The second encounter took place in November 1993 when I was plant-huntingin Yunnan, in south-west China, close to the border with Tibet. Yunnan is botanically one of the treasure chess of the world, as well as being stunningly beautiful. There are ten times more tree species in western Yunnan than in the whole of Britain and Ireland. ......In Britain and Ireland, as Oliver Rackham has shown, we have inherited richer legacy of old trees than any other people in western Europe. The French cut theirs down with cool efficiency. (Among the exceptions are the 300-year-old veterans in the forest of Troncais, near Moulins, honoured with the names of outstanding Frenchmen. 'Marshal Petain', named in 1918, was recently rechristened 'Hero of the Resistance'.) By contrast we have had a soft spot for old trees since the time of Shakespeare - or so we like to think....... The giants of our native species - oak, ash and beech - are the biggest living things on these islands: heavier than any land animal, taller than most buildings, older than many ancient monuments. ......In the past we have been complacent - with tragic results. Look at the views of southern England as we know them from the painters of the last two centuries: Salisbury painted by Constable, Petworth by Turner. The English elm dominates each of these landscapes, 'immemorial' in Tennyson's phrase. And now we can hardly remember them....... The natives include only six out of the 35 species normally considered by botanists to be indigenous - meaning that they came to Britain unassisted after the last Ice Age. But these are the six that grow biggest and live longest: common oak, ash, beech, yew, Scots pine and birch. A seventh giant, the sessile oak (Quercus petraea), common in western Britain and southern Ireland, has failed to be included. As a token of my respect, I include a photograph of the champion sessile oak, a tree at Croft Castle, Herefordshire, 37 feet in girth above the lowest branch....To visit these trees, to step beneath their domes and vaults, is to pay homage at a mysterious shrine. But tread lightly. Even these giants have delicate roots. And be warned that this may be your farewell visit. No one can say if this prodigious trunk will survive the next Atlantic storm - or outlive us all by centuries.
After two centuries, when most beeches are dead or in their dotage, a yew is a mere stripling. At five centuries it is in its prime. Some may reach their millennium. Such is the extraordinary longevity of our native yew (Taxus baccata), the oldest living thing, as far as we know, in Europe or Asia....How old is an old yew like this one at Tandridge? I asked Alan Mitchell, the dendrologist who spent 40 years scouring Britain and Ireland for champion trees. 'A good rule of thumb', he replied, 'is that most trees look older than they are except for yews which are even older than they look.'But why not simply resolve the question of age by counting the annual rings of the trunk? In principle you can date most trees to the year they were born by this method, either by boring the trunks with an auger or by cutting the trees down. Neither auger nor axe is recommended to tree-lovers. But the auger has shown that the oldest living tree yet discovered is more than 4000 years old: a stunted bristlecone pine called 'Old Methuselah' at the top of a mountain in California. Scientists bored its trunk and counted over 4000 rings. ......Best to fall back on Alan Mitchell's rule of thumb. It looks 1000 years old. Probably it is older. The Celts may have decorated its branches with the heads of their victims. It may live to see our descendants flying to Mars. If awe-inspiring is too solemn a word, you might prefer 'wow'.