(The very modest) Paul Wood tells me how his interest in trees arose and his advice on getting better at identifying trees
How and when did you become interested in trees and plants?
I’ve been interested in trees since I was a kid growing up in Kent. Behind our house was a wood with a huge beech tree growing over half our back garden. It was a benign presence throughout my childhood. When I was about 13 there was a mast year [when trees produce a bumper crop] and all these beech seedlings appeared in our garden the following spring. I didn’t know what they were – I don’t know if you are familiar with beech seedlings but they are quite strange looking, the first two seed leaves are very different to the other leaves. There were dozens of them. I started potting saplings and had a large collection of potted trees. My mum got into bonsai-ing trees, and she bonsai-ed a field maple, which I still have 30 years on, it’s just over a foot tall..
When I was 16, I did a geography project about soil types around where I lived. As it was chalk, it was downland mostly but on the tops of the downs there’s clay with flints with quite different acidity and water retention levels, so there are different environments in a relatively close range. I was very interested in how these different environments changed the vegetation.
What led to you writing London’s Street Trees?
I didn’t pursue science, in fact I went to art school and arrived London in the late 90s. I had always had an interest in plants, and especially trees, but it was very much an amateur thing. My friends and family knew about this interest, and so whenever I was out in the countryside, they would ask me to name the plants.
I worked in the tech industry for a long time and by 2011 I was getting very fed up with it and was looking for a way out. One of my passions was, and still is, nature, so I decided to pursue it to see where it might lead. I joined the London Wildlife Trust and started a blog thestreetree.com while also still working in tech. Around 2015 I was approached by a publisher who had read my blog and was interested in publishing a book about street trees. This eventually resulted in my first book London’s Street Trees 2017 ed.
I soon realised I didn’t know what half the tree species I found in London were, so I spent two years researching and writing that book. I had always thought my interest in trees was a solitary interest. Amazingly, once the book was published, I discovered I was not alone and subsequently, I’ve met hundreds of people who have similar interests.
So you were teaching yourself? You didn’t spend time with other botanists?
I’ve always voraciously read books about trees, and plants in general. As a kid, I pored over Collins Pocket Guide to Wild Flowers and Roger Phillips’ Trees in Britain – the original copies of which I still have. I’ve never learnt about plants in a systematic, scientific way, but rather in a visual way. I wouldn’t, for instance, be able to tell you what the defining botanical characteristics of Caucasian Wingnut fruiting bodies are. Instead, I’d describe the whole tree and tell you what I have noticed about it that makes it unmistakeable to me.
I joined the London Wildlife Trust thinking I might do some voluntary work for them. In one of their newsletters they announced they were looking for trustees and I thought I might be much better at that than I would be at laying hedges or coppicing hornbeams. I applied rather hopefully, and to my astonishment, was successful and became a trustee for six years. It was a hugely rewarding experience and I relished being able to interact and listen to the professional conservationists, environmentalists and naturalists who work there.
So when you were walking round London looking at all these trees, if you found a tree you didn’t know, you identified it from books?
The books just didn’t seem to cover the very unusual trees I encountered and I thought I might bore people senseless if I started asking them what a particular tree was. I did get in contact with various tree officers, I spoke to landscape architects and horticulturalists, and I’d go to Kew Gardens too, but mostly I worked it out by a sort of deduction.
Is being a tree expert important to you?
I don’t really regard myself as an expert and so in that sense it’s not important to me. I know that some people describe me as an expert but I think it’s relative. I would say Mick Crawley [Professor Mick Crawley, Imperial College] is an expert, I don’t think I have the formal training or the understanding of botany to be regarded as an expert in those terms.
I still feel that I don’t know much about conifers. You don’t come across that many in London. I can name four or five pine trees but there’s one near me, a three-needled pine tree, which I’ve been looking at for years and I still don’t know what it is.
I suppose I am a knowledgeable person about street trees in the round, including identifying them, but I would like to hope it’s the social, cultural and historical context of trees and nature that I am known for.
What advice would you give someone who is trying to improve their tree identification skills and knowledge of local street and park trees in their area?
First, I think you need to understand what your motivations are. For me it’s as much about the human stories as the botany: everything from the plant hunters to the social and architectural decisions that inform their planting. These are the things which I continue to find fascinating. I’m sure there’s still loads to discover, as well as lots of fascinating trees of course!
I always love to find trees which I don’t know, so when I do manage to identify them a whole new array of knowledge opens up. But I think the key is to never let it become boring, never let it become a task because I think that kills curiosity and curiosity is the thing which drives me to continue learning.
London’s Street Trees – Revised Edition is available from https://thestreettree.com/books/