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Plant of the month – black walnut

Annette Förger, garden apprentice

One of the most fascinating things I’ve found during my first weeks of my Fulham Palace apprenticeship was to be able to discover all the many special trees that grow here at Fulham Palace! There are of course the majestic old trees, such as the black walnut, Juglans nigra, on the main lawn or the many ancient oaks around the site. There is also a wonderful old Indian bean tree, Catalpa bignonioides on the main lawn, or the still more youthful trees such as the Gleditsia triacanthos (honey locust) near the Tudor gate into the walled garden, or the Caucasian elm, Zelkova carpinifolia tree near at the front of the Palace.

We also have many fantastic species that were planted recently in the 2018/19 season, in or near the new Compton border outside the south and east side of the walled garden. These species are part of our project to recreate parts of Bishop Compton’s huge collection of plants in the 17th and 18th Century. The trees include several specimens of Magnolia virginiana (the first magnolia to be grown in Europe, introduced by Bishop Compton), Sassafras albidum, Celtis australis or Liquidambar styraciflua, the American sweetgum which is now popular as a park or street tree.

Perhaps the prettiest leaves in the garden belong to Gingko biloba, next to the Tudor gate to the walled garden

As these trees are still ‘babies’ in tree terms, we have to make a real effort to look after them and help them to get established. All through the summer, which has been very dry and sometimes very hot, this has mainly meant watering. During the first two to four years of being planted it is really important to keep a tree watered in dry spells to help it develop a good root system and strengthen its resistance to attack from pests and diseases. Many visitors to our garden will have been surprised to see that we have also frequently watered some of our older trees during July and August! Even though a large tree such as the black walnut on the main lawn looks as if nothing short of lighting strike could ever harm it, they do get stressed from lack of water – just think of how many green leaves the roots must supply with water and nutrients! The trees do usually recover during the winter, but it is important to look after them in dry weather to ensure their health and longevity.

The black walnut to the north of the Palace

Another strategy to help trees includes the ‘circles’ we have been creating around some of the trees. Having the ‘root zone’ clear of weeds and grass removes competition for water and nutrients and thus improves the growing conditions for the tree. The circles also serve as a gentle reminder to the public to avoid walking or sitting directly under the trees. It seems surprising to think that that a large tree can actually get stressed by too many people walking or sitting under its canopy, but the key word here is ‘compaction’ – every person walking under a tree compacts the soil a little more, and if this happens too much, rainwater eventually struggles to filter through the hard ground down to the roots which so desperately need it!

The nettle tree in its tree circle

We try to help the trees further by mulching these tree circles regularly with organic matter or leaf mould from our own compost heaps. A thick layer of mulch spread out on top of the soil conserves moisture and improves soil structure, so that the balance of water and air in the soil is just right. This also gives the trees an extra boost of nutrients. With these measures in place, we aim to preserve Fulham Palace’s botanic history for many years to come!