Dear Readers, isn’t it strange how you can march past a tree every week for a year and never notice that it appears to be covered in tiny red and black humbugs? These are the male flowers of the Lawson Cypress, and the photo doesn’t do them justice. They look as if they’ve been newly painted, and are nicely set off by the yellow-tipped foliage. The beige objects are the new cones. Apparently the whole tree smells of parsley (though my Collins Tree Guide adds the comment ‘rather sour’, you shall have to tell me what you think.
It is a most stately and funereal tree, and so it’s no surprise that there are a number of cypress ‘walks’ in the cemetery. There are some fine specimen trees of other kinds of cypress too, including the Japanese Hinoki cypress in the woodland burial area, and the wonderful swamp cypress . It all rather reminds me of Feste’s song from Twelfth Night (though I strongly suspect that Feste the clown is mocking his master Orsino in this piece). It would also have been about a Mediterranean rather than an American cypress, but I beg your indulgence.
Come away, come away, death,
And in sad cypress let me be laid.
Fly away, fly away, breath;
I am slain by a fair cruel maid.
My shroud of white, stuck all with yew,
O, prepare it!
My part of death, no one so true
Did share it.
Not a flower, not a flower sweet,
On my black coffin let there be strown.
Not a friend, not a friend greet
My poor corpse, where my bones shall be thrown.
A thousand thousand sighs to save,
Lay me, O, where
Sad true lover never find my grave,
To weep there!
The Lawson Cypress is also known as the Port Orford Cedar, and its native range is restricted to a few mountains in Oregon and California. The wild tree is threatened by fires and by a fungal disease caused by the Phytophthora spore. Apparently the disease is largely spread by soil adhering to the tyres of off-road vehicles, and so these are sometimes banned from areas where the fungus is present. Good riddance, I say! If only someone would find a correlation between plant diseases and leaf-blowers so we could ban them too.
Although in the UK most of the trees are of a moderate height, they can grow to a magnificent 60 metres tall.
But, who is this Lawson I hear you cry? Well, Charles Lawson was a Scottish plantsman who specialised in crops and conifers. He sent teams of collectors to many places, but when the tree was discovered at Port Orford it was taken into cultivation at Charle’s Lawson’s nursery in Edinburgh. Well, the plant must have been happy because these days it can be found in many large gardens, country-house estates and parks. It comes in a wide variety of colours, shapes and ‘habits’, including this incredibly droopy variant known as ‘Imbricata pendula’.
No wonder I have trouble identifying conifers when they’re so varied! I can always fall back on the red male flowers for ID at this time of year though.
Such beautiful straight-trunked trees would have been very attractive to lumberjacks, and to the timber companies that employ them, and so it was with this tree. However, large amounts of the wood are sent abroad, particularly to Japan where it’s used to make coffins and shrines. The lumber is said to smell faintly of ginger, which sounds very pleasant. The straightness of the wood also makes it a shoo-in if you want to knock up a few arrows, and its lightness means that it’s been used in the manufacture of guitars.
In North America, the Karuk people built sweat lodges with the branches of Lawson Cypress. In the UK, the sole legend about the Lawson Cypress appears to be that it’s unlucky to burn it (something which seems to hold true for any conifer, in fact, at least in Monmouthshire).
And finally, because spring is here, I have brought you a most unusual poem by Alfred Tennyson. From his long work ‘The Princess’ this is a very sensuous work, a cross between a Persian Ghazal and a sonnet. Both forms often embrace the idea of the parted lovers. I really like the visual quality of the poem – can anybody else see the glint of fin in the porphyry font, or the cypress falling still in the hot, oppressive air?
Now sleeps the crimson petal, now the white;
Nor waves the cypress in the palace walk;
Nor winks the gold fin in the porphyry font.
The firefly wakens; waken thou with me.
Now droops the milk-white peacock like a ghost,
And like a ghost she glimmers on to me.
Now lies the Earth all Danaë to the stars,
And all thy heart lies open unto me.
Now slides the silent meteor on, and leaves
A shining furrow, as thy thoughts in me.
Now folds the lily all her sweetness up,
And slips into the bosom of the lake.
So fold thyself, my dearest, thou, and slip
Into my bosom and be lost in me.
Photo One By Darorcilmir – Own work, CC BY-SA 4.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=72720894