I went to Bute Park in the centre of Cardiff looking for a tree to follow in 2015, but I found this very sad sight – a wonderful “champion” tree felled by recent gales. I grieve a little every time I see a fallen tree and there were several big ones down this month.
Bute Park, next to Cardiff Castle, is one of the biggest city centre parks in Britain and some rare and ornamental trees were planted in the late 1940s and 1950s to add to Victorian specimens in the park’s original design. This area is now called the arboretum.
A “champion” tree is believed to be the biggest example of its species anywhere in the UK and I know what species this one was, as it was labelled.
It was an Alaskan species, Betula kenaica, the Kenai birch, sometimes considered to be a variety of Betula papyrifera or paperbark birch, although the tree is less tall and the leaves are smaller, blunter-tipped and more coarsely and regularly serrated.
This tree is native to Alaska and the Yukon and grows at altitudes up to 1,000 feet (300m), so it is very hardy – but sadly this didn’t defend it against the gust of wind that destroyed it.
The Kenai birch is named after a peninsula – and also now a city – south of Anchorage in Alaska. The word comes from the local Dena’ina (Tanaina) language, the word ken or kena meaning an open meadow. There’s a lot more about the city of Kenai, which has been inhabited since 2,000 BC and became a Russian fur-trading centre in 1791, here.
There is also the Kenai National Wildlife Refuge, formed of a 150-million acre network of land and water. Read more about it here – and you can even download a free illustrated magazine in PDF form.
But back to the Bute Park birch, fallen so very far from home.
I considered picking up a piece of the bark, but then thought better of it. I had in mind birch bark canoes – I once saw Bushcraft expert Ray Mears make one on TV – but this paperbark sort of birch is no doubt too fragile.
This birch bark may not be strong enough to make a canoe, but it might perhaps make a small container and the tree apparently has other practical uses.
According to the Plants for a Future website, the young leaves and catkins can be eaten raw, while the inner bark, said to be best in springtime, can be eaten raw or dried and ground into a powder and used to thicken soups or add to flour for bread and biscuits – although it would probably be used only in times of famine.
The buds and twigs can also be used to flavour stews. The sap can be boiled to make into syrup or used as a refreshing drink. I find it poignant that it is tapped in late winter, as the flow is best on sunny days following a heavy frost – a day a bit like this. The sap can also be fermented into a beer.
When a great tree falls it takes with it a whole little ecosystem…
I also saw a small spider scuttling away from its former home.