The tree that has a whiff of paradise

Can you identify this tree?
Can you identify this tree?

I WONDER whether you could identify the tree in this picture, above, at a glance?

Perhaps you would recognise it as a shrub or bush than a tree.

It is found scattered along the chalk downs and it seems to be getting less common than it was forty years ago when I first came to Sussex.

Well did you recognise it? One clue is that it has the tiniest little green flowers with the sweetest and most seductive scent of any that grow in the wild that I know. If perfumeries could capture that essence it would turn heads faster than Chanel No 5.

Another clue to this curious little tree is that it held herbalists of old in some thrall with its violence when administered for the complaint of constipation. That gives it away. But here is one last clue. If you turn one of the leaves over very carefully in your fingers you may well find a tiny greenish yellow dot stuck to the rib about the size of the tiniest pin head possible, that is, half a millimetre across.

This particular bush I photographed forty years after I cut it down. I wanted it to send up more vigorous coppice shoots. It has not been cut down since.

It grows in the centre of Kingley Vale national nature reserve and over the years I have shown school children those tiny yellowish dots under the leaves and explained that these are the eggs laid by the brimstone butterfly. That is the large yellow butterfly I described a fortnight ago in this column.

It is of course the buckthorn, Rhamnus catherticus. Not much to look at really and no showy blossom but if you had a large garden on the chalk it would be a splendid addition to the ecosystem for the sake of the brimstone butterfly and all the tiny solitary wasps and bees which nectar on that Chanel No 6.

So do give it a chance. You won’t come to any harm from the violence of the purgative because there are better things in chemists. But the shiny black autumn berries were said, in 1578 by Henry Lyte to “purge downeward mightily, with great force, violence, and excesse”.

Archaeologists know too of the excavation of latrines at St Albans’ Benedictine Priory in which “lavatory paper” in the form of waste cloths were found together with large numbers of purging buckthorn seeds.

I have often noticed that thrushes such as mistle, redwing and fieldfare which feed greedily on the yew and hawthorn berries of autumn leave the buckthorn seeds to the very last when these are eaten in small number and very often not touched at all so even the birds know of the violence this shrub can administer.

The wood is softly orange in colour and as far as I can find is not much use except in the cabinet makers’ trade of inlay. But the scent of this oddity is like a whiff of paradise.

Richard Williamson