A journey through the unusual trees (and shrubs) of Newcastle

I’m rubbish at tree identification, and shrubs too for that matter. There, I said it.

While I can separate the more familiar British species, your oaks, birches and common maples, anything beyond that has traditionally gone straight over my head. Not so useful in the city where planting and landscaping, both historic and recent, mean that would be botanists are presented with a mix of species from across the globe.

From Jesmond Dene to Walker and Heaton Park, in Newcastle, we’re lucky to have quite a few historic green spaces. Stuffed within them, many and more interesting species planted first by the Victorians – the famed Lord Armstrong springs to mind – and later, by successive generations of gardeners. Elsewhere, streets are planted with intriguing species and wasteland areas have been colonised by a whole manner of garden escapes.

For the past two weekends, I’ve spent my time attempting to identify and record as many of these species as possible. In keeping with guidance from BSBI, I’ve ignored anything that appears recently planted, instead focusing on species growing ‘wild’. Or at the very least, planted specimens that now form a permanent piece of the local environment.

Below, you’ll find a selection of the interesting plants discovered. I’ll caveat this post now by saying that I am by no means an expert – corrections welcome!

Shrubs

Particularly abundant in Armstrong Park and present, yet sparser in Jesmond Dene, the ornate, gold-spangled shrub below is Spotted Laurel (Aucuba japonica). A native of Japan and China, I assume this one was once popular in Victorian landscaping. Near the entrance to Armstrong Park, I also noticed a large specimen of what I think is Chinese Barberry (Berberis julianae).

Not quite as numerous as the familiar Cherry Laurel (Prunus laurocerasus) which I forgot to photograph but still plentiful is Portugal Laurel (Prunus lusitanica). With its glossy green leaves and pendant fruits, it is certainly an attractive plant. These ones were photographed in Heaton Park but plants can be found right along the Ouseburn.

With attractive flowers and often interesting leaves, I find viburnum species a pain to identify. The two below, spotted in Jesmond Dene, are only tentatively labelled but I think they could be Farrer’s Viburnum (Viburnum farrei) and Laurestine (Viburnum tinus).

A more straightforward viburnum is the Leatherleaf Viburnum (Viburnum rhytidophyllum) with its wonderfully wrinkled, slightly glaucous leaves. A number of these grow in a tamed setting around Heaton Park but a few wilder looking specimens can be found in Jesmond Dene and at Walker Riverside. Not a viburnum but still somewhat shrubby, Himalayan Honeysuckle (Leycesteria formosa) can be encountered from time to time in Jesmond Dene, and does look to be spreading.

If viburnums are frustrating, cotoneasters are just plain hard. Ignoring some of the species encountered recently, the three below proved somewhat easier to identify – if they are correct, that is. The first, Willow-leaved Cotoneaster (Cotoneaster salicifolius) seems to pop up from time to time in the local area. A number can be seen at Walker Riverside, though this one was spotted in Heaton Park.

Larger in scale, an impressive Tree Cotoneaster (Cotoneaster frigidus) can be seen in the Coalman’s Field area of Jesmond Dene. There are probably more in the dene but alas, I haven’t noticed them.

The final cotoneaster I think might be Hollyberry Cotoneaster (Cotoneaster bullatus), another native of China planted on occasion in the UK and fairly widespread based on BSBI maps.

A couple of oddballs now and the plant with the pretty yellow berries is Firethorn (Pyracantha coccinea), a species popular as a hedgerow plant that grows wild in a few places in Heaton. This would seem to be a yellow-berried cultivar as traditionally, the fruits of this species are red. The second I am less sure about but I wonder if it is Wilson’s Honeysuckle (Lonicera nitida)? Whatever it is, it seems to spread.

Trees

It may seem odd to include a fairly common tree in a post designed to highlight unusual species but White Poplar (Populus alba) is not a species I see too frequently in the North East. Despite its status as a fairly successful non-native, it is certainly one of my favourite trees and I had to include this specimen found close to home in Iris Brickfield Park.

Pointed out by another local naturalist, Iris Brickfield Park also holds a small population of Grey Poplar (Populus × canescens), a hybrid between the aforementioned White Poplar and its close relative, the Aspen.

An odd bunch now and meandering through Heaton Park, I was surprised to notice the large and hairy fruits of Turkish Hazel (Corylus colurna). It was interesting to see this one producing nuts – a search online revealing that this species fruits only once every two or three years.

