The 10 best trees you’ll find in Britain, from Alder to Scots Pine

John Lewis-Stempel picks out his ten favourite British trees.

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Quercus robur (pendunculate or English oak); Quercus petraea (sessile oak)
The quintessential and commonest British tree, the source of good British things, from acorns for fattening swine to the timbers of Nelson’s navy. Q. petraea thrives better on uplands. Some veteran oaks witnessed the arrival of the Vikings; such trees are nature reserves in their own right.


Common Alder tree, Elterwater, the Lake District.

Alnus glutinosa
A tree with an elective affinity for watery edges, whether in the Midlands or Midlothian. Also a ‘pioneer’, able to fix nitrogen through root nodules, making it suitable for infertile and brownfield sites.

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Beech tree-lined road in evening sunshine, Wimborne, Dorset.

Fagus sylvatica
The beech’s true ‘neck of the woods’ is warm southern England, but, today, it is naturalised throughout Britain. With bark as smooth as stone, the beech’s trunks inspired the pillars of our great Gothic cathedrals; the tree’s heavy foliage makes for a sacred dark stillness outdoors.


Sorbus aucuparia
The alternative epithet ‘mountain ash’ is all the clue needed for rowan’s head for heights; it can grow at 3,000ft. Rowan, from the Gaelic for ‘the red one’, refers to its bunches of scarlet berries, beloved of birds.


Lime tree at Kensington Gardens.

Tilia platyphyllos (broad-leaved lime); Tilia cordata (small-leaved lime)
Now rare, the indigenous limes once covered Britain from shining sea to sea — and how sweet the land must have smelt. Apart from the fragrance of its flowers, the aphids that feed on lime’s pleasing mid-green leaves secrete sweet, sugary honey-dew. A stately addition to locations from city street to country estate.


Spindle tree by a hawthorn bush at Barnack Hills and Holes National Nature Reserve.

Euonymus europaeus
Almost literally overlooked — this species seldom grows more than 15ft tall — spindle’s pink, four-lobed berries are surely the most flamboyant of any native tree. For thousands of years, spindle was the wood of weaving sticks. It is determinedly keen on dry calciferous soils.


A solitary Eucalyptus grows on the Brecon Beacons.

Eucalyptus spp
This Australian evergreen import is tipped as a plant of woodland expansion in a warming climate. At the very least, its leaves provide decongestant. It’s capable of a growth rate to rival Jack’s beanstalk.

Scots pine

Pinus sylvestris
No, not deciduous, but an esteemed protective ‘nurse’ species for other trees, not to mention red squirrels. This archetypal Highlands tree is equally content on the healthy, sandy soils of southern England.

Sweet chestnut

Ancient chestnut tree in Greenwich Park, London.

Castanea sativa
A Roman introduction for villa gardens and garrison towns, pollenta made from the brown, shiny nuts being a staple of Latin recipes. When coppiced, sweet chestnut provides areas of high conservation value. Hotter summers promise a revival of this Mediterranean native.


An Aspen tree plantation near Bures, Suffolk.

Populus tremula
Valuable for wildlife — a food plant for many moth species — and capable of prosper-ing on heavy clay. The flattened stalk of the leaf causes it to ‘quake’ in the slightest zephyr, hence tremula in the species’ scientific name. Edward Thomas honoured the tree in his poem Aspens.