Wood for the Trees

A quest for the horniest trees in Britain.

One night, as I tossed in bed in the Frontline Club, massaged by the full-bodied rumble of the Bakerloo Line beneath me, I felt my blood rise with lust for adventure and formed an intention for a quest: one that would span the length and breadth of Britain, a quest of danger and excitement, a quest for those gender-fluid temples to fecundity – Britain’s horniest trees.

I decided to start with the hornbeams of Hadley Wood. The name refers to the hardness of the wood; the horn from the same root as horny, implying unsubtly hard, the beam a Middle English word for tree cognate with the German Baum. A short train journey from King’s Cross takes you to the heart of this almost rural idyll in Zone 6, and when I got out off the train at Hadley Wood I slipped through an irresistible hole in the fence, ending up ripped and bloodied and several suburban gardens later on Baker’s Hill, the wrong side of the tracks. Here were hornbeams as I had never seen them before; growing dark and close together, grey bark twisted and ancient, some with the hollow trunk of a tree long pollarded, some coppiced, an awe-inspiring tangle of forms and branches.

On one coppiced tree I was looking at, every twig rustled with a hanging bract, like a papery tail. Each of these would release 10 to 30 dry seeds, or samaras, and so the tree, possibly more than 400 years old, was producing as many as 3,000 potential offspring each year. More than a million potential transmissions of DNA over the course of a lifetime is not bad, casting even the horniest human polygamists (one thinks of Genghis Khan, and our former Prime Minister Boris Johnson) in the shade, whereas the better parallel – prolific women like Hecuba of Troy (19 living children pre-Achilles) and Edward Lear’s mother (21 children) – are almost virginal by comparison.

When it comes to length, there is no way that it can compete with a Chinese relative introduced recently to the UK; the monkey-tail hornbeam, carpinus fangiana. I’d seen a weak sapling in Devon, but the most spectacular example in the UK nestles among the hydrangeas of White House Farm, near Sevenoaks in Kent. There, in the garden of the legendary plantsman Maurice Foster, pendulous catkins cover a fine tree. I was looking at this libidinous monster last spring when I realised that my horniness calculator was completely off. The pink tongues of the female flowers were coming out of one set of papery catkins, but above them were the pale green catkins of the male flowers producing millions of grains of pollen – like so many trees, hornbeams are hermaphroditic, and have male and female flowers on the same plant. Humans can represent this full-bodied capacity for reproduction only in their gods, such as the Hindu Ardhanarishvara, ‘the half female Lord’, or the Phrygian Agdistis (envied to the point of castration by the other Gods) but most trees will or can do it in one form or another; sometimes self-pollinating, sometimes simply spreading the burden of motherhood across all members of the species.

Oaks have been central to the fetish of British concupiscence for millennia. Their power is to ally romance and the illusion of fidelity with prolific reproduction. Ignoring the strong claims of the Bear Oak of Penshurst Place (now superseded after 1,000 years by its self-seeded offspring) and the Marton Oak of Macclesfield (a conservative 1,100 years of a million quercus petraea gametes strewn a hundred miles across England and Wales), I went to search for romance in the form of a 1,000-year-old oak at Alfoxton Manor in Somerset, which is most popularly known as the house of William and Dorothy Wordsworth at the time of their deep collaboration with Samuel Taylor Coleridge.

I walked up the drive to find 20 people in a Buddhist meditation workshop and slunk off through the deer park, following my iPhone like a divining rod to the coordinates of the Alfoxton Oak. Luckily, it stood out among the other trees. It has a vast and bulbous trunk with a huge bolling 15 feet above the ground – a sign that it was pollarded until perhaps 400 years ago. Titillated by a small Buddha which the current wardens of the tree had placed in a deep roll of the trunk, my mind went to Christabel, widely considered to be one of Coleridge’s worst poems. The poem describes a fair lady, Geraldine (to rhyme with ‘fine’), who appears out of the Alfoxton Oak tree to Christabel, a beautiful maiden who is praying hornily at midnight for her absent fiancé. This is the moment that Christabel realises something is coming out of the tree:

It moaned as near, as near can be,
But what it is she cannot tell. –
On the other side it seems to be,
Of the huge, broad-breasted, old oak tree.

It turns out to be Geraldine, a person with strange habits and a suitably vague disfigurement. The implicit sexual relationship that develops between the two women obsessed Byron and Percy Bysshe Shelley and inspired Edgar Allan Poe, Sheridan Le Fanu and, most bizarrely, Emmeline Pankhurst, who named her daughter Christabel after this shining example of female emancipation.

