Sandy’s Garden ... Thomas Telford and the Swedish Whitebeam

Sandy Simpson
Sandy Simpson

Count Baltazar Bogislaus von Platen was the son of a Swedish field marshal who didn’t follow his father but became a senior naval officer.

I learned this from Julian Glover’s excellent account of the life and times of the Scottish canal and road engineer Thomas Telford, the ‘Man of Iron’ of Glover’s book title.

In 1808 von Platen sought to commission Telford to work on what was to become the Göta Canal linking the Baltic and North Sea coasts of Sweden. Telford sailed to Sweden to learn more of the project; and the two men quickly formed a good working relationship, to the extent that, soon after Telford had returned to this country, von Platen wrote to him, “I forgot to let You have the berrys of a tree which in our Country we find the best storm tree of all single trees.” The tree to which von Platen was referring was what we know as the Swedish whitebeam; and for many years afterwards Telford encouraged von Platen to send him the seeds of a variety of pine trees to be planted in the Scottish Highlands. As well as being ‘the Colossus of Roads’ and ‘Pontifex Maximus’ (the Greatest Bridgemaker), might we also call Thomas Telford ‘the Father of the Forestry Commission’?

Be that as it may, my curiosity was aroused by that description ‘the best storm tree of all single trees’. The windswept and sparsely-soiled Highlands of Scotland were … and are … not the kindest of environments for trees. It seemed logical that a tree which did well in Sweden might also do well here. So what are the special characteristics of the Swedish whitebeam?

The Swedish whitebeam … whitebeam from its white appearance in spring while ‘beam’ is the Anglo-Saxon word for ‘tree’ … is a member of the Sorbus genus, a collection of between 100 and 200 species of trees and shrubs in the rose family. They are commonly known as whitebeam, rowan, service tree and mountain-ash; and the rowan is the species with which most Scots are familiar. I have a Sorbus aucuparia … a rowan … happily established in my own garden to protect me from witches. The reason for the uncertainty about how many species there are in the Sorbus genus is because different members of the genus readily cross-fertilise, leading to a large number of subtle variations within the genus and endless argument about which variants are proper species and which are, in canine terms, just mongrels.

Whatever, Sorbus intermedia … the Swedish whitebeam … is a recognised species with its origins in Scandinavia. It is a medium-sized deciduous tree which, when fully mature, will reach a height of some 40 feet … say, 12 metres in today’s terms … with a broad, dense canopy. The ovoid leaves are dark green on the top and silver-grey on the underside, giving it an interesting shimmer in the breeze, one of the reasons for its popularity in garden planting schemes. The creamy white flowers which appear in clusters in May, to be followed by small orange-red fruits … berries … accompanied by golden foliage in the autumn as the leaves die back, are other reasons for its being grown as a decorative tree.

And von Platen was quite right to extol the tree’s virtue as ‘the best storm tree of all single trees’. The Swedish whitebeam tolerates exposure to cold winds, doesn’t mind salt sea-spray, puts up with drought and is not particularly fussy about the nature of the ground in which it will grow, although it does best in moderately fertile, humus-rich soil. As if all these advantages were not enough, Sorbus intermedia can live with atmospheric pollution and is quite at home in towns and cities. Sadly, however, it seems not to deter witches!