers come in clusters and are followed by bunches of pinkish red or bright red berries. The bark is a little like Cherry bark but it's not what you really look at. This is a handsome tree; its main attraction the mass of leaves and fruits although sometimes they seem too heavy for the slender trunk. 

Plenty of autumn colour this year

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