To prove that I’m not just interested in exotic plants, I’d like to introduce you to the willow tree which I am observing this year, inspired by a Woodland Trust project called ‘Track a Tree’. The idea of the project is to ‘record the progress of spring in woodlands across the UK’. This kind of large scale phenological study seems perfectly suited to ‘citizen science’; volunteers are asked to choose a tree and record what happens to it, and the flowering plants beneath it, over the course of successive springs. The aim is to produce a huge amount of data, cheaply, which will help scientists spot any changes in the growth patterns of our trees and other plants, which will also have implications for the many insects and animals which depend upon them.
‘My’ willow tree, on the banks of the River Wear, Durham
However, I think the scheme will have much wider benefits for those who take part than the feel-good factor of being engaged in something useful when the agencies looking after our environment are strapped for cash. Too often we look at the natural world but don’t really see it. John Ruskin told his students in Elements of Drawing, “I am only trying to teach you to see”. As I lack Ruskin’s artistic talent, I’m hoping to teach myself to see better through the lens of a camera.
I chose my tree because of the pleasure it has already given me on more walks along the river banks in Durham than I can possibly count. However, this year, it has already it has shown me things I didn’t know. On my first visit, on January 30th, buds were already obvious on the skeletal framework of branches. By my second visit, just two weeks later, the buds were starting to elongate. However the real surprise came on my latest visit, on Friday, when the first buds had burst to reveal tiny, hairy leaves.
I had no idea young willow leaves were hairy, though it makes sense. Newly emerged leaves are fragile things; they make tender food for insects or small animals and their developing chloroplasts can be easily damaged by harsh sunlight. Hairs are one way in which plants can diffuse sunlight so it is less damaging to tissue and they also make the leaves considerably less palatable.