I think the tree itself manifests better evidence of female agency than the poem. Majestic oaks are often known as the King of the Forest, but for those who care about scientific accuracy (and we know readers of The Fence are sticklers for truth), it would be better termed the Queen of Abortions. Oaks thrive because they adapt to conditions rather than specialising, and that means they need the highest possible genetic variation. To do this, they abort five out of six of their fertilised ovules, producing acorns preferentially from the most unusual genetic information, normally the pollen which has blown for miles from a distant tree. A quick look through the microscope at the developing acorns of the Alfoxton Oak drives this point home; the stalkless acorns show pits of abortive ovules. In a bad year, acorns, too, will be aborted at a very early stage, and the ground will be covered with small brown nodules. The few saplings growing around the base of the Alfoxton show the result of this in real time: different leaf shapes, different modes of growing and different times of coming into leaf all allow oaks to survive the changing climate and changing weather.

Magnificent as it was, pulsating with bugs feasting on dead wood, and undeniably illustrious as its romantic links are, I was searching for something more than a staid former pollard, and so I went on a date with a Japanese friend to see the ginkgo biloba at Kew Gardens. Planted in 1762, the Kew Ginkgo is a magnificent beast, and its horny credentials have potential. A fossil plant it may well be (a fossil of ginkgo gardneri is literally built into the wall of the Natural History Museum) but its tantric sexual innovations, developed 280 million years ago, were only revealed to human eyes in 1890, while its ability to reproduce saved it from near-extinction after a period of massive climate change three million years ago. One way it manages this is by changing sex. No females in the vicinity, no problem. A tree of either sex may, in unusual circumstances, send out a branch of the opposite sex, and fertilisation across the branches may ensue. In 1900, the great palaeobotanist Marie Stopes travelled to Japan as part of her research into the transition between ferns and seed-­bearing plants. She wrote in her diary that she had spent three days hunting ginkgo sperms. ‘It is most entertaining to watch them swimming,’ she wrote. ‘Their spiral of cilia wave energetically.’

Ginkgos package up their sperm in pollen and the size difference between sperm and egg is yet to develop dramatically. Later, developing trees pump out huge amounts of pollen; hay fever sufferers will picture the dense streams – millions of particles are released which are designed to stick, and many do in humans’ lungs and noses. You cannot even wipe the historical record clean. Pollen cores taken from anaerobic lake sediment are rammed full of pine pollen, which dominates through sheer numbers, even if other trees are more common. Aspen and larch, both important in similar areas, are under-represented because their pollen starts to decay and they produce less of it. They act as locally successful pollinators – village studs – rather than international playboys.

At this time of year there are likely to be other allergy culprits. Birch, scourge of the Russian novelists in their Siberian hangouts, strikes here, too. Sweet chestnut, with its massed blooms yellowing out Brownsea Island and all the conifers of the Scottish Highlands, are relentlessly pumping out onto the airstreams in their desperate need to reproduce.

It’s not just wind pollinators: insect-pollinated trees are rapacious. Horse chestnuts ‘candle’, sending up white spikes of flowers which refuse to brown even after pollination, pussy willows smother their silver paws with yellow pollen to catch insects and lime trees drug bees with caffeine imitators to make sure they keep coming again, and again, and again.

And finally, what of unrequited love, the incels of the tree world? The quiet streets of Pimlico, haunted by the shadows of masturbating management consultants, offer the starkest example. In Moreton Place, between the saffroned air of Pimlico Tandoori and the stark filth of municipal bins, are lines of carmine-­flowered bottlebrushes, aching for the soft touch of a honeyeater’s wing in search of sweetness. But as the honeyeater has yet to come over from Australia (with global warming and rewilding, all things are possible) the bottlebrushes, by aching, shaking, mechanical degrees, bend their anthers down to self-pollinate.

Meanwhile, just around the corner, next to the Victorian crockets of the church of St Gabriel, there is a large magnolia grandiflora covered in wax-white flowers which waits for a sadder moment, the visit of a beetle extinct for thousands of years. There is something of Great Expectations about this. ‘The broken heart. You think you will die, but you just keep living, day after day after terrible day,’ cries Miss Havisham. Horny was most commonly used as an adjective in the 1800s; hermaphroditic gothicism is undeniably hot, and millennia of tense expectation deserve a consolation prize, so I think it is here I will lay the wreath and sceptre, and crown the magnolia grandiflora as Britain’s Horniest Tree.

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