I can’t find much written about so called ‘companion trees’ in the world. We marvel at some of the contorted shapes trunks create as they appear to bounce off each other and imagine the relationship is symbiotic: I’ve come to believe that this is not the case. Whilst horticulturalists and gardeners may speak of ‘companion’ planting, this is not the same as two or more trees or shrubs competing in the wild for light, water, nutrients and a footing.
Visiting Markstakes Common often over the last few months I have come to know the area reasonably well and with the aid of a map created by the Friends of Markstakes Common in 2011 I can pick up some, though certainly not all of the 34 ancient trees one or two of which have notable companions.
It would appear that dominant tree survives, more often birch over everything else, with oak and hornbeam in a close second place, followed by birch while holly, though often abundant, becomes leggy or where there is little light simply dies away. To my eyes birch trumps all others, though it depends clearly on which tree gets a 10 or 25 year head start. It is also clear that where both trees are able to survive their ‘companionship’ my last many decades. Of course in depends very much on the context as to which tree may weaken and fail.
For example, this birch and oak, both of which continue to thrive – although the holly tree identified in 2011 has clearly died back and since tried to reestablish itself with little success: it is barely a bush.
Around the wood, on closer examination as many as 1/5th of every mature tree shows some element of companion growth at some time. The overwhelming pattern however is that the companions eventually fail … leaving a hollowing, rotting trunk, or breaking off and falling to the ground.
These ‘messy’ companions and the amount of dead wood littering the woodland floor is a feature of a natural deciduous wood. It is litter that in a warming climate must be distinctly vulnerable to fire especially where a visitor is careless or thoughtless.