WHATEVER your field of work, whether agriculture, forestry or veterinary medicine, a knowledge and understanding of how it all started and evolved into its present-day format is instructive if not essential. 

Arboriculture is no exception. Learning how arboriculture has evolved over the last half century is a relatively easy task because there are scores of fit, healthy and still active arborists who began their careers in the 1960s and 1970s, essentially before the advent of professionally designed and operated tree climbing, and all the skills and safety procedures that have developed over the subsequent decades. 

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Going back much further has been more difficult, but is now much easier following publication of Mark Johnston’s The Tree Experts. The author starts by tracing the evolution and development of tree work in Britain from the Romans, credited with bringing arboriculture to Britain, through the so-called Dark Ages and into the light of the Tudor and Stuart periods. 

The weighty text, outstanding in both depth and detail, then proceeds to cover in sequence: ‘Arboriculture in the Age of the Formal Garden’ and in the ‘English Landscape Garden’; ‘Heroic Arboriculture in the 19th Century’, ‘The Rise of the Tree Experts, 1900–1945’ and finally ‘Professional Arboriculture Comes of Age, 1946–Present’. 

There is far too much information in this book to cover in detail. Hopefully, the following snapshot will be sufficient to persuade readers of essentialARB to invest £55 in an appreciation of how arboriculture developed in Britain.

Forestry Journal:

During four centuries of Roman Britain, the colonists completely transformed the ‘British’ way of life in all sorts of ways. Many aspects, including road building and water usage are well documented, but tree work and its role in the Roman garden have largely remained under wraps until now. The extension of living into the outdoors was clearly important to a culture that bordered the warm Mediterranean Sea and trees were a key component of the Roman garden. Johnston says the Romans took a particular pleasure in clipping trees and shrubs into designed, purposeful shapes, so next time you are admiring contemporary topiary at Hampton Court you can thank the Romans.

The medieval period, 500 to 1500AD, is most well-known for death from famine, pestilence and war. Indeed the early part of this period is called the Dark Ages and not without good reason. However, Johnston’s book shows how even then trees and their place in the gardens of the day were prized. He cites monastic gardens as a key stepping stone in the evolution of arboriculture, with gems of information like the very first planting and survival of a fig tree in Britain in the 1140s by Thomas à Becket, who brought the tree back from Italy after a pilgrimage to Rome.

Other types of garden described are royal gardens from 1100 onward, when trees were not allowed to grow anywhere near the castle lest they provided cover for an attacking force. 

But you can’t leave this period without talking about orchards, which Johnston does in detail. They were surrounded, he says, by all sorts of functional boundaries including walls, wattles, ditches and the quickset hedge. Inside was a collection of fruit trees. Notably, apples and pears, grown for fresh fruit and making ‘juices’ alcoholic and non-alcoholic.

The chapter on ‘Arboriculture in the Age of the Formal Garden’, essentially covering the post English Civil War period and on into the 18th century, is a rich tapestry of tree avenues, tree-lined walks, groves and wildernesses. It also includes two outstanding sections on John Evelyn (1620–1706), called the ‘Father of English Forestry’ but equally notable for his thoughts and writings on arboriculture. Moses Cook (1640–1714) is less well-known and credited than his associate Evelyn, but equally important to the development of arboriculture.

Forestry Journal:

Johnston’s ‘Arboriculture in the English Landscape Garden’ roughly spans the reigns of the Hanoverian kings, starting with George I (1714) and ending with George IV (1830) – a ‘golden age’ of planting and garden design with trees planted and arranged in belts, clumps, wildernesses and groves, and areas of woodland featuring coppice, pollards and shreds, alongside a long list of famous and not so famous names – Lancelot ‘Capability’ Brown, William Emes, Nathaniel Richmond, Robert Robinson and Thomas White.

‘Heroic Arboriculture in the 19th Century’ is so-called by the author because it was conducted against a backdrop of major European conflicts and famines involving both grain and potatoes. This period, says the author, saw revival of the formal garden, now in Victorian times; the concept and realities of arboretums, pinetums and woodland gardens. There was more for the masses in the pleasure gardens, municipal parks and urban botanical gardens of the period; and of course cemeteries, which are ironically some of today’s richest sites for trees. Equally significant was the birth of the concept of the ‘ancient tree’.

He uses the period 1900–1945 to describe and discuss ‘tree experts’, not named individuals but the broad-brush development and extension of tree work into a craft called arboriculture. It begins with Edwardian Britain and its amenity gardens and public parks, the WWI years (1914–1918) and the inter-war years, a complete time period which saw the refining and redefining of public parks, street and roadside trees. Also featured is a detailed discovery of local authorities, the structure of their amenity arboricultural services and the emerging specialism of urban arboriculture.

‘Coming of Age’ is how the author describes arboriculture from 1946 to the present time for the final chapter. This is a period of acceleration and change for amenity tree planting, care and maintenance, requiring adaptation to new concepts in urban, suburban and peri-urban development, including large housing estates with high-rise apartment buildings, urban and suburban shopping malls and out-of-town retail centres.

Forestry Journal:

This has been and clearly continues to be a period when trees are being forced to cope with more and more concrete. Major and lasting overhauls are still being seen in conventional tree planting, transplanting of large trees, tree pruning and procedures, including manual climbing and aerial access, to carry out these tasks; and all the while with increasing focus and emphasis on safety, research and education. 

It’s all there in Mark Johnston’s large but tight and tidy text, big on information and detail, interest and intrigue. Well worth the cover price of £55, especially since, at today’s prices and for the same price, you can only get a couple of bottles of good claret to drink while engrossed in the book.

The Tree Experts – A History of Professional Arboriculture in Britain by Mark Johnston is available from www.oxbowbooks.com