Tree of the Month - November

The UK champion Downy Oak (Quercus pubescens) in the photo above, grows in front of the Mount House in Shrewsbury where Charles Darwin was born and grew up. It is the larger of two veteran survivors in the garden; in 2009 there were three.


Although common across southern Europe, Quercus pubescens remains a collectors’ tree in Britain, differing from our two native oak species in its much hairier foliage and darker, more closely square-cracked bark. In Trees and Shrubs Hardy in the British Isles, William Bean commented in his bluff Yorkshire way that it is ‘of no importance as an ornamental’, and singularly little is known about the species’ introduction or early use.

With a girth of more than five metres, Darwin’s oak is certainly a handsome and impressive tree. Its size indicates that it must have been one of the earliest plantings at the Mount House, which Charles’ parents Richard and Susannah had built around 1800.

Britain’s next largest Downy Oak, ‘discovered’ this summer, is also a Shropshire tree; standing next to the lake bridge at Walcot near Bishop’s Castle, it gives every indication of being part of the original layout of the grounds which was undertaken for Clive of India around 1774 by the Derbyshire-based landscape architect William Emes. Emes was a friend and associate of both of Charles Darwin’s grandparents, the botanist and polymath Erasmus Darwin and the potter Josiah Wedgwood, and is credited with landscaping their respective estates at Radbourne Hall and Etruria Hall. Aided by Susannah Darwin’s brother John Wedgwood, who was to become the first chairman of the Horticultural Society of London (now the RHS), Richard and Susannah are known to have stocked the garden of Mount House with plants from their parents’ collections, and so there is a suggestion that, two hundred and fifty years ago, Quercus pubescens was one of Emes’ hallmark trees.

Owen Johnson MBE VMM