Next up, English Walnut (Juglans regia) was a nice spot in Heaton Park. While this may be a familiar tree to many in the South, it is not something I see too often up here and makes for quite the attractive tree!

Also in Heaton Park, it was nice to encounter Grey Alder (Alnus incana), a native of the Northern hemisphere from North America through to Northern Europe. Here too, I also bumped into my first ever Tulip Tree (Liriodendron tulipifera). A sought after American species, this one appears to be much more abundant in the South of England.

Before moving on to a number of (much more appealing) oaks, two more oddballs now with New Zealand Broadleaf (Griselinia littoralis) and Sweet Mock-orange (Philadelphus coronarius) observed in Jesmond Dene.

The identification of oaks in the North East is usually a straightforward affair: English, sessile or turkey. Factor in the Victorian obsession with sourcing weird and wonderful plants, however, and things become a little more complicated. Below are two species I hadn’t even heard of until recently: Patagonian Oak (Nothofagus obliqua) and Pin Oak (Quercus palustris). A pair of nice oddities in Jesmond Dene.

The large Red Oak (Quercus rubra) growing on the Coalman’s Field was thankfully much easier and certainly makes for an impressive sight clad in its autumn colours.

Now, I haven’t the foggiest clue with whitebeams. Thankfully, however, others do and it was great to have this Mougeot’s Whitebeam (Sorbus mougeotii) pointed out in Iris Brickfield Park. Apparently, of the two species likely to be encountered up here, the more common Swedish Whitebeam (Sorbus intermedia) has spreading, as opposed to forward-pointing lobes.

I am including the familiar Common Hornbeam (Carpinus betulus) here too as I simply do not see it very often in the city. This one was photographed in Iris Brickfield Park, though others can be seen in Heaton Park and Jesmond Dene. Sweet Chestnut (Castanea sativa) to is seldom encountered and it was nice to stumble across some rather impressive trees in Jesmond Dene. A real treat at this time of year clad in thousands of distinctive spiney fruits.

The rather pretty birch shown below with its papery white bark is Himalayan Birch (Betula utilis), a species commonly used in landscaping which has been planted in the Coalman’s Field area of Jesmond Dene.

Maples are an attractive group of trees come autumn and it has been nice to catch up with a number of interesting ornamental species in Jesmond Dene. The first Paperbark Maple (Acer griseum) is a real beauty with wonderful, flaking red bark and distictive leaves. A couple can be seen in the Coalman’s Field area where the second species, Cappadocian Maple (Acer cappadicicum) also grows.

Silver Maple (Acer saccharinum) has particularly striking leaves quite different to any other maple species in the local area. A single tree grows in the same areas as the species listed above.

Japanese Maple (Acer Palmatum) is a tree familiar to many from gardens across the UK, with a number of bonny cultivars often used in planting. Or containers, in the case of my garden. Individuals of this species can be found in both Heaton Park and close to the Armstrong Bridge in Jesmond Dene.

Finally, for this (rather long) trip through Newcastle’s more unusual broadleaf trees, it would seem that I have been ignorantly walking past the below tree for a number of years. A native of Southern Europe and North Africa, Narrow-leaved Ash (Fraxinus angustifolia) boasts some superb autumn colours. The cultivar of this one would appear to be ‘Raywood’ a variety with great colour and relatively few branches.

Many thanks to Michael for drawing my attention to this, and to others mentioned previously.

I am not yet brave enough to tackle conifers – they’re just so hard to identify – but it was nice to happen across two particularly exciting species in Jesmond Dene. The first, Dawn Redwood (Metasequoia glyptostroboides) grows around Pet’s Corner and crops up again further into the dene and has a really distinctive look about it with its yew-like flattened needles. The world’s largest tree, Wellingtonia (Sequoiadendron giganteum), needs little introduction. In this case, a closer look at the cones and (wonderfully soft) bark had to suffice.

And there we have it! Looking closer at the unusual trees and shrubs of Newcastle certainly has been an eye-opening experience – there are just so many to choose from. Hailing from right across the globe, the variety here is impressive and while all may not be ‘wild’ in the traditional sense, they do form a core part of the local ecosystem.

I will look to tackle conifers in a future post and may also share some of the more abundant, native species to be found in the local area but until then, hope that this post may encourage others to look closer at urban trees. They’re certainly an interesting bunch!

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