Transplanting Trees


A 250 year old wild pear tree hit the news headlines recently [Oct 20th 2020] for the second time in recent years.  In 2015 it was voted Britain’s Tree of the Year but the latest mention was no cue for celebration. The tree at Cubbington in Warwickshire had the misfortune to be growing on the route of HS2.  It faced the axe  despite all attempts by the local community to save it. It was dismembered  in apparent disregard of a ministerial announcement  that the removal of ancient woodland  would be halted  while a  review into the HS2 project was undertaken unless ‘absolutely necessary to avoid major cost and schedule impacts.’

But this post is not just about the fate of the pear tree but more about what HS2 proposed to do with it, and how that possibility has evolved.

Artist Stella Carr documented the pear tree and you can see more of her work on Instagram stellacarr.artlandscape and on the website of the Cubbington Action Group


Leaving aside all the arguments about HS2 and the destruction of ancient woodland [which is difficult given how appalling that is] I was then surprised to hear that HS2 had announced that more than 40 new trees are being grown from cuttings taken from the tree to ‘provide the most efficient option to allow the long-term retention of the remnant tree and its progeny.’  More than that they also promised 6.2 acres of broadleaf wood to offset the 2 acres of habitat “affected” [a polite euphemism for destroyed] by the construction work.


As we know only too well that’s the sort of eyewash that’s spouted all the time by developers.  New woodland does not equal ancient woodland. Full stop.   But then intriguingly they added that that  “the stump and rooting structure would be relocated providing an opportunity for the parent tree to regrow or ‘coppice’.” At that point  my ears pricked up, because I was already thinking about the history and viability of tree transplantation after hearing another recent radio programme.

That was  Gardeners Question Time   on 11th October 2020. A questioner wanted  a recommendation for a tree to give a fairly rapid effect. Much to the horror of Bunny Guinness, Bob Flowerdew recommended moving a large tree, saying that it was nowadays a relatively simple and effective proceess, and   usually worked.  It set me think about the technology involved and how it might have changed over time.

Where did HS2 get the idea of moving an ancient tree from?  What’s the history of tree transplantation?  I thought it was Capability Brown who had “invented” the idea – or at least invented the technology to do it effectively for the first time. However I was wrong at least on the first count by a couple of thousands of years.

Believe it or not there is an early history of the subject  The Planters Guide by a Scottish landowner Sir Henry Stuaurt first published in 1828.  He begins his account by saying that “it is known that the Greeks and the Romans must have moved large trees, as it is recorded in their writings that when they wanted to designate something that was impossible or at least difficult to perform, they said, “it was like transplanting an old tree.”

Theophrastus, the Father of Botany certainly  records several instances of moving mature trees, including one of a man transplanting a pine whose roots he had levered out of the ground although they went down more than eight cubits.  Pliny in his Natural History  also shows that transplanting was a common and successful occurrence,  noting for example that “young elms are transplanted into the vineyard at five years old, or, according to the plan adopted by some, when they are twenty feet in height.”   Seneca too “learned a lesson from Aegialus, a most careful householder …[who] taught me that a tree can be transplanted, no matter how far gone in years.”

Nor was transplanting just practiced in the ancient classical world.   There is the famous image from the Temple of Hatshepsut showing the trees collected in the Land of Punt being carried back to Egypt in baskets.   Further east, Marco Polo in his account of the palace of Kublai Khan talks of the Green Mount within the palace compound where “if the Great Khan learns of a beautiful tree, he has it dug up, its roots still in earth and carried to the hill by an elephant. He will have trees of any size transplanted.”

Transplantation is often a sign of someone in a hurry. One such was Count Johan Mauritz of Nassau, the governor of the Dutch West India Company’s possessions in Brazil from 1636 to 1644.  He built the Vrijburg Palace on a small island linked by bridge to the colony’s main town, Recife, and surrounded it with a garden. But it was no ordinary garden.

