There is a long history of planting orchard and garden trees, grown for their crops, for shelter and shade, and for ornament. The ancient Greeks and Romans were knowledgeable at growing, transplanting and tending trees. Trees were valued, and were not only transplanted from nearby woodland, but were collected and traded over great distances.
For their fruit, the Romans introduced to Britain the cultivated apple, the black mulberry, the fig, the sweet chestnut, the common walnut and the medlar. Laurel, cypress and myrtle were brought to Britain for garden planting, and the native box, holly and ivy were also used for hedges and topiary.
Throughout the middle ages, planting of garden and orchard trees continued. The Domesday Book (1086) lists many large and small gardens, and by the mid 12th century, the wealthy citizens of London had quite large gardens adjoining their houses. The greatest gardens were those attached to the monasteries, with large orchards of fruit and nut trees.
Hedges also have a long history, and archaeological and literary evidence suggests that hedges were in use in Roman Britain. It’s not known though whether these were planted, whether they were relics of woodland plants managed to form hedges, or whether they grew up protected from grazing by dead hedges, see Hedging – Hedges in history.
There may have been some transplanting of trees in managed coppices during the middle ages, to fill gaps and maintain the coppice crop. The high value of the coppice crop also meant that some new coppices were planted. The coppice with standards system probably included the transplanting of young trees, to give a reasonably even coverage of standard trees. As early as the 13th century, trees were being planted in parks and hedgerows. There are records of some planting of small areas of woodland in the middle ages. However, the first major planting of native trees was not so much for their wood or timber, but for their beauty. Extensive planting of avenues, clumps and plantations by wealthy landowners was common by the 1500s.
It was not until the 1600s that the idea of planting for timber took hold. This was partly influenced by the publication in 1664 of Sylva, A Discourse of Forest Trees, by John Evelyn, a diarist, statesman, gardener and arboriculturist. This advocated the planting of trees for timber, and influenced many landowners, including King Charles II, to make extensive new plantations. Evelyn believed, wrongly, that the woods were in serious decline due to being cut down for the iron industry, shipbuilding and other purposes. He failed to recognise that it was the iron industry and other uses that sustained the woodlands, and that the cutting down of native broadleaved trees does not destroy them. To quote Rackham (1990) on Sylva, ‘much of the misinformation about trees that is still current today can be traced back to it’.
The plantings made pre-1600 were coppices, following the pattern of existing woods by sowing and planting a mixture of local species, and are difficult to distinguish from other woodland. Evelyn encouraged the planting of only one or two species, often conifers or exotic species, with the intention of producing particular timber crops.
The ‘plantation movement’ was very active in Scotland and Ireland, where the area of plantations overtook the area of native woodland cover during the 18th century. In Ireland planting was ordered by statute.
Beech was widely planted throughout Britain during the 18th and 19th centuries. At various times there were fashions for planting wych-elm, hornbeam, larch, and in the 20th century, Scots pine, hybrid poplar and lodgepole pine. Rackham (1990) notes that often the markets for which these species were chosen had disappeared by the time the trees matured, or with the passing of time, their purpose was forgotten.