Looking out into the garden, I have a clear view of the remains of a cherry tree. Once a prize specimen with a tight mass of eye smarting, white candy floss blooms in spring, it is sadly now just a pared down skeletal stump with a few twisted antlers of decaying wood. Where once hundreds of lithe young branches would whiplash in a summer breeze, its corpse now stands bare; a sorry disease stricken remnant of past glories.
I had to take a saw to this once splendid specimen a decade ago, regretting each stroke of the toothed blade, but knowing for safety’s sake that it needed to be done. I piled the cut branches in a shady spot under the hedge where they have subsequently provided a breeding, feeding and hiding place for myriad small invertebrates, amphibians and mammals whilst they slowly rot. The remaining trunk has stood in slow decay, fulfilling a utilitarian role as a washing line prop, ever since.
It will pay us to take a closer look at this hitherto arboreal delight: the tree may be dead but it is not lifeless. An inspection of the gnarled surface will show a rich coating of lichen whose green and yellow whorls carpet the windward side of the trunk. These lichens form numerous nooks and niches which help to shelter small spiders and tiny insects. Closer inspection still shows a few mosses to be present; both these low growing encrustations form a richly textured mosaic.
Fungi are a feature in season. I’m no expert here but have recognised puffballs and bracket fungi together with smaller species, which may well be Honey Fungus. I’ve noticed that some of these have been nibbled by mice. There are also filaments of mildew in the damper spaces under loose bark. Give nature an opportunity and it will quickly be exploited.
As you would expect, birds have been well represented over the years, from Sparrowhawks using the dense cover of the foliage to survey the garden for prey, to Greenfinches feasting on the flesh of prolific unripe cherries.
Whilst there is now no cover or fruit, the stump still plays host to several avian guests. The bole has many deep cracks which are ideal for siting a tempting stash of peanuts or sunflower seeds. With plenty of thick cover nearby the tits and finches visit all through the daylight hours quickly stealing a beak full before diving into sanctuary to devour the snack. A Great spotted Woodpecker appears from time to time, tearing what little remaining bark there is forcefully away from the soft wood with its chisel beak. Coal Tits squeeze themselves into the crevasses engineered by the woodpecker in their ceaseless quest for sustenance; beady eyes darting, stubby beak probing. In spring Dunnocks employ the fingered crown for song posts, a utility shared with Blackbirds, Robins, Wrens and the ubiquitous Wood Pigeons.
One spring a large, orange-hued Hornet utilised the soft heartwood as a material for nest building. It would turn up every half hour or so, scrap a jaw full of pulp and fly strongly away high to the north. Later in the warm, soporific days of high summer, solitary wasps bore holes in the spongy wood there to lay eggs to further the next generation. Later still, grotesquely contorted ichneumon wasps use their needle sharp ovipositor to drill deep and inject their own eggs into the maturing grubs of the smaller insect. Life and death in a never ending cycle.
Stranger, was the encounter one night with a pair of mating Leopard Slugs suspended on a string of thick mucus, entwined in their hermaphrodite embrace. I’ve never seen that behaviour before or since, but was quite glad I noticed them before they wacked into my face.
Woodmice can sometimes be seen scurrying round the base of the tree hovering up spilt seeds dropped by the birds. These in turn once attracted a lovely rich red Fox, a vixen, that spent a couple of hours scraping between the roots vainly hunting the rodents. Tiring of all things mouse it sat down, curled its luxurious tail around itself and dozed in the sunshine a mere 10 metres from where we watched.
More recently, something has really gone to town on the stump, gouging a great hollow in search of food. It’s either our resident Grey Squirrel or maybe another Fox. In any event it will have seriously shortened the standing time of what remains. If it all doesn’t come cracking down during the next strong wind I will be surprised. But at least it will force me to cement in a proper linen post I suppose.
That one tree has seen an awful lot over the 70+ years it has stood in a modest garden in Sprowston. A vast array of wild creatures have called it home, and still do. Indeed the tree is dead, but even in death provides a cradle for life of all kinds.
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