Towers of wisdom


Adaptable. Resilient. Generous. These words could be applied to Scouts, but they also describe trees from around the world, including our own Gilwell Oak, that have valuable lessons to teach us. We turn trees into items that change the world, from books to latex gloves, but while our use of the natural environment edges into exploitation, the future of the planet depends on urgent conservation. So let’s step back to appreciate trees, less for what they give us and more for what they can teach us

Words: Jacqueline Landey | Pictures: Dave Caudery


Baobab (Adansonia)

The Prepared

As forward-thinking as a Scout, baobabs grow with a hollow centre that allows them to store gallons of water in their trunks to see them through months of arid conditions. They can store up to 120,000 litres. Sadly, as a result of rising temperatures, it’s becoming harder for these trees to weather increasingly severe drought. Since the early 21st century, some of the oldest and grandest baobabs across Africa have begun to die out.


Borneo Camphor (Dryobalanops aromatica)

The Practical

This tall evergreen tree is one of several species to display ‘crown shyness’, a phenomenon where the crowns of trees avoid touching each other. From the ground, crown shyness displays a canopy of fine gaps between the trees. There are multiple theories explaining the cause of crown shyness, including the idea that this behaviour ensures the trees get adequate access to light. Or that it may help to inhibit the spread of leaf-eating insect larvae.


Coastal Redwood (Sequoia sempervirens)

The Resilient

In 1997, environmental activist Julia Butterfly Hill climbed a 1,500 year old coastal redwood in California, known as Luna, to stop tree loggers from felling it. Julia stayed put for two years, living on a small, tented platform 54 metres up. As
a result of Julia’s protest, the company agreed to conserve Luna, along with a three-acre buffer zone. Despite vandals later sawing a gash into its trunk, Luna lives on today.


Yews of Wakehurst (Taxus baccata)

The Adaptable

In the woods of West Sussex, where hundreds of winters have eroded the soil along Ardingly’s cliffs of sandstone, the roots of the yew trees travel over the rock’s edge.
They are in search of fertile soil to dig into. While their thick branches hang grandly above, they creep out of the earth, revealing a tangle of roots sprawling out and over the cliffs, like travellers intent on finding greener pastures. At least one of the trees dates back to the Middle Ages.


Callery Pear Tree (Pyrus calleryana)

The Survivor

Two years after the World Trade Centre was struck down in the 9/11 terror attacks, a badly damaged pear tree was pulled from the rubble. In 2010 it was returned to
the memorial as a symbol of resilience. The Survivor Tree Seedling Programme now gifts its seedlings to communities who have endured tragedy. From Haiti following
the hurricane of 2016, to London after the Grenfell Tower tragedy, they send a message of hope, healing, strength and resilience.


The Gilwell Oak (Quercus robur)

The Bountiful

Between 450 and 550 years old, our Gilwell Oak stands proudly at Scout HQ. Baden-Powell used it as an analogy for the heartening growth of Scouts. From a tiny acorn – a small camp on Brownsea Island – to the bountiful oak the movement has become, the tree is a reminder that ‘big things are possible from modest beginnings’. In 2017, it was The Woodland Trust’s UK Tree of the Year, and inspires hundreds of Scouts who visit Gilwell Park every year.


Many thanks to Royal Botanic Gardens, Kew for the use of their tree specimen archive. In May 2019 Kew will open its new Children’s Garden, a huge natural space designed around the elements that plants need to live: earth, air, sun and water. It features over 100 mature trees, and a 4m-high canopy walk around a 200 year old oak tree.

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