Hugh Johnson

The Old Elm Tree, Gt. Saling, Essex

The Old Elm Tree, Gt. Saling, Essex.

Is Hugh Johnson a South African gardener? No, but he is a lovely man.

Some years ago I got hold of Hugh Johnson's Encyclopedia of Trees, 1984 edition*, and it is a delight. In it I learned, for instance, about Nell Gwynn (‘‘The whole tree [the manna ash, Fraxinus ornus] is so voluptuous in glossy leafage that others look quite abashed beside it. It stands out in staid parkland like the velvet-framed bosoms of Nell Gwynn and her contemporaries on ancestral dining-room walls’’) and I learned that my favourite tree in my parents' garden is the water oak from North America, Quercus nigra, a piece of information that has immeasurably enriched my life.

Of magnolias he writes: ‘‘Every magnolia is the apple of someone's eye. To be conspicuous but to manage an air of frailty is a good recipe.’’ Of walnuts: ‘‘Can trees communicate extra-sensorily? A walnut can. It speaks of fatness and fertility even while it stands looking like a puritan about to close the theatres.’’

‘‘An old beechwood has the longest echo of any woodland: a sound so eerie and disturbing that I remember it vividly from when I was a boy of four living on the chalk hills of Buckinghamshire. (The 'Buck' of Buckingham in fact means beech.)’’

He has a very soft spot for the elm family. ‘‘Nobody could write without emotion of the most majestic family of trees being under the threat of extinction [...] I was brought up in the heart of elm-land.’’ He himself tried saving the Old Elm Tree pictured above, which had a girth of more than 24m (22ft) in its day, but it, too, succumbed to the fungal Dutch Elm disease in 1982.

Where else could one read of the Tolstoy-esque zelkova tree? Or of a very happy-looking ivy on the walls of Magdalen College, Oxford - a story told him by EH Wilson - ‘‘which turned out to have got into the cellar and drunk a whole barrel of port’’?

But this is only half of why I adore Hugh Johnson. >>

*I have looked, very cursorily, at the 2010 edition of this book (Johnson refers to it in his postcard). Don't like what I saw much. All photos replaced, all too crisp and perfect; lost is the Kodak quality and the Bookman Swash Italic of the original.