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Bewdley Town Council

March in the Forest

By Town Clerk's Office Bewdley Town Council

Tuesday, 14 February 2017

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At this time of year two of our less spectacular trees bring out their flowers. First is the blackthorn, which is the first hedgerow tree to blossom; the white 5-petalled blooms springing straight from dark twigs unadorned with new leaves. Left to its own devices blackthorn will produce a thicket of suckers well-armed with long, sharp spines. Marching out across woodland edges or unmown fields they provide protection for other shrubs and trees, earning the French name mere du bois (mother of the woods). The leaves follow in April and the fertilised flowers become sloes, whose purple/black skins are dusted with a fine bloom of wild yeasts. The best sloe patch I know of was thrashed mercilessly by an overzealous hedge trimmer last year so we’ll see whether the blossom appears as copiously this spring.

The other tree is the yew. Whereas the blackthorn is small and somewhat transient the yew is solid, dark and capable of achieving a great age. In the Wyre Forest yew trees are well represented and may have served as boundary markers in some cases. The wood is certainly very hard and would probably not be worth the effort of felling.

It is hard to estimate the age of a yew tree, as they are slow-growing and often start to become hollow after a few hundred years. They are very often found in churchyards, but which came first? The Fortingall yew in Perthshire is reckoned to be between 2000 and 3000 years old but if you would like to see a much closer example of a venerable yew there is a hollow tree of 30 feet circumference, complete with bench inside, in Much Marcle churchyard, featured in Thomas Packenham’s Meetings with Remarkable Trees. Even nearer is the huge yew in Hope Bagot churchyard just below Clee Hill. The tree stands just above a holy well. Judging by the age of these ancient specimens it seems likely that they were revered in pre-Christian times and that the sites for church-building were chosen accordingly.

The yew, like the holly, is either male or female (‘dioecious’ is the proper word for this trait) and the flowers of each are fairly inconspicuous: small greeny-yellow tufts on the undersides of the leaf shoots. The male flowers shed clouds of pollen which are carried to other trees nearby and pollinate the female flowers there. Although a primitive conifer, the fruit is not borne by a cone but is the familiar red berry, whose flesh is said to be edible as long as you avoid eating the seed inside. As an interesting aside, the Fortingall yew was noticed in 2015 to have produced several upper shoots bearing berries, despite being a male tree: it was in effect changing sex!

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