Sylva Old and New

If you’ve heard of John Evelyn before now it’s probably because of his diaries which are one of our major sources of information about  the major events of the mid/late 17thc, and much much more besides. They gives a really good insight into of the life of an educated gentleman who was in the midst of public life. But Evelyn’s diaries were private and in his lifetime his fame rested on his writing – particularly about horticulture and gardening. Todays post is about one of his most important works, Sylva, and its contemporary update, The New Sylva.

The 1664 title page may look dull and you have to accept there are no nice pictures BUT is still the first major book about forestry and trees in Britain. To make up for it The New Sylva has stunning drawings by Sarah Simblet. Even if you’re not interested in reading the whole post I’d strongly advise that you scroll down to find the video link to Sarah Simblet talking about her work and the background to the book.

Sylva did not just shape people’s knowledge of trees but the way in which they were understood and valued.  Evelyn himself argued that “We had better be without gold than without timber.” [Sylva ch.31] and he seems to have persuaded a lot of others of that truth.

Let’s begin with the background. Why did Evelyn write a book on trees?

Wood was central to pre-industrial England’s economy and defence. Apart from its day-to-day use for domestic cooking and heating, wood was the principal fuel of  industry, and the material on which England’s defences – our Navy  or what Evelyn called “our wooden walls” – were built.

And the Navy was growing fast. Naval tonnage is recorded at 17,110 tons in 1603, but by 1660 this had risen to 57,463 tons , and because of the Dutch Wars it continued to rise steeply so that by 1685 it had almost doubled again to  103,556 tons.

But timber stocks were shrinking faster.  In the New Forest, for example, there were estimated to be almost 200,000 loads of timber fit for the Navy in 1608, but a hundred years later in 1707 the estimated reserve was less than 20,000. A similar picture can be seen in the figures for other forests. Worse still very little replanting was taking place, so Sylva was a response to  growing fears about the growing shortage of timber.

The Commissioners for the Navy were clearly worried and in 1662 sent suggestions for “the  improvement and planting of timber”  to  the newly-formed  Royal Society. These were discussed and then passed to a small committee led  by John Evelyn. Evelyn  summarised the committee’s comments, added his own views and produced a draft report  which  led in Feb 1664 to the Royal Society’s first book.

Sylva or – to give its full title – A Discourse of Forest Trees, and the Propagation of Timber in his Majesty’s Dominions– was, by mid-17thc standards, a runaway success. It  sold more than a thousand copies, “in much lesse time than two Years”  which, as Evelyn pointed out in the Preface addressed to the king in the second edition in 1670, was “a very extraordinary thing in volumes of this bulk”.  He further boasted “it has been the sole Occasion of furnishing your almost exhausted Dominions, with more… than two Millions of Timber-Trees; besides infinite others, which have been Propagated within the three Nations, at the instigation, and by the Direction of this work.”

An Avenue in a Wood, Jan Hackaert, c1675. Wallace Collection

A third edition appeared in 1679, a fourth in 1690, and a fifth posthumously   in 1729. Each was considerably larger than its predecessor.

Evelyn can often be accused of snobbery and Syulva is no exception: “I did not altogether compile this work for the sake of our ordinary rusticks, mere foresters and woodmen, but for the benefit and diversion of Gentlemen and persons of quality.” But although, in scope, style and content  – to say nothing of cost – that was clearly the case, its popularity soon spread beyond just them.

Interest was revived towards the end of the 18thc when Alexander Hunter published a new  edition with extensive notes, and then four further  editions, in 1786, 1801, 1812 and 1825, as a patriotic call  to replenish timber supplies dwindling again  because of the Napoleonic Wars.

The Title page of the 4th edition of 1706

If Sylva’s such an influential book you might imagine it to be encyclopaedic or at the very least a lengthy and heavyweight tome. In fact first edition was neither, running to just 120 pages. Indeed it only formed part of the original Royal Society publication, which also  included several short tracts promoting cider as the patriotic drink in place of French wine.  The first edition also included Evelyn’s suggested monthly work schedule for gardeners Kalendarium Hortense.

Now, while there is no doubt that the  initial concern of the Navy Commissioners and the Royal Society’s response  was about the financial and economic value  of trees and timber , Evelyn attempts to be much more comprehensive, and stresses their ornamental value. Of course the two things could be combined and he actively promoted the introduction of exotic tree species to supplement our native ones, not just for use in forestry but to fill our gardens as well.

He was keen to stress that trees could be fitted in anywhere, and he included layouts  for “walks” and    “wilderness”, a much more  informal dense woodland planting arrangement usually on the fringes of a formal garden or contained by formal hedging.

Plum branch cut transversely from Grew’s Anatomy of Plants 1682

Evelyn clearly loved trees, and that shines though on every page.  The text was  stuffed with classical allusions but mixed with meticulous attention to detail,  and  the liberal use of his  own observations.  This reliance on experience – “the best mistress” – matched the contemporary mood amongst other pioneers of modern science.

from Grew’s Anatomy of Plants 1682

Evelyn drew on the work of others including for example, in the third edition,  the latest research being done by Nehemiah Grew, a physician who was later to become  secretary to the Royal Society. Grew used the microscope to  study the circulation of sap  and theorise about the structure of trees and other plants.  While early editions of Sylva have virtually no illustrations Grew included a series of fascinating engravings based on his microscopical investigation in The Anatomy of Plants  published in 1682.

Hollow Tree, after Roelant Savery, after 1670.


The Introduction explains the structure of the book and leads quickly into the propagation of trees from seed, with short instructions on how to gather, sow and look after the resultant seedlings. He also discusses  their growing requirements, how to manage a  tree-nursery and the resultant forest, and tree diseases.

