Mary Kenny: ‘What is a Native Tree?”

Is calling trees ‘non-native’ a form or arboreal racism?

Trees: how often do we think about them? Perhaps when suddenly they make a difference – when a line of newly-planted trees appear on Dublin O’Connell Street you notice that it does enhance the main boulevard of the city’s capital, although, alas cannot quite rescue its squalid ambiance. Climate change has made us more aware of trees: the loggers in Canada and Brazil are damaging the environment when they cut down forests. And those who fly a lot, may, in the future be asked to plant more trees in Kenya (Africa is short of trees) to offset their carbon footprint.

Thomas Pakenham, of Tullynally in Co Westmeath, thinks about trees all the time. It would not be unfair to say that he is obsessed with trees: he founded the Irish Tree Society and has written three books about trees – the latest “The Company of Trees”, being a beautifully illustrated year’s diary about tending to his beloved trees, and travelling to Tibet and South America for arboreal research. He has thousands of trees on his estate: he has planted thousands of saplings and acorns himself: and many of the trees that stand in the demesne were planted by, or for, his ancestors.

It’s awesome to think that you could be looking at a tree, over 200 years old, which was a sapling when Robert Emmet was a lad: or a tree which already stood tall when Daniel O’Connell was a young lawyer.

Trees, says Thomas, are a lot like human beings. They have their varying personalities, and within a family of trees you’ll get as much diversity as between a family of humans. Like humans, they grow fast when young and then slow down and are stricken with old age. And they are subject to disease, just like humans. The horse chestnut will turn pale and drop its leaves prematurely before dying.

Dutch elm disease has ravaged the native elms of Ireland and Britain, caused by a fungus-carrying beetle in Canadian logs. The environmental experts had an over-relaxed view of the threat, and failed to protect the trees. Now the common trees of Ireland – sweet chestnut, horse chestnut and ash – are threatened by new diseases.

What riles Thomas is that the “experts” seem to be more focused on distinguishing which trees are “native” to Ireland and which trees are “alien” than on saving and cherishing the many wondrous trees we have got. He calls these experts the “trees Taliban”: they seem to want to root out all foreign influences. They are anti-tree immigration, and, he claims, the Tree Taliban is worryingly influential at the Department of Forestry.

“What is a native Irish tree?” he asks. “There are now only two species of oak and the ash definitely native. We lost the wych elm to Dutch elm disease.”

For the “Tree Talibans”, the only true Irish trees are the ones that arrived here before the Stone Age. “That’s setting the clock between 10,000 and 6,000 years BC. It’s like saying if your family arrived in Ireland at the time of Christ, you’re an alien.”

Trees, he maintains, become naturalised – like people. The larch, spruce, silver fir are all immigrants: the beech, “queen of the forest”, is also an immigrant.

The sycamore is a particular object of prejudice, it seems. Landowners are paid large grants to cut down sycamores (and beech) and replace them with oak and ash, which both qualify as “native” trees.

Yet the sycamores were naturalised in Ireland “before the Tudors ruled Britain”. The sycamore is “the king of the European maple” and they have brought the colours of the American fall to Ireland. They are hosts to lichen and insects, which nourish the environment. Thomas himself has planted 40 different kinds of maple at Tullynally.

It’s a kind arboreal racism to categorise trees as “native” and “non-native”. In his lovely arborateum (where he has planted ten trees for his ten grandchildren), he shows me an attractive walnut tree. This grew from a walnut purchased at his local Tesco. Actually, the Romans introduced the walnut tree to Britain. And back in prehistoric times, the gingko and giant sequoias were also native to Britain and Ireland (at a time when Ireland was joined by land to Wales).

Perhaps there is a parallel between this idea of “native” and “non-native” trees as between the “native” Irish and the mostly Anglo-Irish gentry, such as the Pakenhams, who, of course, became the Earls of Longford. (Thomas, now a spry 82, is by entitlement the Earl of Longford, but he has chosen not to use the title: he’d rather talk about trees than titles.) But if we delve into our history and genealogy, we usually find that there are all kinds of mixtures in our backgrounds. DNA research has shown that a community settled in the Aran Islands were predominantly descended, not from ancient Celts, as imagined, but from Cromwellian soldiers.

So if communities are usually a mixture of those who have settled and those who are “native” – why not trees? Except, of course, we do need keep out tree disease: the Irish ash has been poleaxed by a fungal infection carelessly imported.

Yet some trees can resurrect. The lime tree – which stand sentinal up the avenue at Tullynally – may be slaughtered, and then spring up again from its seedlings, preserved in the roots. The miraculous gingko tree in Japan survived the atomic bomb at Hiroshima. And in spring, every living tree resurrects itself anew.