As you can see from the plan its main features were long avenues. These were of large coconut palms which were transplanted from “a distance of 3 or 4 miles in four wheeled wagons.” They had been “cleverly” uprooted and “transplanted with work and ingenuity, and such fertility was passed to those aged trees that, against the expectations of everyone, soon in the first year after transplanting, they.. gave copious quantities of fruit. They were already septuagenarians and octagenarians and because of this diminished the faith in the ancient proverb :Old trees are not for moving.”

[Quotation from and  more info about the Vrijburg garden in  “Collecting and Framing the Wilderness: The Garden of Johan Maurits in North East Brazil” by Maria Angelica da Silva & Melissa Mota Alcides in Garden History Vol.30, No.2, 2002.]

And, in Britain too,  moving large trees seems to have been well established long before Brown, with later 17thc and early 18thc authors writing about it almost as standard practice. Sarah Couch analysed the comments of garden writers like Moses Cook, Stephen Switzer, John Evelyn, John James   and Batty Langly  in “The Practice of Avenue Planting”, [Garden History vol.20, no.2, 1992] They all realised the importance of preparation and getting the right balance between size and effect, generally lifting and replanting between 6 and 10 years old.   All recommend lifting the tree with as much rootball intact as possible or as John James put it  “in their clod”.

By 1728 Chambers Cyclopedia  carried a long article on the subject saying it was now possible to transplant large trees without any danger.   Unfortunately I can’t find any images or documentary evidence for a transplanting machine said to have been used extensively by Le Notre at Versailles and which survived until at least the Revolution. There’s certainly no sign of it in these contemporary images of tree-planting at Versailles.  However as far as I can tell all these methods for transplanting trees were based on simply digging a trench round the tree and then yanking it out of the ground using a cumbersome combination of chains and pulleys before moving it in an upright position.

Perhaps the reason I thought of it being Brown’s invention is because his is one of the the first devices we have an image of.  First published by Loudon in 1828 it was a fairly basic piece of equipemnt, and like earlier versions  simply designed to tug the tree out of the ground after it had been trenched around.  But Brown was, as far as I can tell,  the first to understand the practical advantage of moving trees in a horizontal position.

Such a machine was simple and straightforward to construct and  was widely used by landscape improvers, including Sir Henry Stuaurt at his home,  Allanton House in Lanarkshire.  The Planter’s Guide includes a description similar to Loudon’s but more usefully included several more detailed images of it and described it in action, as well as  recommending the services of Thomas Nesbit, a nearby carpenter “who has been much in the habit of making them for some years.”

Sir Henry recommended allocating tasks amongst a team of at least 6 men.  There was  the Machiner who manoeuvred the contraption in to the best spot to attach  it to the tree. The trunk was then wrapped in matting to prevent abrasion and lashed to the pole, and the roots, already trenched, roped as much as possible to the frame before the removal commenced.  Then all the men plus horses if necessary pull the tree down onto the machine – easier said than done I’d imagine!  Next came  the Steersman who walked behind it, perhaps with assistants,  and controlled as far as possible the movement of the top of the tree, while more assistants walked on either side to steady it as it bounced along.  Most dangerous was the job of the Balancemen, two at least of whom clambered up into the branches and who moved around rather like counterweights to keep the whole ensemble on the road.

The image that Stuart included was of a 28ft beech tree, with roots more than 12 feet long.


Sir Henry goes on to recount how this worked in practice but as his  fellow countryman Burns said….“The best laid schemes o’ mice an’ men  gang aft a-gley.”

‘In proceeding with the Machine down a gentle slope of some length, at an accelerated pace, on which occasion both the Balancemen had gained the top with their usual agility, it so fell out, that the cords, which secured the rack-pins of the root, unfortunately gave way.  This happened so suddenly, that the root at once struck the ground, with a force equal to the united weight of the mass, and the momentum of the movement….

[Planters Guide pp.188-189]

Apart from potential human catapult victims the big problem with Stuaurt’s system was that to do it properly  took two years to complete,  because half the tree had to be trenched round and the roots on that side cut before completing the process on the other side the following year.  Not everyone wanted to wait that long….and since we’re about to enter the inventive Victorian era  there were plenty of people trying to speed things up…as we’ll see next week.


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