The Oak from the 1812 edition


Newly germinated seedling of pedunculate oak [Quercus robur] from New Sylva

Evelyn divided trees into three major classes,” the Dry and the Aquatic”  and conifers, before launching into his descriptions of those of“greatest use, and the fittest to be cultivated”.First, of course, is the Oak which gets a lengthy chapter all to itself.  Again its economic and naval importance shines through since  he says it took as many as 2000 old oaks to construct a ship.  This is all mixed in with classical references to writers like Pliny, poetry and practical tips, he covers  the types of soil, the varieties available, the best sites, ways of growing, transplanting  and maintaining, and the range of possible uses apart from shipping, obviously including building houses.

A pollard oak near West Hampnett Place, John Dunstall,
c.1660. British Museum

Elm comes next, and in four pages we learn, amongst many other things, that “some that has been found buried in Boggs, has turned like the most polished and hardened Ebony, only discerned by the grain”. Elm was recommended for use in and around water, whilst the leaves could be stripped and dried for use as cattle food in winter when other fodder is expensive.

Horse Chestnut from the 1812 edition

Notes on Beech and  Ash are followed by comments on Chestnut and Walnut, all valuable for building, and furniture,  before he moves on to short chapters on trees in the “dry class”  which are of lesser economic importance such as service, maple, hornbeam, lime, quick-beam [hawthorn] and hazel. Birch is dismissed as  “the worst of timbers, but useful for fuel and “the gentler rods of our tyrannical pedagogues” although it also has considerable medicinal use.

Sycamore from the 1812 edition

The poor old sycamore comes in for harsh treatment. In just one paragraph it is dismissed as “more in reputation… than it deserves”, and because “its leaves fall early and… turn into a Mucilage and putrifie with the first moisture of the season..they contaminate and mar our walks.” The consequence of this clear: they are to be “banished from all curious gardens.”

The second class – the aquatic – consists of poplar, alder and willows- which if not as useful as the “dry” still means that the “Lords of Moorish Commons and unprofitable Wastes may learn some improvements and the neighbour Bees be gratified and many Tools of Husbandry become much cheaper

Native Black Poplar, from New Sylva

Despite saying “quacking is not my trade; I speak only here as a plain husband-man, and a simple forester” Evelyn also includes  medical references such as the value of  ash for toothache, or box for venereal diseases.  After that  Evelyn added sections on fences, hedges, and coppices, another on “infirmaties of trees,”  and a final chapter  on “Sacredness and the use of standing groves” that describes the significance of trees to societies across the world.

That the use of timber is its underlying importance is reinforced by the images in later editions. They are of machinery to uproot trees, saw them up or make charcoal. Images of trees themselves don’t appear until the much later editions edited by Alexander Hunter.

What comes through the, to our eyes, rather stilted and florid language, is the foresight of a real tree-lover but not just in the romantic tree-hugging sense but  that of  someone who saw the real importance of woodland and forest in terms that ran beyond just the ordinary concerns of today or even today and tomorrow, into the much longer term future.

Surprisingly perhaps, despite the impact of Sylva,  and the introduction of ironclads  which drastically cut naval demands for timber,  the forests of Britain continued to shrink until , around a hundred years ago land coverage was all-time low of just 5%.   Even without wooden ships the 1914-1918 war  increased the demands for timber and   the authorities were shocked by threatened shortages.

Immediately the war was over the Forestry Commission was established  to plant a new strategic reserve  of timber, and despite their sometimes heavy-handed management and the almost endless coniferous plantations  over the last hundred years by and large they have managed to do that, and help a  national reassessment of our love of trees.

Cedar from The New Sylva

But there was still  a need for more public involvement and understanding, so in In 2006, Sir Martin Wood and Dr Gabriel Hemery founded Forestry Horizons, a project seeking to raise the status of forestry in the UK.  Based on the simple belief that trees are important, that we should look after them better, and have more of them, it led in 2009 to the establishment of a new charity, the Sylva Foundation aimed at reviving Britain’s wood culture .

In 2014 to coincide with the 350th anniversary of the first publication of Sylva, its chief executive Gabriel Hemery wrote a contempoary version of Evelyn’s great work, with illustrations by Sarah Simblett.  The New Sylva is a magnificent production which like its predecessor  pinpoints the strategic and economic importance of trees but takes it a stage further looking at  their more contemporary political and ecological importance.

This is the link Sarah Simblet’s video of about the background to the book and her drawings 

Hemery argued in an article in Nature in March 2014  that “Society has finally come to appreciate the functions of forest soils in the carbon cycle, the role of the world’s forests in combating climate change, the importance of the world’s forests and their associated biodiversity, and the role that trees have in maintaining human wellbeing. We are just beginning to realise the true potential of renewable materials made from woody biomass. Skyscrapers up to 30 stories high and of mass timber construction are being considered. Nano-crystalline cellulose made from wood pulp — a material stronger than steel — is being used to replace synthetic materials, such as the plastics in car manufacture and conventional ballistic material in bullet-proof vests.”

Significantly he argued  that it was Evelyn who “planted the concept of a wood culture, [although]  it is maturing only in the early twenty-first century.

Go and look again at Evelyn’s  apparently dry and dreary looking 120 page tract  and I hope now you’ll discern his sense of responsibility towards future generations and understand why Sylva is now perceived as one of the most important precursors of modern sustainability. Then go and look at New Sylva and Sarah Simblet’s video to see how the debate is continuing in an equally impressive and convincing way. Evelyn would love it!

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1 Response to Sylva Old and New

  1. Pingback: 100,000 trees might fetch £100,000 and a few medals | The Gardens Trust

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