Trees are vital. As the biggest plants on the planet, they give us oxygen, store carbon, stabilise the soil and give life to the world’s wildlife. They provide us with the materials for tools and shelter. We rely on their products, from their fruits to their wood and from soil nutrients to medicines, to name but a few.
More than 20 species of British trees and shrubs are known to have medicinal properties. For example the oil from birch bark has antiseptic properties. The flowers of the lime tree can help control fevers and soothe nervous tension, while Elderberry is anti-viral and high in Vitamin C, and Hawthorn berries can lower blood pressure.
Trees also help to clean the air we breathe. Through their leaves and bark they absorb harmful pollutants and release clean oxygen. In our towns trees absorb such pollutant gases as nitrogen oxides, ozone, and carbon monoxide, and sweep up particles like dust and smoke. A single tree can remove up to 1.7 kilos of pollutants every year.
Trees help prevent flooding and soil erosion, absorbing thousands of litres of stormwater. They host complex microhabitats. When young, they offer habitation and food to amazing communities of birds, insects, lichen and fungi. When ancient, their trunks also provide the hollow cover needed by species such as bats, woodboring beetles, tawny owls and woodpeckers. One mature oak alone can be home to as many as 500 different species.
Trees provide shade from solar radiation and lower noise. A belt of trees 100 feet wide and 50 feet tall can cut highway noise by up to 10 decibels, reducing sound volumes by half, a point planners might like to consider rather than permitting new housing to be built right up to the roadside. Densely planted trees can also block unsightly views.
Trees are not only essential for life, but as the longest living species on earth, they give us a link between the past, present and future. Individual trees vary their appearance throughout the course of the year as the seasons change. They give character to place and encourage local pride. And research demonstrates that within minutes of being surrounded by trees and green space, your blood pressure drops, your heart rate slows and your stress levels come down. Other studies have shown that patients with views of trees from their windows heal faster and with fewer complications.
Trees reduce wind speeds and cool the air as they lose moisture, reflecting heat upwards from their leaves. It’s estimated that they can reduce the temperature in urban areas by up to 7°C, while three or more large trees strategically placed on the sunny sides of a house will shade it from the hot summer sun, reducing air-conditioning costs by as much as 30 percent. Deciduous trees are best for this purpose as they lose their leaves in winter, exposing the house to the warming winter sun, which in turn lowers the energy needed to heat the house.
All the more reason, you might think, why homeowners on the south coast here in the South Hams should cease chopping down those trees that obstruct their views of the sea, so expending so much less unnecessary energy cooling their glass-fronted houses in summer and heating them in winter! After all, healthy, strong trees act as carbon sinks, offset carbon and reduce the effects of climate change. We need to keep them.
Our trees not only improve our lives and those of our children, but they provide them with an invaluable place to play in and discover their sense of adventure. They grow with us and they will continue to grow long after we are gone.
Quite simply, trees matter.