Tuesday, 13 October 2009

The Lonely Tree

How often do we stand and look in amazement at a tree, standing entirely alone on a remote hill-side, and wonder at it being there? The Tynedale poet Wilfrid Wilson Gibson was moved sufficiently by such a sight to write:

A twisted ash, a ragged fir,
A silver birch with leaves astir.

Men talk of forests broad and deep,
Where summer-long the shadows sleep.

Though I love forests deep and wide,
The lone tree on the bare hill-side,

The brave, wind-beaten, lonely tree,
Is rooted in the heart of me.

A twisted ash, a ragged fir,
A silver birch with leaves astir

W. W. Gibson's poem The Lonely Tree is included in a collection of his work entitled Homecoming, published by the Wagtail Press in 2003 to celebrate the 125th anniversary of his birth in Hexham. It is included here with the publisher's permission.


During a recent walk in the woodland surrounding Cragside, the Northumberland home of the Victorian industrialist, Lord Armstrong, I could not help but observe the vast stands of Shallon (Gaultheria shallon), a leathery-leaved shrub native to western North America.

Shallon flower

Both its dark blue berries, which are actually swollen sepals, and its young leaves are edible and have a unique flavor. In North America, the berries were a significant food resource for the native people, who ate them fresh or dried into cakes and also used them as a sweetener or as a flavouring in fish soup. More recently, shallon berries have been used in jams, preserves and pies and as an efficient appetite suppressant.

Shallon fruit: the calyx (above) and enlarged and fleshy (below)

The medicinal uses of this plant are not widely known or used. However, the leaves have an astringent effect, making shallon an effective anti-inflammatory and anti-cramping herb. By preparing the leaves in a tea or tincture, the herb can be taken safely to decrease internal inflammation, heartburn, indigestion and other illnesses. A poultice of the leaf can be used externally to ease discomfort from insect bites and stings.

Shallon was introduced to Britain in 1828 by David Douglas, the Scottish botanist who introduced some 240 species of plants to Britain including the Douglas fir. Douglas initially intended the plant for ornamental use but it also came to be planted as cover for pheasants on shooting estates.

This may account for its presence at Cragside because it readily colonises heathland and acidic woodland habitats. Such colonies often form very tall and dense evergreen stands which smother other vegetation, causing it to be widely regarded as a problem weed on unmanaged heathland. It is, however, browsed by cattle, especially in winter, and where traditional grazing management has been restored, the dense stands become broken up and the plant becomes a more scattered element of the heathland vegetation.