Native trees of Britain

There are 60 or more trees in Britain that are native, meaning tree species, subspecies or hybrids that have established themselves without the hand of man. Yet only 35 are widespread meaning that the palette is actually quite limited, particularly when the full range of benefits from woodlands are considered, together with threats from environmental change.

Sixty may appear a large number of tree species but only about 35 are widespread and of these only three are conifers: juniper, scots pine and yew. The following list of native British trees is taken from my book The New Sylva (Bloomsbury Publishing 2014).

Common name

Latin name

Field maple Acer campestre
Common alder Alnus glutinosa
Strawberry-tree Arbutus unedo
Silver birch Betula pendula
Downy birch Betula pubescens
Box Buxus sempervirens
Hornbeam Carpinus betulus
Dogwood Cornus sanguinea
Hazel Corylus avellana
Midland hawthorn Crataegus laevigata
Hawthorn Crataegus monogyna
Spindle Euonymus europaeus
Beech Fagus sylvatica
Alder buckthorn Frangula alnus
Common ash Fraxinus excelsior
Sea buckthorn Elaeagnus rhamnoides
Holly Ilex aquifolium
Juniper Juniperus communis
Crab apple Malus sylvestris
Scots pine Pinus sylvestris
Black poplar Populus nigra subsp. Betulifolia
Aspen Populus tremula
Wild cherry Prunus avium
Bird cherry Prunus padus
Blackthorn Prunus spinosa
Plymouth pear Pryrus cordata
Sessile oak Quercus petraea
Pedunculate oak Quercus robur
Purging buckthorn Rhamnus cathartica
White willow Salix alba
Goat willow Salix caprea
Grey willow Salix cinerea
Crack willow Salix fragilis
Bay willow Salix petandra
Purple osier Salix purpurea
Almond willow Salix triandra
Common osier Salix viminalis
Elder Sambucus nigra
English whitebeam Sorbus anglica
Common whitebeam Sorbus aria
Arran whitebeam Sorbus arranensis
Rowan Sorbus aucuparia
Bristol whitebeam Sorbus bristoliensis
Devon whitebeam Sorbus devoniensis
Service-tree Sorbus domestica
Round-leaved whitebeam Sorbus eminens
Irish whitebeam Sorbus hibernica
Lancastrian whitebeam Sorbus lancastriensis
Grey-leaved whitebeam Sorbus porrigentiformis
Arran service-tree Sorbus pseudofennica
Rock whitebeam Sorbus rupicola
Somerset whitebeam Sorbus subcuneata
Wild service-tree Sorbus torminalis
Bloody whitebeam Sorbus vexans
Wilmott’s whitebeam Sorbus wilmottiana
Yew Taxus baccata
Small-leaved lime Tilia cordata
Large-leaved lime Tilia platyphyllos
Wych elm Ulmus glabra
Field elm Ulmus minor

The timeline used to define ‘native’ is about 8,000 years ago (6,100BC), when Doggerland—the land-bridge linking Britain to mainland Europe—disappeared when a catastrophic tsunami is thought to have swept a wave up to 10m tall as far as 25 miles inland (see Smith et al. 2014 below).

The list of what is considered a native species, or indeed a separate species or not, is under constant review by botanists. For example, while 17 trees from the Sorbus genus are listed in the table above, these are only the most widespread, as there are thought to be about 17 more present in tiny populations (e.g. a single Welsh valley). Tim Rich is one of the most active botanists working to disentangle the genus (See Rich et al. 2014 below).

Our cousins in North America find the British definition of ‘native’ intriguing, the time boundary generally adopted by them being when European settlers first arrived in the sixteenth century, just 400 years ago.

Just across the English Channel in France and there are dozens more tree species considered native including silver fir (Abies alba), European larch (Larix decidua), cornelian cherry (Cornus mas), and Norway maple (Acer platanoides), to name a few.

Some trees introduced a long time ago to Britain are now considered ‘naturalised’. There is a specific term for species present since 1500; an ‘archaeophyte’. Such species include beech (native only to south-eastern Britain), horse chestnut, sweet chestnut, sycamore and walnut.


References

T. C. G. Rich, D. Green, L. Houston, M. Lepší, S. Ludwig, and J. Pellicer (2014). British Sorbus (Rosaceae): six new species, two hybrids and a new subgenus.
New Journal Of Botany Vol. 4 , Iss. 1. http://dx.doi.org/10.1179/2042349714Y.0000000036

D.E. Smith, S. Shi, R.A. Cullingford, A.G. Dawson, S. Dawson, C.R. Firth, I.D.L. Foster, P.T. Fretwell, B.A. Haggart, L.K. Holloway, D. Long, (2004). The Holocene Storegga Slide tsunami in the United Kingdom, Quaternary Science Reviews, Volume 23, Issues 23–24, December 2004, Pages 2291-2321, ISSN 0277-3791, http://dx.doi.org/10.1016/j.quascirev.2004.04.001.

5 thoughts on “Native trees of Britain

    1. English Elm is believed to have been introduced by the Romans (so is an archaeophyte) most probably to use as a structure to grow their vines on. Propogated mostly by cuttings this is why the elms of Britain were so vulnerable to Dutch elm disease – i.e. they were clones of the same tree so had very narrow genetic diversity.

      1. Hello Gabriel, there is an attempt to assure us that Ash displays far wider genetic diversity than the Elm so things will not be so bad once Ash Die-back really takes hold. More is the pity the reality of an environment ravaged is not widely shared and appreciated, because that is how it is to be. I note some councils are starting to talk of the cost of felling those trees that create H&S liabilities for them and that is about the level of it…oh dear! Regards, Despondent of Norfolk!

        1. Yes, you are right about the genetic diversity of ash and we are still learning about what this means for the species itself. In terms of the biodiversity which relies on ash for its survival I am working on a research project currently that is modelling the impact and proposing alternative native species in different habitats. Led by Oxford DPhil student Louise Hill.
          The real worry is the ever-nearing emerald ash borer, although there are some promising breakthroughs in battling this pest in North America.

  1. And if they became established It would not surprise me if the new kids on the block, Xylella sp. were also partial to Fraxinus it not being far removed from Olive…happy days. Keep up the good work publicising the importance of trees to ours and the planets well-being. Recently noted on Twitter, ‘There is no Planet B’!

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